Director: Ava DuVernay
Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey, Common, Cuba Gooding Jr., Dylan Baker, Trai Byers, Stephan James, Andre Holland and Tom Wilkinson
Tirelessly and continuously working to finally capture and realize a hard-won moment of long-awaited justice and recognition is a captivating message that not only defines the determined nature of the lauded protagonists in the new historical drama, ‘Selma,’ but also the film’s dedicated filmmakers. Ava DuVernay, who recently made history for becoming the first black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe Award, is deservingly receiving praise for her years of research and dedication in filming a dramatized version of the 1965 Alabama voting rights marches led by Martin Luther King, Jr., which is featured in her latest movie. Combined with David Oyelowo’s commanding and powerful representation of the civil rights leader’s emotional struggle with maintaining his poise to lead his followers who were also dedicated to achieving racial equality, the drama is a gripping exploration into how continued hard work and dedication is truly the right path to take when aspiring to reach your goals.
‘Selma’ begins with Martin contemplating his life choices and decisions with his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), as he prepares to accept the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolence in 1964. After reinforcing his belief that equality is obtainable through peaceful negotiations, the drama showcases one of the most important issues the activist strove to achieve-equal voting rights for blacks and whites, especially in the South. When a working-class black woman, Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), then attempts to register to vote in an Alabama courthouse, the white clerk repeatedly disclaims her qualification to cast a ballot.
With such wrongful denials of the right to vote to blacks across the South, President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) has managed to convince Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act, which makes it illegal to segregate public facilities by race. Martin accepts the process the country’s leader has made during a visit he makes to the White House. Yet Martin also respectfully but candidly reminds the president of their past broken deals, as well as the legal right to vote isn’t valid if a legal infrastructure that enforces the freedom isn’t enforced. While President Johnson says he wants to help, he also states that his administration has changed its legislative focus to other imperative issues, including launching a war on the country’s poverty.
With the president not fully supporting Martin’s imitative to enforce equal voting rights, the humanitarian stages three protest marches that start in Selma and lead to Alabama’s state capitol building in Montgomery. Martin believes launching acts of nonviolent resistance in front of as many reporters and TV cameras as possible will help garner as much national support as possible. While his approach to protesting and captivating attention is occasionally challenged by his fellow activists, including two Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members, James Forman (Trai Byers) and John Lewis (Stephan James), Martin believes peaceful protesting is the only way to fight back against Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) and his racist administration.
While Martin initially believes that by showcasing the governor’s state-sanctioned police brutality on national news, he can force Johnson to take action to the federal level, but he begins to question his decision after witnessing the true cruelty unleashed on his fellow protestors. After President Johnson elicits the help of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to stop the preacher’s mission to utilize the protests to garner equality, the humanitarian calls upon the help of fellow activist James Bevel (Common) and civil rights attorney Fred Gray (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) to further emphasize the importance of equal freedom for all Americans.
The enthralling and humble Oyelowo, who has been nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama-Motion Picture for his captivating performance of the celebrated activist, didn’t initially appear to be the most obvious choice to play the heroic protagonist in ‘Selma.’ Having been born and raised in Oxford, England, and not moving to the U.S. until the age of 31 in 2007, the actor wasn’t as familiarized with Dr. King’s struggles and triumphants as American-born performers. But Oyelowo brilliantly captured the emotional complexities of the activist during his continuously brave fight against the government and white citizens who were determined to keep the rights of black Americans limited. Whether determinately battling the highly publicized racism of Gov. Wallace through his peaceful protests, refusing to give into President Johnson’s careless attempts to have his switch his support to such government-sanctioned causes as the war on poverty or trying to convince Coretta that the FBI’s claims about his personal character were untrue, Oyelowo proved that Dr. King would maintain his principals and ideals about equality.
Oyelowo’s commitment in showing Dr. King as an emotionally driven, versatile human through his dedication to fully researching the activist’s life and embracing his physicality was in part driven by DuVernay’s commanding influence as a director. The helmer engaged in intensive research while preparing to begin filming ‘Selma,’ to showcase the realistic and relatable human story in Dr. King’s life. While the humanitarian was seen as a leading, courageous pillar in the fight for equality for all races across America, the director also smartly delved into the emotional motivations that drove Dr. King to defend the morals he so strongly believed in and defended. In speaking with integral civil rights leaders who regularly worked with Dr. King, including Lewis and Ambassador Andrew Young (Andre Holland), DuVernay was rivetingly able to incorporate the notable activist’s reasoning behind his continued will to defend his fellow citizens, as well as the entrancing effects his leadership had on his family.
Not only did DuVernay and Oyelowo’s tireless commitment to utilize their extensive research and knowledge of Dr. King’s personal background and strong beliefs in achieving racial equality great a spellbinding documentation of the activist’s fight for the right for everyone to vote, the enchanting production design created by Mark Friedberg also lifted the emotional intensity in ‘Selma.’ With the director’s decision to film the drama in Alabama, including many locations in and near Selma, the drama smartly and authentically emphasized the emotional and physical turmoil Dr. King, his family, friends and supporters all endured during their fight for equality.
Friedberg incorporated a real sense of the mid-1960s into the drama with diverse and distinct locations, from the simple, quiet elegance of the Kings’ house to the striking replicas of various rooms in the White House, which were extraordinarily filled with details of the glories of American history. The most captivating location in the drama is the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which was the important gateway for Dr. King’s protests as his supporters marched into mainland Alabama. The production designer effortlessly captured the bridge’s subtle and rustic nature, which powerfully represented the determination of the united protestors he led in his fight for full equality.
While Americans today often recognize and embrace the general struggle for equality Dr. King stood for throughout his life, ‘Selma’ is a gratifying, emotional and thorough reminder of the various personal and public struggles the activist bravely took on in order to achieve justice. By highlighting the often hidden emotions and obstacles the activist and his colleagues were often faced with, the drama not only offers a passionate historical insight, but a gratifying visceral connection to today’s audiences. Through Oyelowo’s dedication to accurately humanize, and capture the true emotions and relationships, of Dr. King, DuVernay’s commitment to uncover his true motivations and Friedberg’s powerfully accurate and authentic replication of the locations that played an important role in the Alabama voting rights marches, the drama is a mesmerizing exploration into the activist’s struggles and triumphs, which left powerful and long-lasting ramifications on everyone involved in the humanitarian’s fight for equality.
Written by: Karen Benardello