Thanks to David Oyelowo’s uncanny portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in “Selma,” all bets are officially off in this year’s Oscar race. Oyelowo dominates this film, which is not meant to be a biopic about the legendary civil rights leader. Director Ava DuVernay focuses on Dr. King’s historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to secure voting rights for all people.
Though he won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize and had the ear of President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), King was still viewed as a troublemaker and interloper in the Deep South. Voting legislation was already in place, but white officials in Alabama made it nearly impossible for eligible black voters to register.
King and his supporters staged sit-in’s and marches in Selma, but these typically ended with severe injuries and the occasional death. Dr. King then focused his efforts on a five-day march to Montgomery to guarantee once-and-for-all the right for blacks to vote.
A companion piece of sorts to Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” “Selma” examines one chapter of the civil rights movement. Making her feature film directorial debut, Ava DuVernay pulls no punches in telling this story. The events leading up to the march were exceptionally violent and brutal, but DuVernay brings them all into sharp focus.
In character as King, David Oyelowo is fascinating to watch. The actor recreates many of King’s speeches and shows how the Nobel Prize Winner was a family man at heart. When faced with an exceptionally difficult task, King calls gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (Ledisi Young) for inspiration through song.
Carmen Ejogo adds perspective and balance to the story as Coretta Scott King. Though she didn’t always travel with her husband, Mrs. King acted as an emotional anchor even when the family received death threats. There are moments in the film, though, that indicate the marriage was at the breaking point.
Tom Wilkinson deserves special mention for portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson. Liev Schreiber parodied the late President in “The Butler,” but Wilkinson plays it straight in “Selma.” Johnson is shown juggling civil unrest at home and the Vietnam War overseas. Wilkinson’s performance is good enough for supporting actor nominations.
Working from Paul Webb’s screenplay, Ava DuVernay could easily take home Oscar gold for her first feature film. “Selma” is an amazing piece, highlighted by Oyelowo’s nuanced performance as Dr. King. It also helps put the current civil unrest in Ferguson into perspective as well.
“Selma,” rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language, will open wide on Friday, January 9.