Coretta Scott King fought for a national holiday honoring her late husband’s courage and resilience against hate and inequality. Now, 30 years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day honors not only the late reverend’s fight for African-American rights, but also the sacrifices made by men and women across the country for those rights.
There are certain beloved historical figures a lesser actor cannot take on. It was only right an established, high-caliber actor like Daniel Day Lewis took on President Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, so I was skeptical when relatively unknown (at least in America) British actor David Oyelowo was cast in such an iconic role as Martin Luther King, Jr in Selma.
Oyelowo turns out to be not just a good casting choice, but the only choice. He brings to life the essence I know to be true about MLK: a kind, gentle man who was tough as nails when it came to creating a better path for the entire African-American community.
When I learned about MLK in history class, the behind-the-scenes details of MLK’s fight for equality were hardly discussed. Maybe it was deemed irrelevant, or maybe it wasn’t sexy enough, but I found it to be the most interesting aspect of the story director Ava DuVernay tells here. King is portrayed as a regular man torn between those who depended on him: the African-American community and his family. We’re reminded that his path to change was not an easy one, filled with despair, heartbreak, death, and destruction, but during those dark times, he served as a beacon of hope, which is made abundantly clear.
DuVernay was slammed for her portrayal of LBJ, however, she retorted she’s not a historian but a storyteller and that’s exactly what she accomplished: telling a story that makes you think and feel, which is the goal of most filmmakers, right?
Selma focuses on the events surrounding the 1965 Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in protest of the disenfranchisement of African-Americans through poll taxes, voter registration testing, flat-out intimidation, and other discriminatory practices, despite President Lyndon B. Johnson’s call for equality across the nation. At times, this film is hard to watch: the sheer brutality that occurred during the civil rights movement is shocking, and you can’t help but hear the loud echo in what’s going on today.
Despite being nominated for Best Picture at the 2015 Academy Awards, it’s mind-boggling that David Oyelowo and Ava DuVernay’s work weren’t recognized, leaving a noticeably lily-white Best Actor category and only one person of color, winner Alejandro G. Inarritu, in the Best Director category. The trend has unfortunately been repeated again this year, suggesting that there is still work to be done on Dr. King’s dream.
The performances delivered by Oyelowo and fellow British actors Tom Wilkinson as LBJ, Carmen Ejogo as Coretta King, and Tim Roth as Alabama Governor Wallace are spectacular, and I wonder if American actors could have produced the same high-quality performances. I particularly wonder about the southern accents, which are so often mishandled elsewhere it’s comical. Not here: the British actors nail the lazy slur of the South, giving you a chance to focus on the story at hand.
This film serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come since the march from Selma to Montgomery while shedding an unbecoming light on how the past is echoing today and how much work we still have to do towards human rights.