If “Timeliness” was an Academy Award, Selma would take it hands down. With all of the unrest and injustice in the last few months so closely mirroring events 50 years ago, Selma makes for the fitting movie in these troubled times with its powerful message and tremendous lead performance by David Oyelowo. Unfortunately, the movie suffers from pacing issues and a lack of precision in delivering its immense sermon.
We focus in on the events surrounding MLK’s march from Selma to Montgomery back in 1965. With hostile government, law, and townsfolk, Selma is a brutal battleground where MLK hopes to swing the tide in his favor in order to secure voting rights for the black community. We get the reactions of Lyndon Johnson, George Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover, and many others as they try to prevent the march from taking place.
David Oyelowo, who has not been the biggest leading man thus far, steps onto center-stage to deliver a magnificent performance. MLK is a figure seldom portrayed on the big screen; we have never gotten a true biopic, so perhaps this is the closet thing to it. Oyelowo makes any further films about MLK hard because he is just that good as him. We see a sense of humanity and charm in him. Most of the time we hear his voice, or see clips from his various speeches, but this time we get a look at him when the microphones and cameras are away. He is invigorating and powerful, commanding a hugely satisfying screen-presence. The biggest travesty is that he was not recognized by the Academy for such a definitive performance of MLK.
The supporting cast, as briefly as they are seen, is a fine-tuned and often can stand on their own despite the presence of Oyelowo. With Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Wilkinson, Common, and many more, it at times feels like an overwhelming amount of star power, especially when a lot of the actors are vastly under utilized. Roth and Wilkinson are the standouts, with the former playing the racist governor George Wallace, and the latter playing Lyndon Johnson.
In a movie that is supposedly about one town, there is a lot of stuff going on pertaining to the supporting characters, so it is hard to get attached to all of them. Constantly bouncing back and forth from D.C., and Selma, the film feels too jittery. It tries to balance the political aspect with the brutality taking place on the streets, which ultimately make the scenes discussing the politics far less exciting and impactful than the rest of the film. Some other plot lines are started that are not sufficiently explained, such as King’s supposed affairs.
I want to commend the film for not sugarcoating the violence and mistreatment towards the black community. The film is rightfully honest in its portrayal of the events that took place in a time not too long ago. The vicious beatings, murders, and general treatment towards blacks and the white people who supported them are all there to see. Much like 12 Years a Slave it shows that not every white person was a villain who wanted supremacy.
In the end, Selma is a film for our times. It delivers a powerful message that isn’t entirely original in tone or subject, but one that needs to be delivered in regards to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. David Oyelowo leads the film, and the people in it, with a rousing and excellent performance while his supporting cast struggles—though often succeeds—in keeping up. But even with the performances, it never quite hits the stride it sets out to meet and it results in a minor misstep in what could have been a truly monumental march.