Biopic is a word that can be used loosely when it comes to Selma, a film that depicts Martin Luther King and his fight for the freedom to vote for African Americans in the late 1960’s. I’ve often talked about biographical pictures and how largely it is a difficult thing to get right on film, but Selma is a refreshing rarity amongst the genre. With a concise and focused script, writer Paul Webb chooses to focus on one particular moment in MLK’s life, rather than the whole thing, giving the film a flow and simplicity that is usually absent from others of its kind. As opposed to following the standard lineage associated with these type of films- starting with Martin Luther King as a child, through to adulthood and ending with his tragic death- this takes a different tact and throws us right into the action as MLK accepts his noble peace prize. In what can be considered to be a bold move, gone is the “I have a dream” speech, which is only briefly referenced to here, in favour of getting straight to the point.
Webb and director Ava DuVerna give the impression that their interest doesn’t lie solely with MLK, but with the wider story at hand, walking a difficult tight rope of biopic and historical drama with remarkable control and skill. King is of course the central character, portrayed here as intelligent and methodical in the way he fights for change. “We negotiate, we demonstrate, we resist” is the mantra he recites to a younger group of Selma students who have been fighting the cause for two years to no avail, hinting that King’s penchant for non-violent demonstrations is actually a well thought through idea that is part of the bigger political plan for change. The film does an excellent job of exploring this particular aspect and the moral conflict it causes MLK, who knows full well that for change to occur, black people will get hurt, preferably in front of as many national news stations as possible. This brings a sense of ambiguity to King without ever overstating it.
Whilst his personal life is looked into during the film, specifically his relationship with his wife Corertta, this element feels underwritten compared to what’s described as King’s ‘moral crusade’. This isn’t a bad thing and if anything it works to the film’s benefit, focusing on the issues that are bigger than MLK and his family life. It gives the film makers more freedom to explore other characters, their role in the demonstrations and the tragic circumstances that befall some of them. Compared to something more hard hitting than say 12 Years A Slave, the moments of violence that occur through the film could be considered quite tame, but never the less impactful or powerful. There are moments so moving that you’ll likely be driven to tears, moments enhanced by actual televised footage from the events. All of this is handled with a great visual style from DuVerna and cinematographer Bradford Young, who get away with 12a violence by using creative camera work to lingering and harrowing effect. Furthermore, Ava DuVerna tells the story in a highly creative way, injecting a 1970’s paranoid thriller vibe into proceedings with characters, places and events often being described to us through the logs of the FBI, with references throughout of wiretappings and shady government conspiracy. Its subtle political-thriller stylings add a whole other layer to the story which tackles journalism, faith and corruption as well as freedom
The writing and direction is truly impressive, but the star of the whole affair is undoubtedly David Oyelowo, whose portrayal of Martin Luther King has been shamefully snubbed by the academy for best actor. I’ve been a fan of Oyelowo for sometime now anyway and I think he’s been brilliant in everything he’s been in, but his performance in Selma is something else all together. Almost unrecognisable, its a transformative turn in the best sense of the word. With no prosthetics or filmic manipulation, Oyelowo gained weight and shaved his hairline back in an attempt to take on the appearance of MLK. This in itself is remarkable but only forms part of the reason as to why his performance is so successful. Throughout the picture he is given some of King’s long speeches to reenact, a daunting prospect that Oyelowo rises too with a raw energy and charisma that will make you think you are watching Martin Luther King himself. It’s a muscular, career defining performance that elevates the film enormously.
Just how well Selma will do this award season, remains to be seen. Whilst I get the feeling that it will be overlooked, it is a must see regardless. If you are looking for a film about Martin Luther King’s life, well unfortunately this isn’t quite it. However, Selma is an important story that deserves to be seen by generations to come, something that shines through most in the film. David Oyelowo is awe-inspiring as Martin Luther King, but it’s the powerful and touching story of normal people standing up for change that makes Selma such a triumph.
Selma is out nationwide on February 6th.
Image credit to http://www.impawards.com