If ever there was a film that has completely tapped into the zeitgeist of 2014, it would be Selma. The film, about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) as he attempts to stage the Selma to Montgomery marches, is a gritty tale of black and white relations in Civil Rights era America. However, it is difficult not to see shades of what we have seen on our televisions during the Ferguson and New York City incidents of the past few months. While this allows the film to generate some really powerful moments, it also reveals many missed opportunities. Selma is an up and down affair. There are the great moments but there are also many moments that have a feeling of “been there, done that”.
Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the biggest heroes in American history, and, like many of America’s biggest heroes, there have only been a handful of good film portrayals of him (other media is a different story as it was only just this past spring that Brandon J. Dirden delivered a powerful portrayal of the man on Broadway in All the Way). So it was nice to see that this film took the approach at studying MLK through just one major event in his life, the organization of the Selma marches. This was a method that worked quite well for Steven Spielberg and Lincoln. British thespian David Oyelowo does a commendable job at portraying Martin Luther King Jr., and director Ava DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb do a great job of balancing the small and imitate moments involving the man with the larger than life moments that make him so immortal in American history.
The problem with this film is that large portions of the rest of the film aren’t so balanced. The violence (while it was certainly harsh in real life) can feel cartoony at times with how quickly it ramps up (a sequence on a bridge is an exception as it is so beautifully filmed). Meanwhile, DuVernay and Webb seem to have too much on their plate as many storylines, including MLK’s relationship with Coretta Scott King (a fantastic performance from Carmen Ejogo), seem to get the short end of the stick.
In total, Selma is a film that at times truly captures the immense power of its main subject matter, but most of the time comes across as a well intended film that just isn’t hitting all of its notes.