Martin Luther King was a very brave man. But so is Tim Roth, because I would not want to be seen anywhere near to a person such as George Wallace, yet he decides to impersonate him on-screen. That takes balls.
“Selma” stars David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King and is directed by Ava DuVernay. It focuses on King’s attempt to remove voting restrictions for black people by staging a protest in the small town of Selma, Alabama. He has to find a way to pressure Lyndon B. Johnson into signing further legislation against segregation while facing hostility towards himself and his family.
There is no other way to say this, “Selma” is an impressive movie, convincing on every level. Martin Luther King is arguably one of the greatest fighters for human rights in history. His “I Have a Dream” speech has been heard around the world and his accomplishments can be felt to this day. This together with the events in Ferguson gives this movie an undeniable topicality. Simply put, you can’t half-ass it working on a film like this.
Thankfully, nobody does. David Oyelowo is hypnotizing as King, emulating his intonation and speech patterns perfectly, even though he didn’t have any of King’s actual speeches to work with (studio politics… it’s insane). The script gives him the opportunity to show us different sides of King, a man shouldering a huge responsibility. We see him at his strongest when he has to confront the President or giving speeches and we see him almost break down from doubt, coping with the victims that his fight demands and trying to mend the strained relationship with his wife. We also see how his organization worked, trying to apply public pressure by provoking conflict while staying non-violent. “Selma” doesn’t sugar-coat, there is conflict inside the movement and between different groups.
The depiction of President Johnson has attracted some controversy, because some people found him to be depicted as opposed to the civil rights movement. I found him to be a fascinating character, a great portrayal by Tom Wilkinson. It’s not so much that he doesn’t want to help, he just feels that he’s taking a great risk in doing so. So he keeps his options open as King puts more pressure on him with each day of protest. George Wallace, played by Tim Roth, is another story. A man whom Roth himself described as a monster (no “the villain is the hero in his own story” here, Roth talks about being genuinely appalled by the original Wallace, as he grew up during the Civil Rights Movement). Wallace is a spineless racist who could have fit into last year’s “12 Years a Slave” without problem. All the more respect to Tim Roth for taking on the character.
The film is well-structured, although it sometimes feels as if it is following a four step plan on repeat, President, protest, doubt and marital problems. However, it works, so I’m not complaining.
All in all, “Selma” is a great film, probably even an important one, because it serves as a reminder that no matter how far we think we have come, the fight for equality is far from over. I’d suggest marching to your nearest cinema right about now.