Film Review: Selma (M) (USA, 2014)

selma

In 1968, Martin Luther King, a pastor, humanitarian and African-American civil rights activist, was shot dead in Memphis, Tennessee whilst organising a peace protest. He was 39 years old.

Four years prior in 1965, King led 600 people through Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama in a mass protest to secure the rights for African Americans to vote without fear and in the spirit of freedom.

Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, follows King (played wonderfully by David Oyelowo) as he and his fellow protestors made their way from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama, in what history would later call the Selma Voting Rights Movement.

How an Australian would view this film could be different to how an American would view this film. For many outside the USA, it’s a biopic, a film well crafted and well acted enough to be nominated for 2 Golden Globe awards (for Best Picture and Best Actor).

An American may also view it the same way, but in the current climate, amidst the Ferguson unrest, the movement behind I Can’t Breathe that stems from slain black man Eric Garner’s last words and the last of Barack Obama’s presidency, this will have meaning many Australians might not grasp on a deeper, personal level.

It is, however, a great film. If you want to see a film that will get you thinking about how far the Civil Rights Movement has come, this is the film to see. If you want to see some great performances from Carmen Ejogo (Coretta, King’s wife) and Tom Wilkinson (President Lydon Johnson) among others, along with cameos from Cuba Gooding Jr., Oprah Winfrey, Common, Tim Roth, Giovanni Ribisi and Stephen Root, this is the film to see.

Before you go to see it, it might be best to brush up on some basic knowledge of the African-American Civil Rights movement in 1960s beforehand. This was a time when segregation was still in force and troops were still being sent to Vietnam. It’s important to know because this movement did not grow in a vacuum, nor are the people involved thrust into this situation, by any stretch. Oprah Winfrey plays a woman who was denied the right to vote, and after a difficult scene at a government office where she is asked to regurgitate some random bogus trivia, you wonder if this is what people feel when going through a weird citizenship test.

Another scene involved an elderly protester, who said he was born in the late 1800’s, and you remember that Dr. King’s elderly followers would have lived through being born and raised as slaves. It’s a life we don’t have any personal knowledge of.

What’s striking about what happening in Selma is how King mobilised and encouraged his followers to protest. There was no social media, no hashtag activism, so his message had to hit home, and hit home with force. He championed non-violence but he also wanted to use the media to spread his message. He was known as a great orator but his speeches were not via a YouTube clip spread on Twitter or through Upworthy’s click bait headlines. For anyone who has ever wondered what liking a GetUp status update on Facebook really does to save the world, Selma will make you rethink your involvement, and probably encourage you to take a more active part in the causes you supposedly feel so strongly about. We’re all guilty of it!

Selma is an important film, particularly in today’s uneasy climate of race relations. That two of its production companies, Harpo Films (Oprah Winfrey’s company) and Plan B Entertainment (Brad Pitt’s company), were involved, shows just how important a story this is for Hollywood to tell. But the fact that it was snubbed in most categories (including Best Actor) for this year’s Oscars also shows us that Selma, to some, is just a history lesson in a film, rather a important story about an iconic leader in an incomparable era of change.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Selma screened and was reviewed at a special screening as part of the St George Open Air Cinema series in Sydney. It is released nationally this Thursday, February 5th.