#GAfilm Review: “Selma” (****½)

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A pivotal scene on the Pettus Bridge in Ava DuVernay’s “Selma.”

“Selma,” at least for me, came out of nowhere. With so many great movies having come out of 2014—many of which helmed by respected auteurs—”Selma” just simply wasn’t on my radar. That is, until it began to make itself known. The film has been a contender in just about every awards race this season. The film is currently boasting a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes, received nominations from the Golden Globes, Independent Spirit Awards, Critics Choice Awards, and received the Oglethorpe Award for Excellence in Georgia Cinema from our very own Georgia Film Critics Association. Even with all of this praise and hype, I was a bit reluctant to see what appeared to be another somewhat by-the-numbers, feel-good, Oprah-endorsed biopic.

It turns out, however, “Selma” is absolutely fantastic. It isn’t showy or flashy, nor does it need to be. The beauty of “Selma” is in the way director Ava DuVernay chose to tell the story. The film opens in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s 1964 and Martin Luther King Jr. is exhausted. He’s been working tirelessly for the equal treatment of blacks in the South and despite a visit to President Lyndon B. Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson), he is having trouble being taken seriously. Yes, black people had the right to vote, but intense racism kept them from having the same access and freedom as whites. Illustrated beautifully in an early scene with Oprah Winfrey’s character (Annie Lee Cooper), an elderly woman who is attempting to register to vote again is turned away after not being able to answer an endless list of trivia questions. The quietness in her demeanor and the calmness in the way she reacts to this is so telling of what she—and every other black person—had been enduring for so long.

“Selma” was mostly filmed in Georgia with large parts of it shot in Atlanta, Marietta, Conyers and Acworth. DuVernay captures the aesthetic of the humid Deep South perfectly. David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther king Jr. so seemingly effortlessly, it begins to feel like you’re watching the real man from that black and white footage we are so used to seeing. Oyelowo nails the accent, the mannerisms and the look of MLK, but it’s the way that he grounds him in such humanity and makes him so relatable that makes this film so compelling. He is simply a man trying to do good. He is flawed, doubtful and worrisome, but he knows what’s possible. He knows what’s right around the corner.

Oprah Winfrey stars as Annie Lee Cooper in “Selma.”

Ava DuVernay, who is the first African American woman to be nominated for Best Director by the Golden Globes, handles this material with respect and subtlety. She holds back often and, for the most part, lets the story and the actors shine. The quieter, personal moments of Dr. King are just as powerful as the brutally violent ones. Writer Paul Webb and DuVernay keep the film moving and never over-sentimentalize. MLK’s speeches aren’t covered with a sweeping score or sappy music. Everything here is presented in a very matter-of-fact way. The power of it all comes from great direction, award-worthy performances and the reality—and sadly, relevance—of the story being told.

My one qualm with the film is the lack of interesting characters aside from MLK. There are a number of scenes that involve other members of the movement and, while they are still engrossing and essential, I found myself anxiously awaiting another scene with Dr. King. Other than this, “Selma” is near perfect. It’s entertaining while still being educational, it’s brutal and beautiful, and most importantly, it’s a much-needed reminder.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

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