Every year we are given on-screen history lessons. These lessons can often be dreary and redundant, because they rarely teach us anything new, and instead are meant to be reminders. They are meant to slap us with truth so that we never forget what, and where, we once were. So we always sit through them, even though we know what will happen. Even though they make us uncomfortable or stir up our deepest regrets and resentments. But… every so often, a history lecture can hit us at just the right time to invoke something more. And striking the right chord is how a history lesson becomes a beautiful sermon. Selma is a beautiful sermon.
The film tells the story of the marches from the rural Alabama town of Selma to the state capitol of Montgomery in 1965 as blacks fight the harsh, non-violent fight to gain voting equality, led by Dr. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo). They are continuously met with violence fueled by racial hatred along their journey, but you can learn this in any 20th century American History course. Where Director, Ava DuVerney’s film shines is in its ability to understand its own relevance. Instead of just hitting us with facts and powerful imagery, we are given perspectives. We are shown why a simple protest was so important. We are given the step by step political and intellectual steps taken to cross this historical hurdle. And in doing so, we leave not just reminiscing on a dark time in American history, but instead thinking about what we can do to further our progress as a people.
Masterful performances help push DuVerney’s ambitious narrative. Tom Wilkinson is wonderfully shifty as President Lyndon B. Johnson and Tim Roth is brilliant as snake-like, Alabama Governor George Wallace. Oyelowo conjures up the necessary skills to make a convincing MLK and Carmen Ejogo is the spitting image of his wife, Coretta. This film pleasantly humanizes the civil rights legend the way no other film ever has. And because of that, we are able to further appreciate the works of his pivotal and equally valiant entourage (Wendell Pierce, Common, Oprah Winfrey, Keith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Stephan James) while also rooting for a very vulnerable Dr. King.
Selma may be a history lesson, but along the way, it ceases being history and begins to feel like modern social commentary. And it should be, because we haven’t come as long as we may think and there is still work to be done. Other films may remind us of this, but few manage to break down the intricacies of revolution the way this up-and-coming director has. This lesson gives us each indelible perspective coupled with the harsh truth to create something reminiscent and poignant. And there is so much more power in poignancy.
FINAL GRADE: A