In terms of time-frame, Selma may appear to sit a little awkwardly for some: It starts after King’s famous ‘I Have a Dream,’ speech and ends well before his death in 1968. But this is intended to be no full biopic; instead focusing attention on 1964 when King is petitioning to ensure that black people are allowed their right-to-vote in the freshly de-segregated southern states without facing intimation or racists polling clerks.
A fifty mile protest march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery is planned but the peaceful march is met by a violent, sickening police response. These scenes are emotive and professionally handled but fail to be truly cinematic or bold, at times giving Selma the feel of a TV drama with better casting and a slightly higher budget.
While her direction may be unambitious, DuVernay at least knows how to get superb performances out of her actors. Aside from an uncanny approximation of Dr. King’s voice, David Oyelowo is sublime and disgustingly overlooked at the Oscars, Wilkinson brings gravitas and strength to the role of President Lyndon B. Johnson and Winfrey has a dignified turn as a would-be voter denied her rights by a racist bureaucrat. As Alabama governor George Wallace Roth at times strays a little close to pantomime villain, but he is clearly having fun and it could be argued that with a curious lack of dramatic explosiveness Selma benefits from having an obvious boo-hiss bad-guy.
Oyelowo nails a series of rousing speeches and these, along with a scene involving King visiting the elderly father of a young-man needlessly shot to death by police provide the real emotional highs and truly raise Selma into the realms of the memorable, the hair-raising or the harrowing.
The Verdict: The lead performances match if not better anything captured on camera in the last year and raise a good, serviceable drama into noteworthy territory. The subject matter means you can’t help but leave the cinema in a reflective, contemplative mood; and as competently as Selma is made and as high as it soars on occasion you can’t help but have the feeling that it should have gone much further and done much more.