Somewhat incredibly, Selma is the first biopic of Martin Luther King Jr., and it is a gripping, intense portrayal of the iconic civil rights activist. Rather than trying to cover King’s entire life, director Ava DuVernay instead chooses a more narrow focus on a period of three months in 1965.
The struggle for voting rights in the South and the resulting march from Selma to Montgomery lend the film a sense of immediate time and place, giving it a feeling of urgency which would have been lost in a more encompassing account.
This immediacy only emphasises that the police brutality and acts of violence against the black community in Selma are part of a struggle for recognition and peace that is still horribly relevant today.
King’s personal, interior life is explored in a performance by David Oyelowo that finds the delicate balance between an idealised depiction of the inspirational figure and the true humanity at his centre. His performance embodies an anger and a hopefulness that is not free from self-doubt or moments of weakness, evident in both his political battles and his familial relationships, both of which are examined with the same care and candour.
Selma portrays King not only as the visionary, idealistic figure that he was, but also as a man struggling with the performative nature of leadership and the challenges of continuing to fight in a world that is tirelessly attempting to beat him down.
The makers were denied the rights to King’s actual speeches and so the most inspiring, rage-filled words spoken by him were written especially for the film. This has the strange effect of creating a novel aspect to such a well-known story, blending words of the present with images of the past.
Selma is self-aware of its almost excruciating resonance today, brutally reminding us how far we still are from the world that for which King fought.