It is hard to believe that leading Oscar candidate Selma is the first feature film to depict the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. While he has been portrayed in other movies he has never been the main protagonist. And the historic icon’s debut film does not disappoint. The story of Dr. King’s protests in Selma, Alabama is one of the best movies about the civil right movement ever made and may be the most important movie of the year.
The civil rights movement has often been depicted in film, but in Selma the story focuses on a three month period in which Dr. King tries to convince the President to pass the Voting Rights Act. Behind the scenes director Ava DuVernay was not allowed to use any of Dr. King’s famous speeches. Those speeches are the property of the King estate and have already been sold to Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks Pictures. Thus DuVernay had to find a different ways to show the nation’s most famous orator. She does this by starting her story after the ‘I Have A Dream Speech’ and making alterations to what she does use. She also accesses Dr. King’s dynamic presence by casting a fantastic leading man.
David Oyelowo portrays Dr. King in Selma and is without question the new standard bearer for what an actor must live up to. He is powerful and imposing when he needs to stand tall in front of the public. But it is the quieter moments, the moments of self-doubt, even the moments that show Dr. King’s weaker side that elevates Selma. Under the direction of DuVernay, Oyelowo humanizes the anointed American saint and makes the icon into something more than just a couple pages in your history book.
There are some historical inaccuracies when it comes to this movie especially when it comes to the legacy of Lyndon B. Johnson. Historians who have screened the movie almost unanimously disagree with Ava DuVernay’s positioning of LBJ as someone who obstructed the Voting Rights Act. But this movie isn’t about LBJ and while it is a true story it is a dramatization of that truth and not a documentary. DuVernay is using effective storytelling to draw people in through conflict and to reflect on the efforts of black leadership. I am alright with her directorial decision as the story she wants to tell is about Dr. King and not about the President. As long as future generations don’t believe Johnson to be the villain holding up the civil rights movement instead of the man who helped to champion them.
That one issue shouldn’t tarnish just how compelling and fascinating the rest of the movie is. Despite taking place in recent American history it is still surprising how many of these horrific events depicted in the movie can still catch you off guard. An even worse feeling is that despite a 50 year difference events in Missouri, New York, and law passages in Texas can make Selma feel even more relevant. The movie’s seminal moments, particularly scenes on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, stand on their own as both chilling and powerful.
There are too many wonderful aspects about Selma to dismiss this movie due to a couple inaccuracies. If we were to do that almost every movie with Academy consideration this year would go unwatched. An undoubted contender for both Best Actor and Best Picture, Selma elevates the hardships endured during the civil rights movement and cast a strong shadow over events today. A
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