The further away we get from major historical events, the easier it is to forget the details that go into making the story. It’s films like “Selma” that remind us that behind every massive pivotal moment there are a thousands of smaller stories that come together like raindrops forming a ground-shaking thunderstorm.
At the heart of the film are the efforts by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) to secure equal voting rights for African Americans that culminated in a march by thousands through Alabama from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb pay proper tribute to what was one of the most monumental moments in America history, while examining some of the smaller stories that became part of this larger event.
Although guaranteed the right to vote by law, Alabama was one of the southern states that created endless hurdles for African Americans looking to register to vote. This included poll taxes the poor could not afford to absurd history quizzes posed when trying to register.
“Selma” finds its strength in the stories of individuals behind this historical event, which includes offering a look at King as a husband and father along with his role as internationally known spiritual and political leader.
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Generally, what we see from this explosive period are the impassioned speeches by King that show him as a confident and visionary leader. The film is a reminder that beyond the cameras and huge rallies was a man struggling with doubts, fears and weariness.
Oyelowo shows incredible power, whether he’s delivering one of King’s moving speeches or in giving quiet confession about his concerns. It’s a massive undertaking trying to portray someone as compelling and commanding as King. Oyelowo has captured King so well that it’s the kind of work Oscar voters should honor.
DuVernay expands the story to include many of those who joined King in his efforts, from his wife (Carmen Ejogo) to Andrew Young (André Holland). There’s even a glimpse inside the White House to see the thinking of President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson).
The slight weakness of the film is that it doesn’t go deeper with the other participants. It would have added another layer to show why Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) was so violently opposed to change or to offer more details about the Selma residents who fought and died for the cause. This is a feature film about a significant event, which creates limitations by cutting into the time for more personal accounts.
But within the confines of the time, DuVernay has created a compelling look at one of the most important periods in American history. The magnitude of the events have been well recorded in history. This movie passionately and powerfully reflects them. Just like there’s no way to touch every raindrop in a storm, there is no way to tell all the stories behind such a huge event.
As it is, “Selma” is a movie that should be mandatory viewing for future generations as a reminder that behind every big historical moment are some very human stories.