We’re mercifully spared another awards-season biopic, as the film focuses sharply on a chapter of American history, rather than attempting to squeeze a man’s entire (albeit devastatingly short) life into a few hours. It’s more interested in its politics than its characters, and is more interesting when exploring the tensions between black and white America than between Dr. King and his wife (Carmen Ejogo). Her’s is a typically muted female part for this kind of film; her sole role is to threaten to hold back this brilliant man.
President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) doesn’t fare much better, portrayed by the movie (at least initially) as an opponent of civil rights, when he was really a great reformer. Of course, films exercise a certain amount of artistic license, and it serves the story well to make the White House an antagonist. But it seems unfair to misrepresent a dead president over one of the things he actually got right.
Wilkinson’s performance, however, is uncanny; one of several British actors totally convincing as Americans, alongside Tim Roth and of course David Oyelowo in the lead. The cast is full of A-listers, including Martin Sheen (uncredited), Cuba Gooding Jr. (is he still an A-lister?) and producer Oprah Winfrey (she’s an O-lister, which is actually higher than an A-lister despite coming later in the alphabet). But it’s Oyelowo who stands out, filling Dr. King’s shoes with conviction, intelligence and that famous preacher’s voice.
As with Get On Up (the brilliant James Brown biopic starring Chadwick Boseman), it seems Hollywood was waiting for the right person to play this iconic part, and boy did they find him. Boseman and Oyelowo are both notably absent from the Academy’s Best Actor category, which seems strange, to say the least. Bradley Cooper and Steve Carell are nominated for god’s sake. Steve Carell. Get it together, Hollywood.
The film undergoes a similar lapse in its weird emphasis on the murder of one white pastor, compared with the countless black protestors victimised up to that point. Nevertheless, this is an admirable and inspiring film about a great man, who won a Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35. That’s older than Malala but still younger than Obama, who should feel ashamed by comparison, but probably doesn’t.
Writer Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay (who reportedly performed a significant script rewrite) impressively capture King’s essence in original speeches, because his celebrated oratory works are actually out of bounds for intellectual property purposes; another reason it’s taken so long for an MLK movie to be made. Apparently many of the speeches are licensed for a potential Spielberg production that’s already guaranteed to win every award for which Selma has been snubbed.
You won’t find DuVernay amongst the Oscar nominees either (Steve Carell?!), despite the stylish composure she brings to Selma; a flawed but focused film about the brutality of those who oppress, and the dignity of those who resist.