ITOL Top 50 Films of the Decade, Entry No. 9: Selma

Year: 2014

Runtime: 128 Minutes

Director: Ava DuVernay

Writer: Paul Webb

Stars: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Tessa Thompson, 

By Simon Whitlock

Director Ava DuVernay has, over this last decade, established herself as one of the most important filmmakers in the business, thanks to her incomparable body of work across mediums: from her shocking and vital documentary “13th” on the perpetuation of slavery in the US to the powerful, sensitively constructed series “When They See Us” about the wrongly convicted suspects in the 1989 Central Park Jogger case.

Of all of her work over the last ten years, “Selma” is DuVernay’s very best. The film describes the events leading up to and including the 1965 marches from Selma, Alabama to the state’s capital, Montgomery, conducted by Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) and others, as part of a movement to give African American citizens the opportunity to exercise their right to vote.

David Oyelowo, André Holland, and Stephan James in Selma (2014) © 2014 Paramount Pictures

The film opens with King receiving the 1963 Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership of the non-violent Civil Rights movement, all the while acts of injustice and terrorism against black communities are perpetrated by white supremacists behind masks, and behind institutions. After trying and failing to persuade President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to get a law through government to prevent the further obstruction of voter registrations for African Americans, King heads to Selma to make the issue as clear as possible, in order for the Johnson Administration to take note.

What She Said:

“Outstanding drama about MLK’s fight for equal rights.”

Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media

Historical fiction on the big screen has a bad habit of playing like the cinematic equivalent of a figure or event’s Wikipedia page. With “Selma”, DuVernay and Oyelowo have dug into the legacy of Dr King to create a portrayal full of humanity. Oyelowo’s King is, of course, a great orator and leader, but he’s also a man with flaws, whose personal relationships, including that with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) are distanced and at risk of collapse due to the sacrifices King has to make for the greater good of the movement of which he’s found himself at the head.

Carmen Ejogo and Tessa Thompson in Selma (2014) © 2014 Paramount Pictures

The film puts King at odds with not only the racist officials in charge of the town and the state but also with his peers and the leaders of other movements in support of the Selma to Montgomery marches. There is one moment, as King is set to shepherd his congregation across the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the second march when the movement’s leader does something which threatens to jeopardise the protest entirely, but which is presented as a strike for righteousness in the build-up to the film’s climactic moment.

What She Said:

“In Selma, British actor David Oyelowo subtly transmogrifies himself into Martin Luther King Jr, displaying intelligent self-doubt, not flash political pomp.”

Kate Muir, Times (UK)
Twitter: @muirkate

DuVernay and writer Paul Webb’s uncompromising view of this chapter of American history extends to the horrific violence committed against African Americans and their allies in the struggle of the Civil Rights movement. From the bombing of a church which led to the deaths of four young girls, to the murders of an unarmed activist by police and a white priest by a Selma resident, the film is unwavering in its determination to present these most heinous of crimes as the moral backbone for King and his fellow activists’ argument for marching on Montgomery. Each death is felt, and the tragedy of each loss is amplified in DuVernay and Webb’s adaptation to rousing effect.

What She Said:

“In a time where dedicated activists are speaking their own truths to leaders who are often even less responsive, movies such as Selma feel more essential than ever.”

Andrea Thompson, The Spool

As unrelenting as the film is in its portrayal of racial hatred in 1960s Alabama, “Selma” remains a film filled with hope. Hope and faith injustice being done against the evils of racism and white supremacism are the fires which drive King and his peers over the Alabama River and towards their destiny. After the final march of thousands across Alabama arrives at the state capital, Oyelowo delivers Dr King’s great “How Long? Not Long” speech. It’s a piece of oration which champions idealism and justice as the greatest weapons against injustice and hate, and which promises that America’s dark days will soon be over.

selma 1
David Oyelowo in Selma (2014) © 2014 Paramount Pictures.

King would be assassinated three years later, and as “Selma”’s Oscar-winning closing song “Glory”  details, injustices are still being visited on people of colour more than four decades after the Voting Rights Act was passed, following the Selma to Montgomery Marches. However, King’s spirit of hopeful resistance lives in DuVernay’s masterpiece, and “Selma” delivers an ever-important message that there is still work to be done before Dr King’s dream of true justice and liberty for all can finally come true.

5 stars

The Extra Bits:

Where to watch:

Amazon: Rent & Buy

Google Play: Rent & Buy

YouTube: Rent & Buy

Who to follow:

Ava DuVernay @ava

Carmen Ejogo @carmenejogo


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