Selma is based on the famous marches from Selma to Montgomery to protest against the lack of civil freedoms experienced by black people during the 1960s. The film follows Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) as he leads a group of people willing to face extreme violence to achieve their goals and the film also closely follows his battles with American President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in a bid to push his demands into American law.
I've stood on the actual spot where Martin Luther King proclaimed that he had dream that his 'four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character' to over 250,000 people. Martin Luther King was an outstanding orator with a powerful voice and an intelligent use of language that helped make him and his speeches so captivating. What David Oyelowo (who was born in the same hospital as I was - the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford) does so well is capture the essence of King, he is utterly compelling when he is on screen whether racked by his own self doubt or speaking to hundreds, thousands maybe even hundreds of thousands of people.
It was quite a shock at the time to see David Oywlowo's name left off the list of actors nominated to receive the Best Actor gong for 2014 as was Ava DuVernay's for Best Director. Whilst her exclusion was less of travesty, her name is deserving of recognition far more than Bennett Miller (for Foxcatcher, which was rather slow and dull) and Morten Tyldum (for The Imitation Game which whilst being well made and good fun remains unremarkable).
Ava DuVernay does have a lot to say about America in 1960s and in the present day. As far as I am concerned, America has come a long way from the segregation of the early 60s but issues like Ferguson and recent Church massacre (a scene in Selma bears some resemblance to this attack) shows that America has a long way to go. The many scenes of police brutality highlights the state police actions against black people in both 1963 and the present day where the murder of unarmed black people is disproportionately high. Perhaps, America hasn't come as far as it would like to think.
The central arc of the narrative is gripping overall, but there are places where the narrative does slow down quite a bit. The film not only looks at the charisma and bravery of MLK but also looks at his own crippling self doubt, in fact the closer MLK got to his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee the more disillusioned he became with America. The film doesn't ignore his family life and the position they find themselves in and the pressures they too are under, and it also doesn't ignore his transgressions as his affairs are, albeit briefly, mentioned.
David Oyelowo's performance is the major factor that keeps the arc of the narrative so gripping, his performance is undoubtedly the finest and most noteworthy but he is supported by some impressive performances by his co-stars. Wilkinson's performance as LBJ (debate rages on about the film's depiction of him) is superb and Tim Roth (playing a villain even more odious than Sepp Blatter) is at his slimy best.