In spite of some very good performance, “Selma” still feels and falls a little flat. Directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb, “Selma” is about the 1965 March for voting rights from Selma, Alabama to the Montgomery state capitol and the events leading up to the March.
“Selma” opens with Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his wife, Coretta Scott (Carmen Ejogo) getting ready for the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony for which King is a recipient. This scene is important for showing us not only the esteem with which King is held, but in presenting, in a very subtle manner, the dynamic between Martin and Coretta. It’s loving relationship, but seems a little strained. From Oslo we go back to the United States where we meet Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), a nurse in a rest home. It’s through her that we see how difficult it is for African-Americans to register to vote, regardless of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the courthouse, in an effort to register to vote, we watch Cooper going through hoops to answer ridiculous “qualifying” questions, the answers to which, no American would have the answers. It’s that scene and one other horrific scene which set the movie up perfectly for what is to come and demonstrates perfectly why the Selma marches are necessary and why King believes that it is so important that they happen on his time-frame, not President Johnson’s.
As King prepares for the initial march we are introduced to members of both the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Meeting at the home of old friends, the two groups discuss strategy and while SNCC favors a more aggressive approach, it acquiesces to the more non-violent pursuit of King’s SCLC. The resulting initial Selma march is shown in all its brutality. It and the aftermath are well-done, albeit very difficult to watch.
As Martin Luther King, Jr., David Oyelowo is outstanding. He never seems like he is doing an impersonation and his performance feels very genuine. Signing on to the film in its early 2010 origins, “Selma” became a passion project for him and he does King proud. A very unglamorous Oprah makes for a very compelling Annie Lee Cooper and in some ways, Cooper is the heart and soul of the film. Carmen Ejogo as Coretta gives an outstanding portrayal. Her performance is a very dignified one, much like the real Mrs. King many of us have seen or about whom we have read. Stephen James as a young John Lewis is also very good. In fact, the entire supporting cast is extremely good. Not so good, two important leads…surprisingly Tom Wilkinson as President Johnson and Tim Roth as George Wallace. Their accents and performances seem more like caricatures than the real people. To be the successful politicians they were, there had to be more to them than what we see on the screen. And perhaps it should be pointed out that these two actors are English and maybe this is what causes them to overdo the Southern drawl to cartoon levels. Oyelowo and Ejogo are also English, but neither lay the accent on so thick and are much more believable in their roles.
There has been some controversy about how President Johnson’s and Rev. King’s relationship is portrayed. That is something for historians to discuss. Regardless of what truly happened, no one can doubt that the Civil Rights Movement and the fight for true equality and the right for all Americans to vote, regardless of the color of their skin, was and is an important, hard-fought battle. There most definitely is a moving connection as we watch the final March take place and Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.This reviewer just wishes that the rest of “Selma” packed more of an emotional wallop. Some scenes do, but others do not and it’s hard to say just why that is the case. When the film is mixed with real footage of the day, more of that emotion resonates. There’s just not enough of that to bring “Selma” to that next level.
2 ½ nuggets out of 4