The United States of America in the mid-nineteen-sixties, and its most prominent exponent of the Civil Rights struggle for racial equality, Dr Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo), has just won the Nobel Prize for Peace, and given an acceptance speech that while he is happy to be acknowledged, there is still much work to be done. In Alabama, the deaths of four little girls in a racist bomb attack remains one of the worst atrocities carried out by those opposed to the movement, and other attacks continue as the promise of the right to vote for African Americans, which provides them with many other privileges that should be theirs as a matter of course, is being withheld as well...
Selma was a film that, when it was released, was looking back to the past, yet as the years went by it could be seen that it was also looking forward to the future, and that was not necessarily a good thing. There was assuredly optimism in the sentiment of "We shall overcome!" as expressed by King, but the fact that there was so much needed to be done, even in the following century, to eradicate racism that went so deep it was in the state of authority itself, was nothing to be pleased about. Yet often when this movie was brought up, it was complaints about its historical inaccuracies that were the focus of concern, most specifically the portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson).
He was shown in Ava DuVernay's picture as broadly pro-Civil Rights, yet worried that he would lose the votes of the South if he pushed that agenda too stridently. He was even seen going as far as encouraging FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to dig up some dirt on King to quash his revolutionary fervour, which did not happen - what was true was that Hoover despised the emancipation movement and did indeed tap King's phones, bug places he was staying, and generally kept tabs on him all in the hope he would slip up and provide Hoover with the ammo that would take him down for good. That King did actually slip up and have affairs is, to DuVernay's credit, not glossed over here and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta King was given proper prominence in the story.
But the social leader was not going to be tarnished by some very human flaws when his achievements were so much greater, and if Johnson's contribution was perhaps justifiably downplayed, he was not the villain as George Wallace (Tim Roth), Governor of Alabama, took that unlovely mantle, racially shit-stirring to whip up the anti-equality organisations and thugs in general to put down the uprising, a peaceful uprising lest we forget, as per King's instructions. Wallace here was an absolute creep, but you may rankle that his later in life reform was not mentioned - he went on to regret his actions in the sixties and seventies (an assassination attempt on you can do that to a man) and became a genuine force for good, indicating in the twenty-first century's craze for biopics, someone could make a very interesting one about him.
But it was King who was the hero in this, and Oyelowo gave a very decent reading of a noble, complex and brave man: all of that was there in his performance, though if anything he was a little too consistent when throwing in something unexpected could have promoted engaging acting to electrifying. That was a quibble, but really the main issue with Selma (the location of the march King organises) was that the entertainment value was ditched in favour of making the audience by turns outraged and depressed. Part of that was not DuVernay's fault, it was simply a matter of looking around the world and seeing the progress King and the marchers would have wanted was constantly being set back, with prejudice of all kinds fuelling the worst, least necessary aspects of human behaviour, but as a film this was, by design as well as accurately, somewhat one note. Yet it transcended those issues because it reminded you that the journey had to start somewhere, and was well enough delivered to awaken the spirit of the marcher in, well, not us all, but many of us. Music by Jason Moran (the overexplaining rap at the end is a bit of a misstep, mind).