A powerful reminder of injustice ever with us

This is my review of Selma [DVD].

Well-acted, with a cast who often uncannily "look the part" and sound it in the case of David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, this is a powerful and moving reconstruction of the charismatic preacher's 1965 campaign in the Alabama town of Selma to obtain the right for Negroes to register for the vote. A focused approach is probably more effective than a lengthy "Lincoln"-style biopic of his complex life which might have overloaded the viewer and either exaggerated him as a saint or demeaned him by an overemphasis on his Achilles heel of womanising – the sin he could neither refrain from nor admit to publicly.

Dedicated to non-violence, King apparently saw Selma as an ideal place for a march to the capital of Montgomery via the Edmund Pettis Bridge. He knew that the Selma Police Chief was a "pitbull" and that Governor George Wallace's refusal to allow the march would not be overridden legally. In other words, King was creating the scene of possible carnage which, viewed on States-wide television would provoke outrage and gain vital support for his cause. Yet, although a shrewd politician and inspiring orator, he also suffered periods of personal doubt, particularly when faced by the brutal murder of his supporters.

Some scenes would have benefitted from sharper editing, and they require a good deal of prior knowledge. A younger viewer might be confused by the brief appearance of Malcolm X – who was hostile to King's pacifism, calling him an "Uncle Tom" – or about the politics of the time, with crusty Democrat Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) absorbed by Vietnam, and resting on the laurels of introducing the Civil Rights Act without worrying too much about the details of its implementation: with Alabama still segregated, he asks King, how can he expect the right for Negroes to vote there?

Many scenes are strong. On a small scale, we see Orpah Winfrey as a determined black nurse trying to jump the hurdles against registering for the vote: she even knows there are 67 local councillors, but falls at the impossible barrier of naming them. Then we see King, using his Nobel status to gain access to the White House, progressing from respectful petitioning to fearless exhortation that Johnson should use his authority as President to force the issue. Johnson may be shown in an unfairly poor light for much of the film but it makes good drama, as does sinister Governor Wallace (played by yet another Brit, Tim Roth), whose concern for the poor is marred by an obsessive racism.

The scenes of violence, such as the break-up of the Selma march, are shot with painful realism, evoking a sense of shame over the injustice suffered by black Americans in what has been called the world's greatest democracy. King's speeches, in particular outside the Montgomery Capitol are also very moving, although they are paraphrasing of the originals for which it seems the film rights have been sold to Spielberg for a film yet to be made: one can only hope the money has been used on a good cause. The skilful insertion of a few moments of real film footage demonstrate the accuracy of the dramatised version.

A further menacing touch is the continual appearance on-screen of terse reports on King's movements, obtained from the bugging ordered by J Edgar Hoover – also, the attempts to drive a wedge between King and his longsuffering wife Coretta (excellent performance from Carmen Ejogo).

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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