Ava DuVernay’s absorbing account of the real life events in Selma, Alabama may lack the relentlessly vicious sadism of “12 Years A Slave” but it still doesn’t shy away from showing the plain and ugly truth about what went on during those tumultuous weeks in 1965. The cruelty, injustice and violence may not be as graphic but the film remains visceral and powerful thanks to the events’ proximity to the present day.
Picking up the project after Lee Daniels had moved on to “The Butler”, DuVernay performed an almost total, although uncredited, rewrite of David Webb’s original script, deftly evoking the iconic speeches and proclamations without using the actual texts which were unavailable due to a rights issue. The film spans the period from Dr King collecting his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 through to his tumultuous and ultimately successful campaign to secure equal voting rights in the town of Selma, Alabama in the face of intimidation and violent repression orchestrated by Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth).
There used to be a running joke about English actors always playing the villains in Hollywood movies but lately it seems that English actors are taking important American roles, be they genuine historical figures or fictional icons like Spider-Man or Superman. David Oyelowo is simply brilliant as Dr King, capturing his quiet charisma and thoughtful determination in the face of intimidation and violence. Tom Wilkinson is similarly impressive as Lyndon B Johnson, giving a complex portrayal of a President wrestling with competing priorities and facing problems both foreign and domestic. The rest of the cast do their historic counterparts great credit with only Dylan Baker’s awkward turn as J Edgar Hoover (who offers to spread slanderous misinformation against King) missing the mark.
The best picture nomination is well deserved, although the song nomination is decidedly not and feels like a token offering for a film that, realistically, arrived too late into awards season to build sufficient momentum. As for the other categories, only David Oyelowo has just cause to be aggrieved at missing out on a shot at the Best Actor prize. All in all, this is a superbly realised historical biopic which puts the events front and centre while ensuring that the historical figures are given depth and texture thanks to the tremendous cast.