Thursday, 08 January 2015 13:04

The Uncomfortable Brutality of Selma

Written by 

There’s a sense of unease running through the entirety of Selma, Director Ava DuVernay’s biopic of Martin Luther King Jr. and the struggle for voting rights in Alabama.

Rather than doing a full on film about MLK, DuVernay focuses on the spring of 1965 and King’s the three marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. These marches were protesting the state’s repression of African American voting and the racist culture engulfing them.

It is not a pretty time in our national history. It’s the spark that moved the issue of racial equality to the front page as nonviolent protestors were kicked, punched and brutally beaten. As the situation escalated the eyes of the world and America were watching with horror.

The movie deals with the players on all sides who through a series of unraveling events shaped this moment in the Civil Rights Movement. As President, Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) was a master at getting what he wanted from Congress. Here he finds himself pressured to pass equal rights legislation by both King and the American public. LBJ’s portrayal in the film has been a point of controversy in recent weeks but it is undeniable that he found himself in a politically perilous situation amidst the heat of 1965. Scenes of intense exchanges between King and LBJ drive the political intrigue of the film.

There’s also George Wallace (Tim Roth), the Governor of Alabama who remains steadfastly loyal to segregation despite a groundswell of public rage over his actions. As the planned marches from Selma to Montgomery continue, Wallace become more and more assertive in stopping the protests.

Leading the charge to freedom is Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo), a man with a lot of worry on his plate. As planning continues for the protests King has to micromanage LBJ into coming around as well as carefully negotiate an agreement with another Alabama protest group. If that were not enough, King and his group are being tracked by the FBI and threatened by hatemongers.

King is in a bad place. He has to hold his organization together and nonviolently lead the protests beyond racists, billieclub wielding law enforcement, scrutinizing critics and bickering politicos. All of this while trying to save his marriage. As the tension mounts and new challenges emerge, King transcends the movement he helped create, taking his place as a man of destiny.

As Martin Luther King Jr., David Oyelowo mimics the great preacher’s cadence and mannerisms while digging beneath the façade, giving audiences a view of MLK, which has not previously been depicted. Oyelowo is the very core of the film. His tenacious, sensitive and fiery interpretation is certainly Oscar worthy.

Also exceptional is Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, a woman whose contributions to civil rights have been recognized here. Ejogo gives us a woman who, although tired of living in fear, is as relentless as her husband in bringing voting rights for African Americans.

There has never been a genuinely real portrayal of Lyndon Johnson on film.

In Selma, Tom Wilkinson plays the commander in chief warts and all. In this violent spring of 1965 LBJ spent a lot of time snarling, thrashing and screaming as both the war in Vietnam and his civil rights agenda were wording beneath his feet. Wilkinson captures the President’s sense of frustration and anger as King marches, and the violent retribution against them continue.

Tim Roth is superbly fiendish as Wallace. He is easily villainous and there’s no hint of his native accent in his hateful venom.  Roth succeeds at the difficult task of making this contemptible bigot compelling.

Common plays King confident and friend James Bevel. There’s a nuanced sense of rage here shows how far Common has come as an actor. He seals the deal here in a riveting presentation.

Seeing the film in the context of recent events certainly is jarring. However, cinematically, Selma is an emotional and brutal account of how our nation trudged from the bloody pavement of the Edmund Pettus Bridge to The Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Ava DuVernay’s powerful depiction of this turbulent time is saturated with relentless realism, courageous poise and astute honesty as she brings this emotive odyssey to life without pulling any punches. Ugly and poignant, in your face, yet intimate, stark yet hopeful, her depiction of how King and his group of citizens, clergy and civic organizers overcame the darkness of this American contusion is one of the best films of the last year.

Selma opens this weekend in local theatres. For more info visit