Selma delivers. Yes, it does. From the opening scene involving four black girls in a church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, to the end after a successful third try of a historic civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in March 1965.
Let's be clear. Although the film Selma is unflinchingly searing in key dramatic scenes, it also sings with a diverse ensemble of talented acting. And this also makes it soar.
Thus because of such diversity in exceptional acting, all of whom have taken on their roles in retelling those historic moments in March of 1965, Selma is more of a civil rights film than a biographical film about Martin Luther King, Jr. Though his character is the vanguard in the film.
"Negotiate...demonstrate...and resist, that's all. And hopefully to raise white consciousness," says Martin Luther King, Jr, acted by British actor David Oyelowo born from Nigerian parents, as he confronts the two black youths James Forman and John Lewis. It was a scene in the film when MLK and his lieutenants were frustrated with the two young men of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), whereas there having been a lack of progress in Selma. A city in Alabama then in March of 1965, where although blacks were 50 % of the population, only 1% of those were registered to vote! And from that day forward, the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) joined with the SNCC to power voting rights efforts for blacks.
By not overdoing a southern accent while also reportedly voluntarily putting on some weight for the role, actor David Oyelowo shines in this film. And he's not the only one. They all shine.
British actress Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King as the wife of MLK. Together in certain scenes, you witness also the strain the civil rights movement have placed upon their marriage. Yet luckily while MLK had his close friends/advisers to lean on as a sounding board while away from family, Coretta Scott King was also not alone.
Enter civil rights leader Amelia Boynton, played by actress Lorraine Toussaint also known for her role in the hit cable TV comedy Orange Is the New Black. For in one scene, she reaffirms to Mrs. King how indispensable she is while her husband is away. And it is Amelia Boynton who was among those first marchers to attempt to cross beyond the Edmund Pettus Bridge. She was savagely beaten among many others. In her case, she was beaten to unconsciousness on that March 7 th first attempt known as Bloody Sunday. And today she is 103.
British actor Tim Roth, who it is said is often mistaken for being another American born actor, plays Alabama Governor George Wallace. And man can this guy act. Actor Giovanni Ribisi plays Lee White, adviser to President Lyndon Johnson. Giovanni Ribisi is one of those noticeable character actors one sees all over the place. I still remember him as the unscrupulous corporate man of RDA in the hit sci-fi film Avatar, as he refers to the extraterrestrial humanoids known as the Na'vi, he says, "Look, Sully, Sully, just find out what the blue monkeys want."
Boston born Alessandro Nivola plays Assistant Attorney General John Doar, who had worked under both Presidents John F. Kennedy and LBJ during the civil rights movement. Before the Selma civil rights march in 1965, it was John Doar, while backed by the U.S. government, who saw that James Meredith became the first black American to be admitted to the University of Mississippi on October 1, 1962. In the film Selma, there's a quiet solemn scene while conversing with MLK as John Doar says, "I don't want this to end badly for you." All together it is a very meaningful scene.
Then there's Annie Lee Cooper, another real life person played by Oprah Winfrey who also is a co-producer of the film. One commenter I read from somewhere, who although giving the film a fair rating, he said that Ms. Winfrey's appearance was so much it was distracting. Totally false.
Ms. Winfrey is a walking cultural icon. And her icon is juggernaut. So of course she's easily recognizable. That's not to imply she's above criticism to be fair to the commenter. Yet her screen time in Selma nowhere near approaches the screen time she had in the film Lee Daniels' The Butler, as she played both wife and mom in that film. She tries to register to vote in Selma before being involved in civil rights, whereas the real Annie Lee Cooper lived to 100 in 2010.
Then of course there's LBJ, played by another British actor in this film, actor Tom Wilkinson. As LBJ he does very well in interactions with MLK in the film, and in other scenes throughout. Yet it is here, where I suppose one should begin to address the controversy involving this film.
Julian Bond, former member of the SNCC during civil rights, former member of the Georgia House of Representatives, and former chairman of the NAACP from 1998 to 2010, gives praise to Selma. Yet within a January 2, 2015 CBS News web article titled, 'Critics say "Selma" inaccurately claims LBJ clashed with MLK over civil rights,' by Jan Crawford, while praising Selma, Mr. Julian Bond also says, "He did support King's fight for voting rights. He probably is the best civil rights president America has ever had. The best. Absolute best." Therefore, who am I to refute such a matter coming from a respected man like Julian Bond? I won't.
Nevertheless we all must know by now, that controversy is not new in Hollywood's depiction of supposedly true story films. Perhaps this goes back to the Norman Jewison 1999 film, The Hurricane. In the film, boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter is wrongfully convicted of murder and sent to prison. Years later a black teen from Brooklyn, but living with three Canadians who adopt him, all fortuitously find out about Rubin Carter. From there, all four seek legal means to set him free. All true. Except for Det. Sgt. Della Pesca, the invented character in the film as some dogged Inspector Javert, a racist cop who hounds Rubin Carter. Although it seemed then the controversy over the film was enough to make academy voters shy, actor Denzel Washington as Rubin Carter did win a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in 2000.
And next after having mentioned The Hurricane, one also has to mention the Ben Affleck 2012 film Argo. Controversy came crashing on Argo. For like also in the life of Rubin Carter, once again the Canadians come to the rescue involving their true role in the Iran hostage crisis.
Known as "The Canadian Caper," with help from the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) of the U.S., the Canadian government was mostly involved in the rescue of six American diplomats. All six escaped from being hostages by extremists who had captured the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, and were later flown out the morning of January 27, 1980. Even former President Jimmy Carter had said on CNN with Piers Morgan on February 21, 2013, that although he liked Argo, the Canadian involvement was 90% and the main hero was Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor. Friends of Ken Taylor were offended by Argo. So much so, that word got to director-actor Ben Affleck, and he changed the postscript. All is written in the September 19, 2012 Toronto Star web article by Martin Knelman titled, "Ben Affleck changes Argo postscript for Ken Taylor." Despite the controversy, Argo still won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture in 2013.
Now as to the recent news. Selma has just two Academy Award nominations, for Best Picture and Best Original Song. Why not one more, at least, for Ava DuVernay for a Best Director nomination? Only the powers that be knows. Yes LBJ should have been given just due, though I did not see him at all as the main real villain in the film per se. That was George Wallace. But I do know this, that Selma is a worthy of its place in the sun. I give this film four and a half out of five stars.