Ava DuVernay’s Selma is a near-perfect film.
The reason for its brilliance and perhaps why Selma is the best studio film of this year is that the flick moves in very subtle ways, and goes small when we expect it to go big.
This account of Martin Luther King Jr. (a brilliantly positioned David Oyelowo) using non-violence in support of John Bevel, (Common) to protest voting rights in Alabama in the early 1960’s, works so effectively mainly because it is not a larger-than-life portrayal of MLK.
In fact, the opening shot of Oyelowo as MLK is from the rear, and, at times, DuVernay denies her audience the chance to see Dr. King head-on, exploring her subject from the side, underneath, from far away…it is unbelievable the trust that she places in cinematographer Bradford Young, as well as in her own abilities as a storyteller. While the script is written by Paul Webb, it is rumoured that DuVernay contributed to the screenplay. She also shows unbelievable poise as a filmmaker which is only hinted upon in her last previous endeavour, Middle of Nowhere, which also starred Oyelowo. Simply put, this story would not have been as effective had it been done in a grandiose style.
DuVernay is somehow able to wring the most heartfelt performances out of her cast, especially Oyelowo, but Selma is very much female-driven as Carmen Ejogo, (who, like Oyelowo is British, but you would never know it), brilliantly plays Coretta Scott King, (for the second time in her career), and Lourriane Toussaint, (Vee from OITNB), Tessa Thompson, Niecy Nash, and Oprah Winfrey are all extremely wonderful in their often limited screen time, as glances and stolen looks are able to effectively communicate so much in this extremely subtle film.
This subtle brilliance at play is perhaps why it is upsetting that elements of the closing half of the film seems so unnecessary. In a speech by Lyndon Johnson, (an effective Tom Wilkinson), an allusion is made to a future time, which feels so out of place in the film, which up to this point, has the impression of feeling timeless.
It almost appears as though DuVernay trusts her audience to make their own conclusions, and fill in their own gaps along the way, but upsettingly feels the need to beat them over the head with historical significance. The film did not need a cheat sheet as to its thematic linkage, as it more than easily stands up on its own merits. Furthermore, in an extremely informative and quite devastating recap of the film’s protagonists face later in their lives, as well as that of the antagonists, certain details seem to be omitted in the interest of furthering the sense of justice, which seemed counterintuitive to the main point of the film, which is that, quite often, the righteous feel injustice and the unjust are not punished for their misdoings.
If Selma had followed the strength of its own conviction right up until the end, then we may have been talking about this film as an all-timer. As it is, Selma is an emotionally powerful and rarely preachy film, (surprising, considering that MLK was in fact a pastor). Scenes of joy and deep sorrow are gorgeously rendered, and the real-life footage spliced in at the end of the film mixed with recreated is done effortlessly and mightily. Most tellingly, Selma is shown to be a march that hasn’t ended, and this film gloriously marches to the beat of its own drum.