Director Ava DuVernay’s sweepingly staged, dogmatic history lesson benefits hugely from the context into which it has been released, having premiered in November 2014 in the States and opened in limited release on Christmas Day, thus qualifying for the Oscars. The story revolves around three marches in March 1965 led by civil rights beacon Dr Martin Luther King from Selma in Alabama to the state capital, demanding equal voting rights for blacks.
The marches are vividly and unforgivingly re-created on the actual spot, Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they had the effect of forcing Democratic President Lyndon B Johnson’s hand; he pushed the Voting Rights Act through Congress and it passed into law in August 1965. However, despite the built-in triumphalism of the movie, it arrived in America against a worryingly growing backdrop of the murder of African-Americans by white law-enforcers: in 2012, Trayvon Martin was shot dead in Florida by a neighbourhood watch volunteer, who was later acquitted of manslaughter; in 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown was shot by a police officer, who was not indicted; most recently, Eric Garner was killed following use of a prohibited police choke hold in Staten Island – again, the officer was not indicted. Who would have guessed that a film about violence against blacks set 50 years ago would play out against such racial unrest.
You can’t help but be affected by recent events as you lose yourself in the events portrayed, as the history of American civil rights is clearly not over yet. It’s an admirable film either way, chiefly because DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb (DuVernay apparently also worked on the screenplay without a credit) avoid the episodic pitfalls of the standard historical biopic by eschewing a full life story in favour of this single flashpoint. British actor David Oyelowo gives a career-defining performance as Dr King, stirring and full-blooded in public oratory from government steps to pulpit, fallible in private, and a match for President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, whose amplified turn conveys sympathy within intransigence). That Oyelowo was missed off the best actor Oscar nominations slate has ignited further unrest, with the actor outspoken about what his absence may or may not say about race relations within the Academy’s 6,000-strong voting bloc. (Selma has a nomination for best picture, which is as it should be, and may yet win best song for John Legend and rapper Common.)
There is an epic feel to the massed scenes on the bridge, but most of the action takes place indoors, where DuVernay (who was also overlooked for an Academy Award) gets the most out of a huge cast in smaller parts (including producer Oprah Winfrey, Tim Roth as segregationist Republican governor George Wallace, an uncredited Martin Sheen and the aforementioned Common). If Roth tips into panto, and the concluding montage of news photos risks over-egging the message, the overall sense of righteous, non-violent anger is palpable. It’s certainly a potent talking point.