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


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

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.