Despite a relatively short life which ended in his assassination at 39 years of age, there are too many important events in the life of Martin Luther King for one film to reasonably cover. To achieve this would be to take from the exploration of the man himself which, as important as his accomplishments were, is every bit as fascinating.
To put it simply, the Selma March though perhaps not the most talked about of his demonstrations lends itself to drama and action the best. Short of telling the story of Rev. Luther Kings grizzly demise, that is.
Cynicism aside however, this film triumphs at just about everything it sets out to do.
As with all films with such a historic and influential figure as the main character, it’s only going to be as good as it’s central performance. In this case, David Oyelowo is transcendent (a word I swore I’d never use for acting) as Martin Luther King. Everything from his charisma to his cadence is right on point throughout the film, equally convincing when he’s delivering those stirring and rousing speeches to his followers as he is sharing sombre and uncertain moments with his wife.
The film opens with Luther King and his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) getting ready surrounded by the opulence their prominence has awarded them. All the while Luther King can’t help but voice his guilt for those that are less fortunate than him. But no sooner are we introduced to the man and his work, then are we witness to the murder of four small girls by a controlled explosion in a church. The imagery of these atrocities is dealt with skillfully, never lingering too long to glorify but just long enough to horrify.
From here it could easily have veered off into your regular didactic race-relations fare, yet for a movie released at a time when deadly racial tensions are still very much the topic of the day in America, it’s measured and sanguine execution becomes all the more timely.
Martin Luther King is painted as a man wise beyond his generation, a privy manipulator of the media, rallying his troops to areas where there was as much room for cameras and journalists as there was for peaceful protest.
He was content to send his message to the masses though the disgraceful actions of those against him. Even with headlines and video footage being ever more far-reaching and ubiquitous today, it’s difficult to envisage it being put to more effective use.
It even delves deeper into the fractious relationships he had with people attempting to fight the same cause as him but through different means, Malcolm X makes a brief (albeit very very convincing) appearance. It also goes into the crude acts of slander he had to endure as his influence began to permeate, that affected his marriage. (Although it has to be said there was more truth in these allegation than the film tries to let on).
That it’s directed by a relatively unknown only adds the movies success, Ava DuVernay is rightly the first black female director to be nominated for the Academy Award for best picture. Selma will do well to win, but it’s relevance will remain long after films like American Sniper become disregarded for they are.
Written by Shane Hennessy