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Reviews

Selma

Jeremy Clarke

1965. A peaceful grassroots march is planned through the State of Alabama, starting at Selma and ending at Montgomery, to demand the right to vote that, although enshrined in US constitutional law, has been denied to black people by virtue of local federal statutes and practices. Dr Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) and others fighting the cause of black equality arrive in Selma to lend their support, but soon discover that Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) intends to use armed force to prevent the protest going ahead. Resistance to change goes further up the system with Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) standing squarely behind the sheriff's actions. Even the more sympathetic President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) isn't about to introduce the much-needed legislation to make it happen in the immediate future.

This period of civil rights history is more pertinent than ever given that recent events have revealed (if there was any doubt) that the US is still a deeply racist society. The film starts off with the bombing of a church in which several young black children are killed, runs through the Alabama legislature preventing the likes of Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) from registering to vote, then charts a course through, on the one hand, activists like King, his associates and ordinary black citizens and, on the other, the white people in power from the President through various people in the White House - among them, FBI head J Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) - and the aforementioned local Governor and Sheriff all the way down to cops and state troopers on the ground. A running commentary of onscreen titles reminds us that the FBI is observing, monitoring or recording everything, rendering the narrative that little bit more unsettling.

The march is staged three times, with varying degrees of success. Along the way, threats, beatings and killings of blacks by whites show that many white Americans resist change. After the first attempt turns into a massacre by police, the second sees the original protesters joined by considerable numbers of clergy across the racial divide who likewise are subsequently attacked and beaten.

Director Ava DuVernay, picked by British producer Christian Colson (Slumdog Millionaire), is fascinated by the idea of the black community and the white hierarchy struggling with one another for power on numerous levels. She has a real gift for making every character count and extracts tremendous performances from every member of the cast from the top to the bottom of the production, making an effort to include the women who were part of the fight for equal civil rights as well as the men: this pays dividends. Carmen Ejogo is particularly good as Coretta Scott King, Dr King's wife, who must put up with, among other things, threatening phone calls.

With lots of rough edges and without whitewashing any of its characters, the story effectively shows the various social factions in play as individuals and groups within the wider nation attempt to move forward. Selma could so easily have been a plodding, by-the-numbers affair, but DuVernay and her well-picked cast and crew deliver something far better: a powerful, moving and complex socio-political study of events that helped forge the modern US, even if the issue behind them is still not entirely resolved today. Its makers are to be congratulated for handling this material with the requisite sensitivity and cinematic flair to do it justice. If, by the time you read this, Selma has Oscars all over it, they're well deserved.