Friday, 6 February 2015



Biopics are fraught with hazard. How do you capture the entire life of one person in 120 to 180 minutes? What do you leave out and what do you leave in? And do you go into the dark and hidden corners of one's life or do you keep everything on the positive, and risk veering into hagiography?

Then there is the question of historical accuracy, if the biopic subject was someone of import. From whose point of view is this history being recounted? History is written by the victors but while 'winners are grinners' they're not always the good guys.

The creative team behind Selma (spearheaded by director Ava DuVernay) have wisely chosen not to cover the life of American civil rights activist Doctor Martin Luther King Jr from birth to death. Instead, the film, written by Paul Webb, focuses on a particular episode in his life and an event -- the 1965 'right to vote' march from Selma to the Alabama captial of Montgomery -- which crystallized all that he stood for and cemented his legacy.

In the wake of desegregation, black people in the southern states of America were still refused the right to vote; white lawmen and officials using any means at their disposal, from intimidation to murder, to prevent black citizens from registering and thus denying them from exercising their democratic right.

King (David Oyelowo) wants for President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to use his considerable powers to remove the impediments to black voter registration; Johnson, also overseeing the war in Vietnam, insists that King and his movement can wait just a little longer.

But they cannot, and King will not: time, tide and history wait for no man. Marshaling his supporters and fellow civil rights activists in Selma, King plans to provoke a reaction from the racist law officials and, by being played out in front of television news cameras, action from the President. One of Selma's impressive achievements is to elucidate the political process on both sides: the thinking, the strategy, the public relations; the needs of the many versus the few.

Arguably its greatest achievement is to depict Doctor Martin Luther King Jr as a flesh and blood human and not a saint. That's aided a great deal by the "anonymity" of David Oyelowo. A British actor of Nigerian descent, he's appeared in several Hollywood productions over the years (Rise of the Planet of the Apes; Jack Reacher) but remains just unknown enough not to have any star power interfere with his portrayal of the icon.

Not that Oyelowo and DuVernay depict him that way. Yes there is the speechifying (and impressively so) and the well-known public face of the civil rights movement, but the film is equally interested in King's quieter moments, the human moments; capturing a man who doubts himself; who flinches at the physical pain inflicted on his supporters; who loves his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo, in a very fine supporting role) but even as a man of faith, strays from the marital bed. It's a towering performance by Oyelowo -- more so on repeated viewing -- which vibrates, resonates and reverberates.

So, too, does the film. Almost 50 years to the day since King and company marched from Selma to Montgomery, race relations in the United States remain strained. Recent events such as is in Ferguson, where a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed young black man with almost no repercussions -- certainly not for the officer -- is, sadly, just a recent example of entrenched racism within the institutions designed to protect all Americans. A black president hasn't magically solved all of America's race problems: the more things change et cetera, et cetera.

But Selma is not a downer. It's a powerful and affecting film -- rousing, anger-inducing, heart-swelling -- but its ultimate message is one of hope. Doctor King may have only lived another three years after the triumph of Selma and Johnson's subsequent signing of the Voting Rights Act, but his spirit and his legacy live on. Selma, by no means a perfect biopic -- name one that is -- honours the man and the cause.

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