It’s said that a person’s character is defined through their trials. The book of James celebrates trials “because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance” (James 1:3). I’m sure Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had that verse playing like a broken record in his head while he prepared for the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. This is exactly where Selma (DuVernay, 2015) chronicles the life of Dr. King, because like many biopics, Selma doesn’t meticulously cover the span of a subject's life but rather hones in on the most important moments of that life. This is where the nose hits the grindstone—this is where a person’s character is defined, and this is where the story of Martin Luther King Junior is justly portrayed in Selma.
Selma recognizes who it’s audience is: everyone. The film understands the importance of Dr. King’s struggle for civil rights and doesn’t limit it to any target audience. The story is condensed to its fundamental roots in a way that makes it applicable for any age group to understand without insulting its audience’s intelligence or manipulating history. This also isn’t to say that the film holds back on the darker, more violent moments of this time in history either. The film is peppered with moments of death and destruction that shock not with gore or brutality, but with timing and subtlety. Right when we’re lured into the safety of Dr. King’s inspiring speeches and warm hospitality, we’re abruptly reminded of the atrocities happening around him.
Selma's success is turning out to be a breakaway achievement for most of its cast and crew. This marks the first feature film for Ava DuVernay, whose only experience before this has been with miscellaneous crews and a few televisions episodes she’s directed. That’s not to mention Paul Webb’s screenplay that is virtually the only script to date that he has under his belt. The cast consists of mostly no-names as well, with only the occasional familiar face playing either a government official (Tom Wilkinson as Nixon and Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover) or a protestor that might stick out of the crowd such as Short Term 12’s (Cretton, 2013) Keith Stanfield who delivers a brief but powerful presence that left the audience speechless. Having an unfamiliar cast was a smart move (whether intentional or not) that doesn’t use star power to distract the audience from the powerful story at play. Oprah Winfrey continues her acting career as Annie Lee Cooper, a role that’s convinced me she isn’t in it to gain attention from the public eye. If anything her character’s actions prove detrimental to the goals of Dr. King in the movie. She appears quietly and then seems to disappear just as subtly into the backdrop of the film’s cast and sets. Of course let’s not forget the man himself, Martin Luther King Junior, played by David Oyelowo. You may remember him from Interstellar (Nolan, 2014) as the school principle who Matthew McConaughey asks what his waist size is. This is to say he isn’t usually the top billed cast member. It’s a daunting task to fill the shoes here, and he pulls it off with subtlety and power, revealing the unspoken doubt, hurt and hesitation behind the face of one of the most motivational figures of all time.