It’s a little hard to believe that this is the first proper biopic of Martin Luther King, Jr., but at least it was worth the wait. Instead of trying to track his whole life and all of his efforts as part of the Civil Rights Movement, Selma wisely narrows its focus to a single episode of his campaigns, documenting the 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
Given the events of the last year in America, it’s depressing how ‘of the times’ the film feels, despite chronicling events which took place 50 years ago. The institutionalised racism of the police force, and their violent supression of peaceful protesters, could easily have been ripped from today’s headlines. The beating and shooting of unarmed black people, and the events of Bloody Sunday in particular, are frighteningly reminiscent of the unrest in Ferguson, and a chilling reminder of how much progress we still haven’t made.
But while Selma is undeniably an important film, it’s also fortunately a very good one. One of its main aims is to present us with MLK as a man, not as the saint he’s often depicted as. A great man, extremely intelligent and committed to an undeniably righteous cause, but a man nonetheless, with all the flaws that come with it. David Oyelowo’s extraordinary performance deserved to have been nominated for an Oscar, and he manages to find the quietness and humility in King at home with his family, while also delivering the hugely powerful public rhetoric for which he was so justly celebrated.
As for the rest of the cast, Tim Roth stands out with his wonderfully slimy, odious interpretation of Alabama governor George Wallace, but it’s the women who make the biggest impression after Oyelowo himself. Oprah Winfrey impresses as Annie Lee Cooper, best known for punching Selma’s racist sheriff, and Carmen Ejogo is especially strong as King’s conflicted wife Coretta: she fully supports her husband and what he’s trying to accomplish, while growing increasingly frustrated at his infidelities and absence from family life.
Not unlike Lincoln, one of the more intriguing sides to Selma‘s investigation of King is in how well he was able to manipulate politics and the media, and how ahead of his time he was in that regard. Often, it says, a just cause alone is not enough, and those who support it must be prepared to get their hands dirty if they want it to succeed. In this case, it manifests as King’s ability to manipulate the media narrative: he knows that, if they want the voting rights act to be passed, they need massive public awareness. To get that, they need to be on the news – and a peaceful protest which goes smoothly and without incident won’t get on the news.
King chose Selma as the location for the march specifically because he knew that Sheriff Jim Clark was a aggressive, racist thug who would respond to their peaceful protests with violence. And as horrific as the violence was, it made it onto the news, getting the marchers the publicity they needed to succeed. It’s yet another aspect of how King is here presented as a person, not a legend: he’s willing to risk violence and pain because he knows it’s the only way that most people in America will get to hear about their cause.