Wednesday, June 01, 2016
Directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb, Selma is the story of the events leading to the 1965 march led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and several other Civil Rights leaders trying to make a difference during the Civil Rights movement in the American South. The film is a dramatic account of the non-violent march from Selma to Montgomery in the state of Alabama as it is considered a key turning point in the American Civil Rights movement. Starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Giovanni Ribisi, Tim Roth, Tessa Thompson, Wendell Pierce, Alessandro Nivola, and Oprah Winfrey. Selma is a mesmerizing and riveting film from Ava DuVernay.
The film is a dramatic account of the events that preceded the non-violent march from Selma to Montgomery led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) in an attempt for African-Americans to have the right to register to vote that would eventually lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Told in a straightforward manner, the film follows Dr. King and fellow Civil Rights leader who prepare for this march just as Dr. King is having frequent meetings with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) about allowing African-Americans to have the right to register to vote without any issues. Johnson is reluctant as he has other things to deal with where he is also dealing with some opposition like FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) who thinks King is up to no good while King would also have to deal with Alabama’s Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth).
Paul Webb’s screenplay doesn’t just explore Dr. King’s attempt to get the march going with several other Civil Rights leaders but also dealing with the authority in Alabama where a lot of planning occurs. Even as Dr. King ponders if the media will see what happens as he also deals with the church bombing in Birmingham that killed four young girls and other events that includes the death of Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch). The script also plays in moments behind the scenes where Dr. King becomes weary and unsure of what is doing as his own personal life would nearly unravel when the FBI tries to create discord between Dr. King and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) over the former’s supposed extramarital affairs. Still, Dr. King tries to get the march forward where he also deals with members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who don’t agree with Dr. King’s views.
There is a structure where much of the first half is about Dr. King and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference trying to plan for the march as well as deal with all sorts of legal and social issues. Even as Dr. King copes with loss and other things as well having to go back to his home in Atlanta and flying to Washington D.C. to meet with President Johnson. The second half is about the first two attempts for the march as the first one ends in violence where it is captured by the press while the second one would end abruptly by Dr. King due to an act of faith. Especially where he would hear that those who would march with him including whites would be targeted in this small Alabama town where racial tension is very high. The third act is about President Johnson’s decision as he is aware of the role he is playing where he knows what might happen if he doesn’t act.
Ava DuVernay’s direction is largely straightforward in terms of the fact that she doesn’t go for anything grand nor play too much into exposition which is often the case with a lot of films based on historical events. While much of it is shot in Atlanta and other parts in the nearby city including a few key shots in Selma and Montgomery. The film is more about the American South as a whole where it plays into a landscape that is changing where you have a group of people that want change but you have this other group that opposes change. DuVernay’s usage of wide and medium shots help play into this tension that is happening in Alabama which is the centerpiece of this old idea of the American South dating back to the 1800s. Even as Dr. King would meet this old man who is in his 80s as he is waiting for the right to vote as it is this very simple moment where this old man just endured loss as he ponders if he has a say in anything in this country that is supposed to be about equality. The direction also has DuVernay create moments that are quite intense such as a non-violent confrontation against a county sheriff that does unfortunately turn violent because the old man couldn’t sit down where a woman would hit that sheriff and all hell breaks loose.
The usage of close-ups and hand-held cameras play into that chaos as well as a moment where people are attempting a march at night where it turns very violent in the hands of the police. There are also moments during these meetings where DuVernay does create something where there is tension but also the need to resolve something not just in the meetings President Johnson would have with his staff and Dr. King but also a scene with him and Governor Wallace that plays into a world that is changing. The latter of which is actually afraid of change but is also indifferent in what history will think of him as it’s something President Johnson is aware of. While its ending is predictable, it does have something to say in what Dr. King has done to make the world better no matter how troubling it is but it’s also in the idea that one person does have a say. Overall, DuVernay creates a gripping yet engaging film about one of the most watershed moments in American history.
Cinematographer Bradford Young does excellent work with the film‘s cinematography from its usage of low-key lights for some of the interiors in many of the scenes set day and night to the look of the towns in the daytime including the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Editor Spencer Averick does nice work in creating some unique rhythmic and jump-cuts to play into some of the drama as well as some of the intense moments in the film. Production designer Mark Friedberg, with set decorator Elizabeth Keenan and art director Kim Jennings, does fantastic work with the look of the home of Dr. King and his family as well as some church interiors including the scene in Birmingham where the four little girls would be killed on that day. Costume designer Ruth E. Carter does wonderful work with the costumes as it play into the period of the times as well as the dresses the women wear.
