Socialist Worker

Selma: politically astute portrait brings a movement to life

by Dominic and Hesketh Benoit
Issue No. 2439

Oprah Winfrey as one of the Civil Rights activists assaulted by police on Bloody Sunday

Oprah Winfrey as one of the Civil Rights activists assaulted by police on 'Bloody Sunday'


The film Selma depicts the events leading up to Dr Martin Luther King’s historic march from Selma, Alabama, to the capital Montgomery.

Director Ava DuVernay revisits those events with frank immediacy and dramatic flair. Her shrewd portrait of the Civil Rights movement—and King himself—at a critical crossroads is as politically astute as it is psychologically aware. She manages to avoid making it either a dutiful biopic or a stale history lesson.

DuVernay gives the audience a human scale King, rather than the public face typified by his “I have a dream” speech. 

King is presented as a valiant leader sullied by weariness, self-doubt and FBI-sponsored subversion.

The portrayal is bolstered by Paul Webb’s intricate, well-researched script. 

Captivating

British actor David Oyelowo’s attentive lead performance is captivating and he is able to fully channel King’s tenacious vigour—save for a few accent slip-ups. 

The film has many solid and highly contextualised performances, showing the extremes of the 1960s US.

Tim Roth as racist Alabama governor George Wallace, rapper Common as civil rights leader James Bevel and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King stand out.

The sheer enormity of King’s achievements make him a daunting subject for a biopic. 

But Selma tackles it by focusing on a section of his story that feels somehow representative of his journey as a whole. 

Hunger

This approach recalls Steve McQueen’s Hunger, which examined Bobby Sands and the IRA Hunger Strikes.

It resembles Selma in its fascination with the contentious politics, charismatic leadership and government and media manipulation. 

While the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act had legally desegregated the South, towns like Selma remained very dangerous places to be a black person. 

DuVernay has made the kind of film which is a catalyst for curiosity and a bastion for social justice.

It sharpens one’s sense to the ways in which King’s ethics, and the struggle for voting rights are still relevant today. 

When presented with the horrific violence that police subjected protesters to in 1965, one can’t help but think of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri.

In 2014, unarmed protesters were subjected to similarly violent acts by representatives of the state. 

DuVernay goads audiences to question what indeed has changed in US society, where politicised acts of violence are able to take place, both domestically and internationally. 

It is evident that she remains sympathetic to the protesters throughout.

Selma is an unflinching account of our recent political past. It should be able to shake the most apathetic from their despondency.

Selma goes on general release on Friday 6 February

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