Another week another Oscar worthy film finally arrives in the UK a month and a bit after it’s North American release. Selma is directed by Ava DuVernay and stars David Oyelowo as Dr Martin Luther King Jr. It centres on his efforts to secure voting rights for African Americans as he uses the southern town of Selma as the battle ground to raise awareness of the issue and bring pressure to bare on President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The film shows the rampant racism of the era, the premeditated violence, the tactics employed by both sides and the behind the scene politics. It is no accident that I chose the photo above as Mr Oyelowo saves Selma from becoming a a very worthy but seriously boring film. The highlights of the film are the speeches he gives and the humanity he brings to a now almost mythical historical character. I also picked out a young man called Stephan James who plays a local activist by the name of John Lewes. He doesn’t get a lot of screen time but he has a presence you don’t see that often and he stood out from the crowd.
Where the film doesn’t succeed is that it failed to capture my heart. If I am going to enjoy a drama like this I need to find a reason to care. As a middle class white man from the UK I don’t have a personal stake in the story. I’ve never experienced racism, I’ve never been denied the right to vote and I don’t have American relatives who lived through this period of modern history. As such the film makers need to draw me into the story. That didn’t happen. I went into Selma wandering what was it that set Dr King apart and left the screening wondering the same thing. Why did he do what he did? Why did any of these people risk what they did? As such when the big emotional pay off should have arrived I felt flat.
This particular story would have been best told as a documentary. When you see the real life film of the events that is tagged onto the end you see the joy in the people’s faces and how natural it all is. In contrast the film is all very stoic and upstanding. Selma is an important story that deserves to be told but I don’t think this was the best vehicle. I’m looking forward to a true Dr Martin Luther King Jr biopic. My rating 3/5.