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Film Review: Selma

Posted on 06th February 2015 |

Nominated for Best Picture in the Academy Awards and arriving in cinemas this weekend, "Selma" takes a look back at one the African American Civil Rights Movement’s key moments...

Anyone attempting to create a film about the African-American Civil Rights Movement faces a challenge. How can so much history be crammed into a film, without either skimming quickly over each important detail or sprawling into a multi-film epic? The answer, which is so well embodied in "Selma", is to focus on one key moment and to tell that moment's story so completely that it allows us to imagine the bigger picture for ourselves. In that respect, "Selma" is an unqualified success.

The key moment which "Selma" explores is that of the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965 - a peaceful protest against continuing resistance to black American citizens registering to vote. Other than a few quick opening scenes to create context, including a shocking depiction of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the story focuses on Selma itself. In doing so, the audience can examine in greater detail the political landscape of the time, the racial tensions that existed and, sadly, draw parallels between discrimination from 1965 and that which still exists in places today.

The same can be said for the historical characters we encounter, most notably Martin Luther King. They each appear only in their context of this one key moment. By choosing not to spend any time on King's many achievements before or after 1965 (with the notable exception of the opening scene, showing him presented with his Nobel Peace Prize) the audience is allowed a much greater insight into the character of the person, rather than the iconic figure. We are presented with a character that, to its credit, the filmmakers are not afraid to show as flawed. David Oyelowo's portrayal as King is a masterclass - giving us an insight into a powerful speaker, charismatic leader and shrewd politician - all the while refusing to deify him. His marital infidelities are strongly hinted at and there is a suggestion that his decision to get involved in Selma stems as much from political opportunism as a desire to help. A danger of playing someone so important and iconic is that they may be unbelievable and unrelatable, but Oyelowo's performance is such that we can understand and generally agree with his decisions - his King feels like a fully formed person rather than an impersonation of the historical figure.

Not all of the film's characters appear as well-rounded as King however. In fact, one of the weakest elements of "Selma" is how one-dimensional many of the antagonists appear. Tim Roth's malicious portrayal of Governor George Wallace simply snarls at anyone he speaks to and seems hugely underused while Tom Wilkinson's Lyndon B. Johnson is sure to be the subject of much discussion in future. Rather than a willing supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, "Selma" presents Johnson, and by extension the US Government, as someone with no time for the Movement, eventually helping simply because of public pressure. This cynical portrayal of a man many considered to be an ally to Martin Luther King may attract criticism.

At just over two hours, the film does a reasonably good job at holding the attention of the audience. The marching scenes in particular are wonderfully crafted, ramping up the tension slowly before all hell breaks loose. The numerous scenes of crowd violence don't hold back and are certainly not for the squeamish. One or two such scenes are reminiscent of a disturbing and brutal moment in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, in which an angry crowd of unarmed civilians are beaten by soldiers. Most shocking of all is of course that the violence in "Selma" is modelled on actual footage from the time, rather than a writer's imagination.
While these scenes are intense and occasionally difficult to watch, they grip your attention. It is these scenes that carry us through the weaker sections, usually featuring Tim Roth's Governor Wallace or any of the other weak antagonists. Their scenes serve only to remind the audience of their opposition to the Civil Rights Movement, when their continued resistance to the Selma march itself illustrated this point clearly enough. Eventually these scenes, and those featuring President Johnson fretting over how Martin Luther King is making him look to the media, grow old. The central struggle in Selma is never enough away though for the film to lose the audience's attention fully.

Overall, what "Selma" succeeds in doing is creating a film that really feels like a moment in history. It makes you believe that these characters have had struggles and experiences before we see them on screen and that they'll continue to do so after the credits roll.
Biopics can occasionally suffer from actors looking like they're impersonating a historical figure, thus reminding you that you're watching a film, or for trying to cram in too much information. "Selma" successfully avoids both pitfalls and its continued  focus on this one key moment is the reason.

Tips for young filmmakers

Director Ava DuVernay's style offers a lot that can influence young filmmakers. "Selma" showcases many examples of how to frame characters to create a sense of power. Many of the scenes showing Martin Luther King addressing a crowd or audience are shot from below him, a common and simple technique but one that be very effective.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is the power of its central performances. For that reason, it should be looked to as a great resource in how to direct actors. David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King at a point in his life in which he has already given his iconic "I have a dream" speech and been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. As a result, Oyelowo plays the part with the confidence and conviction of someone who has been through those experiences, rather than just imitating someone.

Often the best short films focus on one brief moment in a character's life. Shorts don't allow time to explore the entire history of a character so by focusing on one key moment, the film can develop the characters in a more natural way and spend more time doing so. "Selma" highlights how well this can be done in feature films, by focusing on just one key moment, instead of the many that made up the African American Civil Rights Movement. This allows for a more complete development and examination of the characters and certainly is a technique that can be helpful for young filmmakers in their own short films.

4/5 - Informative, at times shocking and gripping. It won't be for everyone, but the quality of the central performances makes this a film that everyone should experience.

Selma is in cinemas from Friday 6th February. Certificate 12A

Review by Sean Boyle

Cinemagic Patrons

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