Visual effects supervisors Anup Shakya and Dottie Starling do brilliant work with some of the minimal visual effects such as the Birmingham church bombing sequence as well as a few other moments that is essentially set dressing. Sound editor Greg Hedgepath does superb work with the sound as it play into some of the chaos in some of the protests as well as some chilling moments in the conversations. The film’s music by Jason Moran is terrific as it‘s mostly low-key and doesn’t appear very much as it is largely a mixture of orchestral, folk, and gospel to play into the times while music supervisor Morgan Rhodes provides a intoxicating soundtrack that mixes a lot of the music of the times from folk, gospel, soul, and blues from artists like Joyce Collins & Johnita Collins, Duane Eddy, Sarah Vaughan, the Staple Singers, Otis Redding, Odetta, the Impressions, and a new song called Glory by John Legend and Common.
The casting by Aisha Coley and Cynthia Stillwell are incredible as it features a massive ensemble with notable small roles from Jeremy Strong as white Boston pastor James Reeb, Tara Ochs as white Civil Rights activist Viola Liuzzo, Stan Houston as Selma’s sheriff Jim Clark, Nigel Thatch as Malcolm X, Michael Papajohn as state trooper leader Major John Cloud, Henry G. Sanders as the old man Cager Lee that Dr. King befriends, Keith Stansfield as the old man’s grandson, Ledisi Young as the legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson that Dr. King turns to for guidance early in the film, and Oprah Winfrey in a small yet wonderful standout performance as activist Annie Lee Cooper who is just a woman that just wants the right to vote. Other noteworthy appearances include Martin Sheen as Judge Frank Minis Johnson who decides whether Dr. King could march, Cuba Gooding Jr. as civil rights attorney Fred Grey, Dylan Baker as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Stephen Root as Governor Wallace’s advisor Al Lingo, Niecy Nash as activist Richie Jean Jackson, and Giovanni Ribisi as President Johnson’s advisor Lee C. White.
In the performances of the many associates of Dr. King, Colman Domingo as Ralph Abernathy, Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Bayard Rustin, Stephan James as SNCC co-chairman John Lewis, Wendell Pierce as Hosea Williams, Lorraine Toussaint as Amelia Boynton Robinson, and Andrew Holland as Andrew Young are all excellent as people who are trying to see what they can do for the movement and make sure it goes in the right direction. Tessa Thompson is superb as Diane Nash as an activist who helps Dr. King in the strategy of the Selma march while Common is fantastic as Reverend James Bevel who also helps in making sure things go right in the need for non-violence. Alessandro Nivola is amazing as Assistant Attorney General John Doar who meets with Dr. King to understand what is doing while trying to ensure him that President Johnson is at his side knowing that what Dr. King wants isn’t easy.
Tim Roth is brilliant as Governor George C. Wallace as Alabama’s then-governor who tries to make sure Dr. King doesn’t march as Roth sells that air of racism in the governor as well as display a sense of fear about what could happen if change does happen in Alabama. Carmen Ejogo is radiant as Coretta Scott King as Dr. King’s wife who is aware of what her husband is doing while also knowing that not everything in her marriage is great though she stands by him when he needs her at the march. Tom Wilkinson is great as President Lyndon B. Johnson who wants to invoke an act where African-Americans can vote without any issue but is trying to see how he wouldn’t get into trouble as he also copes with how history will see him. Finally, there’s David Oyelowo in a tremendous performance as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the civil rights leader who is trying to make change and ensure that the people of Alabama have a say while dealing with everything that involves in the march and its outcome as well as dealing with personal issues where he becomes overwhelmed with his role as a civil rights leader as it is a performance for the ages from Oyelowo.
Selma is a sensational film from Ava DuVernay that features an incredible performance from David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Featuring a great ensemble cast and a compelling story that plays a lot into some of its historical context and its stakes. It’s a film that doesn’t just carry a lot of importance but also showcase a moment in time that would prove to be a major moment in American history. In the end, Selma is a spectacular film from Ava DuVernay.
Ava DuVernay Films: (This is the Life (2008 film)) - (I Will Follow) - (Middle of Nowhere (2012 film)) - 13th (2016 film) - (A Wrinkle in Time)
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