Ava DuVernay / David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Giovanni Ribisi / Drama / 2015 / 12A / 128mins
Individuals deserve acclaim, some sainthood. Martin Luther King Jr was, undoubtedly, a saint.
An advocate of nonviolence based on his Christian beliefs, King advanced the African American Civil Rights Movement whilst simultaneously establishing a reputation as one of the greatest speakers in American history. He won the Nobel Peace Prize, unthinkable for an African American in the 60s, and has a holiday in his honour, such is his stature.
But you probably knew all that anyway.
Normally I’m inclined to move on and not dwell on the past. Hakuna Matata and all that jazz. Circumstance allows exception. In my case, film is a gateway to the past. Dramatised, admittedly, but nonetheless essential.
Biopics are commonplace in the cinematic canon, so a King drama was always a question of when, not if. Who to play this illustrious of men? A Brit, no less. David Oyelowo, a relative unknown, especially in the US. This is a perfect casting tactic, one I like to call ‘The Ben Kingsley’; an established actor can sometimes struggle to live up to expectation, or fail to inhabit the caricature of the public persona in question. Real people, lest we forget, are not characters (although their public image is… but let’s ignore that for now). A fictional character, on the other hand, is easy to inhabit. Ever wondered why actors who play real people seem to nab Oscars? This is why.
But I digress. Oyelowo’s casting is great for the above tactic and for the fact that he is simply outstanding. There was anger when he didn’t get nominated for an Oscar and I can see why. He has the composure of an acting veteran, an elevated presence that isn’t just forced centre stage by camerawork but grabs it by the throat and demands attention. He doesn’t look much like the man but my word he’s captured the emotion, the raw veracity the White South despises. Listen to his delivery; of course the speeches are an opportunity to draw pedigree, but Oyelowo makes certain they are charismatic spectacles.
If the lead wasn’t enough to convince you, the rest of the talent certainly make for fine opposition. Although I’m forced to concede that there might be a bit too much going on. Despite their acting credentials, director Ava DuVernay’s attempt at collage doesn’t impress nearly as much as it should. Each character has some ‘moment’, their 5 minutes of fame, in the narrative. Is it necessary? DuVernay seems to be half assing: on the one hand there’s the sole King drama, the other the social event that was the Selma march. Pick one.
Selma‘s so close to being a victorious classic held aloft on the shoulders of Ali and Ray. Instead, it’s a great film – a standout of 2015, perhaps this decade, but not a film for a lifetime; ultimately let down by a forced cohesion of style. Yet, anyone with half a curious mind will find their intrigue quenched.
Film as a Film – 3 / Target Audience – 4 / General Audience – 4
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