Selma chronicles the turbulent three month period in 1965, when Dr Martin Luther King led the protest to try and obtain equal voting rights for black people in the Southern states of America. Even though that right had already been officially granted, the powers that be had conspired to ensure that it was one that would never be claimed, so King set out to lead a series of ‘peaceful’ marches from the town of Selma, Alabama to the capital city, Montgomery. What happened next is a matter of history. The racist police and redneck citizenry enacted violent and bloody opposition to the event, beating and in some cases murdering the marchers with apparent impunity.

Make no mistake, this is an important film. It examines one of the most shameful periods in civil rights history and largely gets its message across. But it’s also a curiously muted affair, a consequence perhaps of its 12A certificate, something which demands that the more distressing scenes are somewhat airbrushed. Curiously too, the film makers were denied the use of any of King’s legendary speeches, mainly because the intellectual property rights are tightly controlled by his children and they wouldn’t allow the use of them here (oddly though, they had no problem licensing the “I have a dream’ speech to a French telephone company for an ‘undisclosed sum.’ Go figure.) This meant that screenwriter Paul Webb had the unenviable task of writing some original speeches for one of the greatest orators in history.

Much wrath has been incurred over recent weeks by David Oyelowo’s supposed snub by the Oscar and BAFTA panels. Many have suggested that his performance was overlooked simply because of his race. The truth is that he does offer a solid, understated portrayal of MLK, one that is full of dignity and one that captures the man’s distinctive voice patterns with remarkable alacrity, but at the same time, it doesn’t really have the stature (or the histrionics) expected of an Oscar contender. There are other solid performances on offer here too. Tom Wilkinson shines as Lyndon B. Johnson and Tim Roth perfectly nails the unpleasant, racist demeanour of Governor George Wallace. And yet the events are related at a funereal pace and there are too many scenes of King sitting in darkened rooms, brooding over his next move.

A good film then, though perhaps not a great one – but at the same time, a film that absolutely demands to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. I was warned to expect to shed tears for this and though a notorious ‘weeper’ that didn’t actually happen. But a palpable sense of shame did remain with me, the shame that in my own lifetime, events like this were ever allowed to happen. It also helped me to appreciate the immense courage of all those people who put their lives on the line in the name of civil rights.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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