Selma: Film Review
Cast: David Oyolewo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey
Director: Ava DuVernay
Already generating debate for the snub for former Spooks star David Oyolewo, Selma has prestige written through it - even though it has the air of The Butler around it. (Which is ironic given that The Butler's director was once attached to the project)
A mesmerising Oyolewo stars as Martin Luther King Jr as we get the inside story of the build up of the 1965 marches from Selma Alabama to Montgomery almost a half century after their time.
By preferring to concentrate on the tension between King Jr and the President Lyndon Johnson (The Full Monty's Tom Wilkinson) over the activism involved, we begin to learn the lengths the FBI went to to ensure that every last detail of the build up was documented.
This juncture in the civil rights movement came at a decisive moment in time with King's advisers at loggerheads and the President starting to feel threatened by the growing weight of the protestors' feelings.
Opening with King Jr's acceptance of the Nobel peace prize before a bomb rips through Birmingham, Selma sets out its stall early on. With the slow mo shot of the bomb's explosion, director DuVernay decides that pushing the buttons is perhaps more important than filling the story with an emotional depth and heart that's needed throughout. (The slow mo is over-used later on in key moments but feels hollow and a desperate attempt to try to convey some emotion when simplicity would have been better)
Selma is never better than when it lets Oyolewo take the stage and deliver impassioned speeches from Martin Luther King Jr. It's here that Oyolewo brings some of the resonance and power of the orator to life, despite never fully capturing the likeness. By delivering a swelling performance and a relatively dialled down turn during negotiations, you really get a sense of the compelling and uniting nature of Dr King as he galvanised people into action and so upset others.
The film's also a growing roster of prestige actors, with the likes of Martin Sheen, Cuba Gooding Jr, Dylan Baker, Tim Roth all turning up for their moment in the cinematic sun.
But DuVernay's piece never fully manages the subtlety needed of a film like this to propel it into the stratosphere; around 90 minutes in, when the first march of the Edmund Pettus Bridge disastrously takes place, rather than simply letting the horror of the visuals strike the deep resonant chord they need, she chooses to have a New York Times reporter who was on the scene narrate by reporting back events to his paper over the ghastly. The end result is a sentimental button pushing montage that tells you what to feel, how to feel and when to emote - given that the film uses actual footage from the final marches to maximum effect, it's a blundering misfire.
Equally, the story is told with such a straight-laced approach that there's never any shade; the conflicts between King and his wife, the conflict with Malcolm X, the conflict with those running the movement in Selma are completely left on the side; this is really where the story of Selma would have been better told, rather than a simple lifting of events from a history book.
There's absolutely no doubting Oyolewo's turn in Selma, but thanks to no directorial flair or flourish from DuVernay, Selma never quite achieves the power it needs for a story that's so worthy and a moment in time that's so vital to be captured on celluloid.