Another year another historical drama with white guilt. This year’s entry, Selma, about Martin Luther King Jr.’s participation in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama for black voting rights, is pretty great. The performances are solid and the visuals are terrific, but Paul Webb’s screenplay is a teeny bit of a mixed bag.
First, the good. David Oyelowo is fantastic as MLK. Anytime he’s standing up for what he believes in (whether it’s during a speech, talking to the president, or protesting), Oyelowo’s voice is powerful and his body movements are aggressive. He even knocks it out of the park in “smaller” scenes where MLK is chatting with his wife or talking to someone over the phone. It’s beyond believable, and Oyelowo deserves any praise that’s given to him.
While there wasn’t a true standout supporting performance, Carmen Ejogo and Tom Wilkinson do a great job as MLK’s wife and Lyndon B. Johnson respectively. The rest of the supporting cast (made up of Tim Roth, Common, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Giovanni Ribisi) all do a perfectly fine job.
The real star of the show here is director Ava DuVernay. Aside from directing her actors, she aces the look of the film. Her and cinematographer Bradford Young made a gorgeous looking film. All the exterior shots are stunning (making me believe that visual effects work had to be done to create the film’s almost dreary look) and the interiors are well-lit and focused. There were also some seriously creative shots in this film that most people will unfortunately overlook. Here’s hoping that subtlety doesn’t go unnoticed come Oscar season.
Also, as a brief mention. DuVernay does a terrific job with the protest scenes in the film. Staying away from “cheap” shots (showing lots of beatings and/or death is an easy way to evoke emotion from the audience), DuVernay stages some seriously impactful scenes with respect and grace.
Now, we talk about Paul Webb’s screenplay. Whether it’s historically accurate or not doesn’t bother an idiot like me. Where the screenplay does bother an idiot like me is when the dialogue is unexciting. I understand that not every scene can be debates, arguments, or speeches, but there’s nothing wrong with spicing up “filler” dialogue (this can easily be achieved with humor or drama). Expect a couple of scenes where your mind will be elsewhere.
But thankfully Paul Webb does a mostly solid job. He may be getting some hate for (apparently) not being historically accurate, but nobody can disagree that he wasn’t respectful when it came to the protest scenes. There’s thankfully only a few big ones and none of them felt unnecessary. This is a drama more than an action film.
Nobody should expect a cinematic masterpiece from Selma. What you should expect is a great drama with believable performances, beautiful imagery, and a mostly well-written and respectful screenplay.