Selma

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(2014) ★★★★

Sky Movies Premiere: PREMIERE Friday 15 January,11.45am and 10.00pm

In 1964 Martin Luther King Jr opens his Nobel Peace Prize speech in Oslo with the words: “I accept this honour for our lost ones…” and Ava DuVernay’s film immediately cuts to the 1963 church bomb blast that killed four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights Act ended segregation in the United States but that news never stood in the South. One hundred years after the Civil War, blacks are still denied the right to register for voting, kept out of the polling booths by outlandish loopholes and plain intimidation.

A stand must be made. “Selma it is,” says King as the White House stalls. And at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, a peaceful protest march provokes a violent police riot. The cops act like Nazi stormtroopers, which is the way it looked on the TV news in the day. DuVernay’s impassioned Selma gets so much right about this momentous turning point in the Civil Rights era that its missteps are mainly forgivable. The biggest dramatic licence is in suggesting that Johnson was an impediment to King’s goals rather than an ally who happened to be in a difficult political position at that precise time.

King was certainly aware of Johnson’s sympathies and the Selma march was designed to get the country on board with the progressive president’s ground-breaking policies: “There is no negro problem, there is no southern problem. There is only an American problem.” Date and place taglines are reproduced from the FBI’s shameful surveillance on the Kings (Paul Webb’s script at least suggests LBJ loathed J. Edgar Hoover), and an equally telling touch is the use of Odetta’s version of Dylan’s Masters of War as the protestors approach the bridge for a second showdown.

It certainly shows up the shallowness of the Oscar winning song Glory (by Common and John Legend), which sounds even weedier when it’s followed in the end credits by authentic recordings of workers in Selma singing This Little Light of Mine and a Freedom Now chant. Curiously, the main casting is British.Tim Roth is Alabama’s rabidly racist governor George Wallace.

Tom Wilkinson is LBJ (a less forceful performance than Michael Gambon’s great turn in John Frankenheimer’s final film, 2002’s Path to War). Carmen Ejogo, who previously played the young Coretta King in the 2001 HBO film Boycott, now seems improbably glamorous for the role; a bit like casting Maria Sharapova as Billie Jean King. And David Oyelowo, so florid and excitable in The Paperboy and the HBO drama Nightingale, is tempered down here in an affecting performance as unlikely and effective as Robert Downey Jr’s remarkable transformation in Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin biopic.

The weakest scenes are between King and Coretta, strangely stilted and staged with ‘for your consideration’ theatricality. The music’s pushing hard for prestige, too. For Oyelowo’s King, it’s hard to keep your eyes on the prize when those doling out the rewards are so blinkered and bigoted. Always outnumbered, always outgunned. And what, exactly, did King die for? Compton’s Niggaz Wit Attitudes? Wesley Snipes’ New Jack City and Spike Lee’s Chi-raq? Somewhere King may well be weeping for the world, alongside Mahalia Jackson.

This is an important story whose lessons have yet to be learned, and DuVernay’s film is entirely honourable. Less like the incendiary Mississippi Burning, more like the dutiful Deacons for Defense. No disrespect in that. Rather this than The Butler or The Help, that’s for dang sure. DuVernay thinks King was an ordinary man who did an extraordinary thing. History suggests he was an extraordinary man who did the right thing. But who was Edmund Pettus? Funny you should ask. He was a Confederate general during the Civil War and a Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan after it. Shame he never got the chance to jump off the bridge named in his honour [sic]. It was built in 1940, 33 years after his death.

Certificate: 12

Duration: 123min

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Other Showings Date & Time
Sky Movies Premiere Saturday, 16 January at 2:05PM
Sky Movies Premiere Saturday, 16 January at 10:00PM
Sky Movies Premiere Sunday, 17 January at 11:45AM
Sky Movies Premiere Sunday, 17 January at 10:00PM
Sky Movies Premiere Monday, 18 January at 11:45AM
Sky Movies Premiere Monday, 18 January at 10:00PM
Sky Movies Premiere Tuesday, 19 January at 12:15PM
Sky Movies Premiere Tuesday, 19 January at 8:00PM
Sky Movies Premiere Wednesday, 20 January at 2:05PM
Sky Movies Premiere Wednesday, 20 January at 10:00PM
Sky Movies Premiere Thursday, 21 January at 11:45AM
Sky Movies Premiere Thursday, 21 January at 10:00PM