The recent MLK biopic, Selma, is both powerfully resonant yet full of clichés. Gemma Pecorini Goodall reviews.
Ava DuVernay’s (Middle of Nowhere, I Will Follow) biographical new film Selma depicts the 1960’s campaign of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and the Afro-American people’s trials and tribulations to attain the right to vote in the US. The film is a mix of political fight and personal grievances on behalf of the many supporters of civil rights.
Selma (2014) – Ava DuVernay. Source: IMDB
DuVernay begins webbing her story in medias res; MLK and wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) are in Oslo to receive the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. We skip the ‘I have a dream’ period and the United States has since abolished segregation in the South with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. DuVernay guides us on the journey from Selma to Montgomery, the Alabama state capital, alongside the hundreds of U.S. citizens fighting for equal rights. The film’s charismatic cast is lead by British thespian David Oyelowo, whose theatrical background and training only benefit his portrayal of the most beloved American civil rights activist. Oyelowo manages to capture the essence and hope that King represented for the Afro-American people – it is truly a spellbinding portrayal of the man.
Although Selma discusses events that unfolded in the past, it is frightening to see the almost mirrored images between 1965 Alabama and 2014 Ferguson, Missouri. Early in the film a large group of Afro-American citizens kneel to the ground and place their hands behind their heads. This movement mirrors the ‘hands up, don’t shoot!’ symbol now so closely associated with the Ferguson riots. Bradford Young, the genius behind Selma’s camera, manages to capture these visually frightening scenes. Each horrendous beating is filmed so angelically, a stark contrast drawn between the physical act and the almost romanticised camera work.
Although beautifully written, Selma unfortunately seems to fall into the pool of clichés that encompass the historic film. The predictable unfolding of events, told through moving image and also time and location stamps, ends with an inspirational speech and a summary of each character’s achievements and fate after the happenings of the film – tropes common to the historic genre of film. The characters and extras seem to always be dressed in their Sunday best and the grime associated with the Selma marches is nowhere to be seen, as if everyone on screen had unlimited access to freshly washed clothes.
March to Selma 1965. Source: Wikimedia
Ripe with positives and negatives, Selma is an almost ironic film on freedom of equality in a period that seems to have taken a giant leap backwards. Not only are the comparisons with the Ferguson riots grim but also the struggle of such a large part of the American populace to gain the right to vote casts a dark shadow on our generation that often takes advantage of the opportunity we are given to help carve our own future through voting. In comparison to films such as Lee Daniel’s 2013 The Butler and Tate Taylor’s The Help from 2011, which manage to speak of equality from a creative and entertaining point of view, Selma falls a few steps behind due to a fairly risk-free script and an ocean of clichés.