In honor of Black History Month…
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For a brief while I entertained the notion of writing a review of a rom-com because it was Valentine’s Day, but then I said, “Why not write about something more meaningful? Most of us are hopelessly single anyway. And it’s Black History Month.”
So here’s a review of “Selma,” a biopic of one of the most influential leaders in the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King, Jr.
Warning: Spoilers ahead. But everything is already in the history books anyway.
Ava DuVernay directs. David Oyelowo stars as MLK, Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King, Tom Wilkinson plays Lyndon B. Johnson. Oprah Winfrey also makes an appearance as Annie Lee Cooper.
“Selma” is not a play-by-play recitation of the civil rights movement, nor does it come off as desperate for drama points. It juxtaposes political and emotional drama. We see MLK arguing with Lyndon B. Johnson over voting legislation and facing criticism from his own backers about the Selma march. Then there’s the atmosphere of injustice: we see Annie Lee Cooper attempting for the fourth time to register to vote, only to be rejected by the white registrar because she can’t name the 67 county judges in Alabama. Law enforcement officers beat peaceful marchers on Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Oyelowo is stunning in this film. His slow manner of speech exudes intensity and meaning, but there is also a richness to his timbre the other characters’ voices lack. Oyelowo’s deliberate movements and heavy silences carry as much meaning as his words do.
“Selma” also does a good job of giving viewers a glance at the inner life of MLK. Viewers can sense the toll his occupation takes on him and his wife. They can sense a rift between the two Coretta, beautifully played by Ejogo, questions MLK’s decisions and the risks he’s taking with Selma march.
Now, I’ve watched a fair share of biopics: “Gandhi,” “Lincoln,” “Braveheart,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (which is, by the way, my favorite film), etc. They’re dramatic. They’re sad. They depict inner lives and outer struggles.
What sets “Selma” apart is the raw emotion involved. “Selma” moves the viewers emotionally: scenes of violence against peaceful protesters stirs up sadness but also a sense of righteous rage. Even the happy moments are tinged with the knowledge of innocent blood shed in the process.
The most poignant scene in my opinion was when MLK speaks with Cager Lee after the latter’s grandson Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot dead by a state trooper. MLK says, “There are no words to soothe you, Mr. Lee. There are no words. But I can tell you one thing, mister. That God was the first to cry. He was the first to cry for your boy.”
“Selma” creates a dissonance in its viewers because it’s a sad and happy story at the same time. At the end of the film when MLK delivers his speech in Montgomery, the victory is bittersweet because viewers know that in a short while, he too will be shot dead.