Movie Review: ‘SELMA’ A Great Film of Power and Integrity

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Preston Barta // Editor


SELMA | 127 min. | Rated PG-13
Director: Ava DuVernay
Stars: David Oyelowo, Carmen EjogoWendell Pierce, Tom Wilkinson, Giovanni Ribisi, Tim Roth, Keith StanfieldHenry G. Sanders, Common, Oprah Winfrey and Martin Sheen

At times, historical films can be difficult to appreciate. We already know the outcome. All our lives we have read books, seen video and heard countless stories of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his accomplishments. SELMA, however, delves deeper than retelling the history of Dr. King; it invokes his humanity.

SELMA is a microcosm of three crucial months when Dr. King led a nonviolent groundswell, convincing President Lyndon B. Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In a time when our country is in disorder over the ever-present specter of race and politics, SELMA enters theaters laying bare how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go. This film bears profound respect for Dr. King, no doubt, but also a raw and emotional honesty that director Ava DuVernay (I WILL FOLLOW) and first-time feature screenwriter Paul Webb choose to share. Absent is the bright and peachy pastel we have come to expect from modern biopics. Rather than taking the uncomplicated route of documenting Dr. King’s breakthroughs, SELMA conveys the character, both great and tragic, of one of the most important figures in the fight for civil rights. DuVernay and Webb lay it all out and leave it to audiences to decide if what happened behind closed doors and off the record is good enough to look past.

The greatest triumph of SELMA is David Oyelowo’s (LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER) towering performance as the man himself. His speeches, actions, and moving words are far from a man doing an impression. Oyelowo fully captures Dr. King’s mannerisms, articulation, and appearance with great authenticity. It is a performance that has and will continue to shake ground in terms of awards talk.

L-R, Colman Domingo as Rev. Ralph Abernathy, David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, André Holland as Andrew Young, and Stephan James as John Lewis in SELMA. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

L-R, Colman Domingo as Rev. Ralph Abernathy, David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, André Holland as Andrew Young, and Stephan James as John Lewis in SELMA. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

DuVernay doesn’t fall short with her strong supporting cast either, all of whom she utilizes at the proper moment. Tim Roth’s (PULP FICTION) treacherous Alabama Governor George Wallace is hard and focused, embodying the mindset of every unfortunate person of hate from this chapter of history. Tom Wilkinson (MICHAEL CLAYTON) serves well as President Johnson, and has many opportunities to stand out in his respective scenes. With no more than just a few moments of screen-time apiece, Henry G. Sanders (ROCKY BALBOA) and Keith Stanfield (SHORT TERM 12) serve as the heart of the film in many ways, portraying two supporters of Dr. King’s movement. Oprah Winfrey and Lorraine Toussaint (ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK) also proficiently execute their roles as women who want to vote and will not give up on that dream.

The smooth and spirited manner in which SELMA presents itself echoes the work of those behind the camera as well. Bradford Young (A MOST VIOLENT YEAR) shows great promise with his career as a cinematographer. His camera skills are bound to be compared to the likes of Roger Deakins (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) and Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD). Spencer Averick (MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, also directed by DuVernay) edits SELMA with a steady pace that keeps audiences engaged throughout. And composer Jason Moran, who worked lightly on 2006’s HOLLYWOODLAND, provides a score that is both engrossing and justified in its usage.

SELMA is an important film that will undoubtedly transcend time and become a lasting contribution to the portrayal of the Civil Rights movement. It would be hard to believe that the events of this movie happened only half a century ago but for the recent headlines reminding us that we still have a long way to go.

SELMA opens tomorrow.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.