HISTORY and film have a funny old relationship. A significant portion of films are based on historical events, and these events are better-remembered as a result of these films. Historical films are, by-and-large, more likely to be successful when it comes to awards season, and convincingly playing a person who really existed can drench an actor in praise – not to mention they make school history lessons a lot easier.
But then there are the problems. Condensing months or years into two or three hours can be tricky, especially when there are customs of drama-building which must be adhered to. Characters are often written out, others written in. A studio may want to hit certain demographics, so perhaps a minor female participant will suddenly be built up to a lead character, or a few more black characters will start turning up in unlikely places. The longer ago an event was, the easier it is to dramatise (which is a fancy way of saying “making shit up”); the longer the subject has been dead, the more liberties can be taken.
For all of these reasons, the first mainstream film to take on the legendary Martin Luther King, Jr. was going to face a barrage of scrutiny. Many people who participated are still alive, but fifty years after the mythical march from Selma to Montgomery they will remember it differently.
President Lyndon Johnson’s relationship with King, meanwhile, can only take up so much time in the film, and this has led to criticism of Johnson’s portrayal in the early parts of the film, where he is presented as more of an obstacle than he likely was. Johnson, incidentally, is perfectly played by Tom Wilkinson (who it seems can do no wrong), but the effort to give his character an epiphany arc doesn’t entirely work.
As a film rather than a documentary, it’s hard to find fault in Selma. The actors are not only strong and convincing, but they interact in a natural and organic way. There are scenes with King and his associates where they’re just hanging around having lunch while discussing strategy; we feel like we could just walk into that room and join in.
It’s excellent ensemble work. The darker moments where activists are injured or killed are played tastefully and with lasting resonance. The script is strong and well-paced (though it plays the “character we know is going to die young talks about their future” card a couple times too many) and, contrary to how the trailers were edited, the score is rarely leaned on to boost the drama. I started to tear up on two occasions without needing the orchestra to remind me that the scene was a sad scene, and that lack of patronisation makes the film all the more valuable.
And then we come to the reason this film is such a triumph. David Oyelowo embodies Martin Luther King to absolute perfection. His mannerisms are carefully crafted down to the subtlest motion, the voice is flawless and nuanced beyond mere impersonation, and he lives and breathes every moment as if King is alive again. While studying King for my History A-Level, I watched every bit of footage I could find. Not a single moment of Oyelowo’s performance rings false.
He plays the great charismatic orator, but also the flawed and pressured human who gave up a normal life to make a difference for his children. Many people are annoyed at Oyelowo’s lack of an Oscar nomination, and I count myself among them. This is the calibre of performance that inspires youngsters to want to be actors. I doubt his King is ever bettered, and I would welcome a follow-up film where he plays the role again.
It was a wise move to base the film on Selma alone. Any film which tries to tell the complete story of King would have to omit too much: he lived a short life, but a full one with many friends and many great deeds. By focusing on a few days in the grand scheme, we are able to meet the many other people who made a difference, from the President right down to the old lady trying to register to vote.
This story is still relevant today, when racial tensions between the American police and civilians are high, and the accomplishments of black people are still ranked in comparison to other black people rather than just other people. I can’t wait for the day when being the first black anything isn’t important anymore, but even when there’s been a black president we’re still not over that mountain.
To paraphrase the man himself, I dream of a day when my children can watch Selma and not connect it to present racial tensions, and simply be moved by what a few brave people accomplished in Alabama in 1965.