Oyelowo Astounds In Otherwise Middling "Selma"

The journey of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a thoroughly American one, epitomized in his involvement with the infamous 1965 civil rights marches that began in Selma, Alabama. His time there saw both the best and worst of humanity, the past, present, and future of America terrifyingly sprawled out before him. Violence, revolution, hope, and despair. But mostly hope. History came calling and King answered, as only he was equipped to do.

Fifty years on, no one’s made a definitive filmic portrait of the man, a task curiously left here to British actor David Oyelowo (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”). It’s a left-field casting choice that ends up making “Selma,” a film of formulaic, awards-y tendencies that ends up being completely overpowered by one of the year’s great performances.

Director Ava DuVernay knows that Oyelowo is her biggest asset, photographing him from the side and behind frequently, where he’s King’s spitting image. Combined with a note-perfect interpretation of the doctor’s inimitable speaking voice, the performance proves electric.

Fellow Briton Carmen Ejogo (“Sparkle”) is nearly as good as King’s wife Coretta, the two efficiently peeling back the layers of their relationship in the pic’s most intimate scenes. Since Paul Webb’s screenplay is a snapshot in time rather than a traditional biopic, Coretta is even more vital to rounding out King. His alleged philandering is tackled head on, made all the more crushing by Coretta’s strength in the face of danger – corporeal or otherwise.

The screenplay itself isn’t nearly as strong, infrequently finding emotional impact. There’s no rhythm in its parceling out of out the run-up to Selma and the resulting marches, and it has no idea what to do with its surplus of supporting characters. President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) is given predictably surface-level treatment as a self-serving suit, while Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) is little more than a caricature of a racist. These depictions may be true to life, but they’re paper-thin.

Oprah Winfrey is the stand out supporting player, delivering some of her best work to date as an Alabamian denied voting privileges in what amounts to little more than a cameo. Other name character actors – Dylan Baker, Stephen Root, Giovanni Ribisi – show up in equally small parts, failing to fill out the whole significance of the story.

Apart from Oyelowo and Ejogo, the film’s biggest strength is its depiction of the FBI’s trailing of King. Marked by onscreen type – always ending with an ominous “LOGGED” – it hints at the deeply sinister blowback King faced not only from bigots but actual government entities. Unfortunately it’s never expanded upon, joining other story elements – like the murder of a white pro-civil rights minister – as subplots that fail to come together with King’s story in any meaningful way.

Ultimately “Selma” doesn’t know whether it’s telling the story of King or the Selma marches – two intertwined but distinct things – failing to effectively embody its thesis, that King needed Selma just as much as Selma needed King. Perhaps most problematically, the violence has been sanitized for a PG-13 rating, blunting the impact of the devastating real-life violence with strangely glossy, stylized visuals.

The film is an admirably humanist piece that gets by on the excellence emanated by its lead, but the whole is unfocused and inappropriately sterile. King was a richer personality than “Selma” gets at and the events depicted weren’t so sweepingly cinematic. They were horrifying. Yet, Oyelowo is the real deal, monumental in a film that isn’t, muscling a middling historical drama into something absolutely worth seeing.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: December 25, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Ava DuVernay
Screenwriter: Paul Webb
Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Tom Wilkinson, Giovanni Ribisi, Oprah Winfrey, Alessandro Nivola, Common, Lorraine Toussaint, Martin Sheen
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language)