Selma – Film Review

The controversial story of America's civil rights marches prickles with violence and emotion

Californian director Ava DuVernay’s latest film is already engulfed in controversy. Selma tells the story of the 1965 voting rights marches between Alabama cities Selma and Montgomery that were spearheaded by Martin Luther King Jr. A pivotal episode in American history, it lends itself to a weighty historical drama, but Selma has been hit with allegations of historical inaccuracies in its portrayal of President Lyndon B Johnson. DuVernay paints Johnson as broadly sympathetic to black-American voting rights, but shows him dragging his heels until King’s peaceful campaign becomes headline news, at which point he sends a bill to Congress. Several of Johnson’s former colleagues have claimed he played a more active role. DuVernay – who worked as a journalist for American news channel CBS during the OJ Simpson trial and later launched a film publicity company – has defended her depiction of Johnson. In December, she tweeted, “LBJ’s stall on voting isn’t fantasy made up for a film.” The debate is likely to continue as Selma competes for the Best Picture prize at the Oscars this month, but this film has plenty to recommend it.

It’s driven by a brilliant performance from British actor David Oyelowo, who captures King’s charisma as a leader and public speaker while also conveying the immense guilt he feels whenever his campaign leads to bloodshed. An encounter between King and an elderly black Selma resident whose grandson has just been shot by a white policeman is especially moving. Both men’s eyes fill with tears as they contemplate the overwhelming injustice of the situation, and King poignantly places a hand on the bereaved grandparent’s shoulder.

Oyelowo excels at revealing King’s flaws, too. There are several memorable exchanges with his neglected wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo, who played the same character in 2001’s Boycott). In one terrifically prickly scene, Coretta confronts her husband about his adultery. “Do you love the others, too?” she asks. Unable to lie to his loyal partner, he simply replies, “No.””

King’s clashes with President Johnson (Michael Clayton‘s Tom Wilkinson) also crackle with tension, but Selma is most powerful when vividly recreating the marches along the 54-mile highway between the two cities. The brutality of the first one is shot with wince-inducing detail. As black activists begin their peaceful journey, police officers armed with whips and batons attack viciously. A palpable sense of history in the making, intensified by clever camerawork, fuels the final march, and culminates in a stirring speech from King.

To separate Selma from its fug of controversy is to unearth a seriously impressive film. Gripping and affecting, it will live long in the memory, if not solely for the reasons its maker would like.