selma_1Year: 2014
Director: Ava DuVernay
Writer(s): Paul Webb
Region of Origin: US
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: PG-13
Digital, Color, 127 mins

Synopsis: A chronicle of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. (Source)

Selma is proof that voice, art and ideas are the real weapons, not violence and fear. It’s downright chilling to look at the events of the film, a depiction of 1964 inequality and see how precise they are in evoking present day injustice. Never before has a film been as necessary than this, contrasting a period full of hate and violent retaliation with a world that banded together to make things right. Ava DuVernay’s film dares to remind us of the past to show us a solution for the future, a place where we can all act together to treat each other like equal human beings. Breathlessly executed, smart and emotional, Selma is a damning indictment of how we’ve forgotten our past and are doomed to relive it, but it’s also a beacon of hope, and a call to find peace amidst the chaos and noise.

The film focuses on the pivotal events which lead to the epic Selma voting rights marches, a peaceful protest that eventually lead to President Lyndon signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The film starts off with a contrast of events, Martin Luther King, Jr. winning the Nobel Peace Price and a church bombing of four black schoolgirls in Birmingham, Alabama. With racial violence against African-Americans mounting but no criminals being brought to justice, King and members of the SCLC and SNCC focus their campaign efforts to Selma, Alabama. Though racial desegregation has already taken place, there is still a lot of deep-seated, illegal discrimination happening, preventing racially mixed juries and fair diplomacy from making sure racial crime and injustice doesn’t slip through the cracks. Despite an uphill battle and brutal sacrifice, the film is about those who would use their voice in the face of danger in order to win equality and fight years of deeply-rooted racism.

Conceptually, what’s most terrifying about the film is that it’s premise doesn’t sound out of place with what’s happening today. Rather than giving us another Oscar-bait period biopic, DuVernay’s film is a focused effort that gives equal precedence to King, one of the leaders behind the story’s victory, but also the men and women in the movement who where willing to sacrifice everything in order to ensure peace and justice. Because of this, the film isn’t just a singular character study, but of how convictions spread to a host of others. In essence, the film is about ideas more than anything else, and the fundamental concept of Democracy, in which we all have a say in our future, and can come together in beneficial compromise in favor of one another. DeVernay’s film comes across as an incendiary piece of filmmaking, taut with tension, but illustrating a smart plea for human decency. She never shies away from brutality when it’s needed, but it’s all in service to something greater, never feeling manipulative or angry, but instead urgent and resonant.

selma_3On the performance front, there isn’t a weak link here, with David Oyelowo and a well-rounded cast driving things home with ferocity and clarity. Oyelowo as King grounds the role to a relatable man who is juggling the burden of an entire race with his family responsibilities. As the face of the film’s premise, he’s a great embodiment of the story’s needed sensitivity, patience and determination. It’s a lot to handle, but he does it with charm and naturalism. Adding to his performance are some great turns by Stephan James as a fellow SNCC member, Carmen Ejogo as King’s loyal wife and Keith Stanfield and Henry G. Sanders, as a grandson and grandfather respectively who share one of the film’s most powerful scenes.

It’s disheartening to see racism as still a major problem today, and Selma is an extraordinary effort that reminds us of how it should never be treated lightly. These are people’s lives at stake, and we’re only hurting ourselves as a society for the injustices being caused every day. Ava DuVernay’s film is a brave, moment of clarity and should be considered mandatory viewing for anyone who wishes to call themselves American – not out of some unfounded cry for false patriotism, but out of common decency and respect for life. You’d be hard pressed to find a more important film out there right now; this is truly a once in a generation thing, expertly crafted through thought-provoking writing, vivid photography by Bradford Young, and a positive example for us to all aspire to. Equality shouldn’t just be a dream, we should all take Selma’s challenge to make it a reality.

SG