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Shrewsbury, Massachusetts- It seems surprising that the first theatrical biopic chronicling the work and times of Martin Luther King is just making its way to the world. The man was a larger than life figure that shaped the hearts and minds of people all around the world. So, how does one portray a man who has become a legend over the last fifty years? Like 2012’s Lincoln, director Ava Duvernay decides to present King’s persona in one little snippet: the Selma march.
Though the Civil Rights Bill is passed in 1964, the fight for equality between African Americans and whites is far from over. Turmoil still bubbles in the South as African Americans face opposition trying to register to vote. Dr. Martin Luther King goes down to the South himself to set up an epic march from Selma, Alabama to the state’s capital in Montgomery. Along the way King pushes back against governor George Wallace and president Lyndon Johnson.
I was initially wary of a biopic about MLK coming to theaters for fear that the film would wallow too much in sentimentality. However, as Selma went along, I warmed up right away. Selma is a searing representation of history filled to the brim with period detail and a stunning representation of that time in our nation’s history. DuVernay has no interest in sentiment by presenting protests gone wrong in graphic and disturbing fashion that makes it difficult to keep watching. DuVernay’s camera lingers on whites beating on helpless people and it is shameful to think that human beings were capable of such brutality.
This is heightened by the performances throughout the film. Tim Roth does remarkable work as Governor George Wallace and plays a great, true antagonist. Tom Wilkinson does good work too as LBJ that makes you wonder why a biopic of him hasn’t been made yet. Carmen Ejogo delivers an underrated performance as Coretta Scott King, a woman conflicted between the safety of her husband and the greater good of the cause. Of course, David Oyelowo is stunning as Dr. King. He portrays him not as a legend, but as a man capable of great things, but also of mistakes.
That’s where Selma ultimately shines. It doesn’t stay bogged down in glorifying its subject matter any more than it needs to. Much like Lincoln in Lincoln, King is presented as a man dealing with an already growing mythical status. As the leader of a vast movement, he had a lot to deal with and did his best to do right by his followers. There are moments when he makes the righteous decisions that made him the lauded hero he is considered today, but other there are other moments that present him as a powerful, yet flawed leader.
Selma is an exemplary biopic that represents its subject matter with brutal and unbiased clarity. DuVernay does not flinch to show the dangers and vicious world that the marchers had to go through and also shows their leader as a powerful man not without his faults. Despite the knocks at the accuracy of the film (no film is ever going to get it completely right unless it’s a documentary), DuVernay and company have crafted a quality film that chronicles a man that earns his almost mythical status.
Selma opens tomorrow, January 9th in theaters everywhere.