There is something that seems suspect about director Ava Duvernay's Selma. It isn't any potential historical inaccuracies. It isn't that the film seems shoddily made. It is more the relevance that it manages to have in the current moment. Compared to most other 2014 biopics such as The Theory of Everything or The Imitation Game, the events of Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and the protesters who marched feel like supplants for contemporary news such the Ferguson riots or Eric Garner. Thankfully, the film itself still manages to feel relevant and comes spiked with triumph in ways that don't make this just the story of King, but of a country at a cross section, wishing to better itself against prejudices ranging from law to race.
While there's been a large sincerity in bringing civil rights stories to life in recent years with the likes of Lincoln and The Help, there hasn't really been a ferocity to them that makes it feel like anything crucial or relevant. In most cases, the sympathetic characters is enough for the film to claim its duty of pointing out the downside to racism. With Selma, it immediately throws the audience into the scene with a purposefully jarring opening that only paves the ways for more violence and brutality that at times feels borderline manipulative but serves its purpose with establishing the bigger picture. The march to Selma was met with many perils and in said scene, chaos reigns as white police officers on horseback assault harmless protesters. The scene plays like a war scene out of Apocalypse Now, full of uncertainty and confusion. However, it wasn't in Vietnam. It was in the rural American south. Whether this was the intent or coincidence, it helps to properly paint Selma as the civil rights war movie.
In fact, the film isn't specifically about King. While he is a central protagonist forced to deal with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and the racist Governor Wallace (Tim Roth), the story is more about the city and the mindset. King is simply a figure leading the march and dealing with every backlash, both big and small. Still, it is compelling to see the conflict rage between King and Johnson, who remains helpful yet reluctant to fix everything. Between King's private life with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) and his public one, he is just as flawed as the enemy, though his intentions are in the right place.
The film shines best when King is forced to stand up and speak. Embracing the physicality to the performance, Oyelowo shines as the confident showman ready to lead his peers to a potential victory. There's a lingering sense of hope in his eyes as he provokes others and the call for unity makes plenty of sense. While the supporting cast is full of noteworthy actors, they serve more as a mass, blurring together to form a force against racism. It may be the film's biggest asset and detriment, resulting in a sensational personification of the events while also not allowing too many subplots to feel integral to the story. True, the violence is tragic, but the expendable nature of specific supporting actors diminishes some intensity and impact.
This isn't to say that the film is bad. In fact, it is rather impressive, occasionally pulling back from the violence to show a harsher realities. There are those forever scarred, both physically and mentally, from the story of Selma. Some die while others mourn. It is the film's essential element that Duvernay excellently captures in a few quiet moments that allow the entire thing to have more stakes. Despite racial context, it becomes more about the human condition and injustice. How does one continue after such struggles? Oyelowo makes King a force of nature not by continually being extroverted, but concerned and weary. He is human and thus despite being a grand political figure in American history, feels more tangible than if he were to pontificate for two hours (which Oyelowo is good at, anyways).
Selma is a film that feels too relevant to the era and thus may give it an unexpected legacy as a film searching for justice. While this is easy to overshadow the film's actually quality (which is still good), it implicitly elevates it and makes it more demanding. True, more contemporary cinema about racial tensions could spark equal debate if given the chance, but for those wanting an accessible look into a touchy subject, Selma is rather successful in providing something that is just as much informative of then as it is of explaining now.With intensity and personification, there's a lot that is done right and makes this an admirable film. It may not be the conventional King biopic we wanted, but it is the one that speaks to a greater, more important context.