Selma Plot Summary:
Set during the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) works with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) for equal voting rights. When African Americans are still being denied the right to vote, King threatens to hold marches in Selma, Alabama, which further raises tensions between the two sides.
My first observation in watching Selma is that somebody felt really bad for Cuba Gooding Jr. He pops up in a worthless cameo, and I honestly think somebody just pitied him. If you can name me another Academy Award winner who’s been in more bombs and awful movies, I’d like to hear it. But we aren’t here to talk about Cuba Gooding Jr. Whenever you attempt to do a Civil Rights movie, I’m inevitably going to be tougher because while certainly an important subject that should always garner movies, you really need to blow me away as we’ve seen it done a billion times. Does Selma succeed in this? While I wasn’t floored by anything, this is a pretty damn good effort that stems from one hell of a performance in David Oyelowo.
You’ve seen this guy crop up in a lot of small roles, but this was his first chance to really shine, and boy does he ever. Oyelowo couldn’t have embodied Martin Luther King Jr. any better. I wish they could have given him better dialogue, but let’s be honest, when it comes to playing King it’s all about those stirring speeches, and Oyelowo nails those in spades, especially the end. Aside from the speeches though, Oyelowo does a great job at showing the pain in King’s face whenever someone dies for the cause as a result of the risks he’s taking. He’s remarkable, and will certainly garner Oscar talk. Oyelowo carries the movie exceptionally well.
Oyelowo isn’t the only performance working at a high level though. Tom Wilkinson is a guy I always felt went underrated, and as Lyndon B. Johnson, Wilkinson commands your attention just as much as Oyelowo. I love that this movie also showed the pressure Johnson was under, and Wilkinson emulated that beautifully. The best scenes in this movie are easily the conflicts between the two. This is where we get the best written drama and tension.
The other great moments come out of the contentious strategy sessions between King and his own people. This film could have easily played off lazily written sympathetic material we’ve seen a hundred times, but it actually gets into the nitty-gritty of what everyone needs to do to accomplish this goal. Not everybody agreed at times, and I love that the film chose to focus on those debates.
Unfortunately, there isn’t enough of this. The film stagnates a lot into boring, uneventful personal relationships. They take a big detour with a subplot between King and his wife (Carmen Ejogo) that is completely flat and uninteresting. While the relationship between King and Johnson fires on all cylinders, the other people in King’s group aren’t all that compelling. They are perfectly likable and give fine performances, but there isn’t much there. They try and develop a bond between King and John Lewis (Stephan James), but the material just isn’t there. Oprah Winfrey has a couple big scenes as Annie Lee Cooper, and while effective for some of it, the film relies too much on shots where she’s just standing there looking determined and sad, and it doesn’t always work. We also get a balding Giovanni Ribisi, so there’s that, and Trai Byers plays James Forman, one of the activists who has contentious arguments with King. He acts and sounds like a young Denzel Washington, it’s scary.
Aside from a few solid scenes here and there, the movie doesn’t really kick into high gear until we get to the marches. Those sequences are all riveting. Ava DuVernay is in the directing chair, and she delivers one overhead shot right before one of the marches that is incredible to look at. The first five minutes of the film are very generic and boring, but DuVernay totally catches the audience off guard with one moment in particular. DuVernay showed a lot of potential as a director with some great individual moments.
While a lot of the film is solid, I found myself drifting away at times, but just as I was about to check out, it would always bring me back with a great scene. Aside from the last speech, the ending went way too Hollywood for my liking, but this film is definitely a crowd pleaser. The film may have its dry spots, but when it hits, it hits hard, and is worth seeing for Oyelowo’s performance alone.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10 (Very Good)
Daniel Cohen is the Film Editor for Pop-Break. Aside from reviews, Daniel does a weekly box office predictions column, and also contributes monthly Top Tens and Op-Ed’s on all things film. Daniel is a graduate of Bates College with a degree in English, and also studied Screenwriting at UCLA. He can also be read on www.movieshenanigans.com. His movie crush is Jessica Rabbit. Follow him on Twitter @dcohenwriter.