David Oyelowo delivers a performance as Dr Martin Luther King so solid and convincing that he, along with a finely tuned supporting cast, transports you back in time to the streets of Selma, 1965. A pivotal time in the American civil rights movement but one about which perhaps not that much is known.
This is the real force behind Ava DuVernay‘s film, what is essentially the first full biopic of Dr King, the decision not to open with his rousing and celebrated ‘I have a dream’ speech and close with his untimely death – events already in the populous knowledge – but to focus its attention on the work he did and the people he did it with.
The film follows Dr King and the quest of the movement he leads to obtain the vote for all black Americans; by way of his personal meetings with President Lyndon B. Johnson, the opposition he faced from within his own community and from the US establishment and the personal strains all of these efforts put upon him and his family. Carmen Ejogo underscores Mrs King with real credence and draws out the humanity in Martin, beyond his rhetoric, bringing pathos and reality to their individual struggle amidst the hugely political and radical change all around them.
Tom Wilkinson does his now customary American accent, an unlikely Hollywood favourite but with good reason, as he straddles his conscience as President Johnson. Understanding King’s cause and maybe even agreeing with him but hung up on his own legacy and torn between doing what’s right for his people and what’s right for his career.
Tim Roth is on typically pungent form, lending a despisable quality to his Governor Wallace. The very embodiment of the deep South of America: stuck in its ways and immovable, progress and equality frightens him.
It’s Oyelowo’s movie though and he does it all effortlessly, imbuing the doctor with character beyond his legend; a deeply religious man, suffering the same temptations as anyone but passionately devout to his cause and unstoppable, even at the risk of his own life and that of his family, in his course. He leads the movie with a gentle assuredness that belies and solidifies his position as a force for the future.
Considering the reported incidents over the last year or so between US law enforcement and black citizens, it shows clearly that Selma, and indeed Dr King, still carry as powerful and relevant a message for America today as it did back in the 60s.