In the spring of 1965 Civil Rights activists took part in a series of marches from Selma to Montgomery – both in Alabama – to protest racist voter registration practices. The first march – subsequently known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ – was brutally suppressed, but the events attracted media coverage, publishing images of state troopers beating unarmed civilians with clubs, chains and whips. It cast a light on the brutal programme of racial terror faced by African Americans in the staunchly segregated South, and attracted followers to the Civil Rights movement. By honing in on these seminal events, Selma director Ava Du Vernay and screenwriter Paul Webb create a prism through which to explore the key figures and complex political machinations of the broader Civil Rights movement.
Selma expertly intersperses expansive historical scale with intimate vignettes, bringing the Civil Rights movement to life from multiple perspectives and grounding the events in real, individual experiences. David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Martin Luther King manages to be epic, provocative and angry yet vulnerable and also deeply human. We see the forceful orator capable of spellbinding crowds and commanding respect in the highest corridors of power, broken by fear, sorrow and marital strife – but King is neither deified nor romanticised. Supporting roles are illuminated with detail and skill; Tim Roth is notable as the caustic Alabama Governor George Wallace who refuses to protect protesters from racist mobs, as is Tom Wilkinson asq the prevaricating, indecisive President Lyndon B. Johnson, unable to keep pace with the changing tide of history. Finally, newcomer Carmen Ejogo turns in a poignant performance as Coretta Scott King, a woman living in the shadow of violent threats and besieged by the spectre of death and loss.
Oscar snub aside, Ava Du Vernay’s direction is effortless, confident and masterful. Not a single frame is wasted here; the pace is tense and a sense of imminent, visceral danger hangs over the entire film. Weaving in newsreel footage of the Selma ma rch sparingly but evocatively, interspersing brooding violence with light humour, Selma achieves the rare accolade of being a powerful period piece with stark contemporary resonance.