REVIEW: “Selma”


The process to bring “Selma” to the big screen began in 2008. Since then “Selma” has had director changes, producer changes, cast changes, and script rewrites. But now it has finally hit theaters with director Ava DuVernay at the helm. As expected the film has generated a lot of buzz, critical acclaim, and its share of controversy. Going into the film I was excited to see how well the story would be told. I was also cautious and concerned about how the historical liberties I’ve been reading about would effect the film’s impact.

“Selma” doesn’t set out to be a comprehensive biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Instead it focuses on the events surrounding the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. I appreciated the film’s disregard for the standard biopic blueprint. MLK’s entire life isn’t crammed into one story. This movie has a very specific story to tell, yet it allows us to glean much about this influential figure. We learn of his motivations, his faults, his fears, and his uncertainties all through observation. We also learn of his bravery, his sacrifice, and his determination.


This chronicle of the Selma march starts with Martin Luther King Jr’s (David Oyelowo) desire to secure true and unhindered voting rights for black Americans. We see him going to President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and urging him to give immediate attention to the matter. We see the festering racial tensions in the south particularly in and around the town of Selma, Alabama. We see King visiting Selma with his fellow SCLC members. He speaks in churches and spreads the message of change through peace and offers encouragement to the black community. We also see the violent backlash against the peaceful protests – something that weighs heavily on Dr. King’s heart.

“Selma” has the big showcase scenes that you would expect, but DuVernay also gives us the smaller more intimate moments. These personal strokes paint a much more detailed portrait of King. There’s a fun scene where he and his SCLC buddies arrive at a female friend’s house for breakfast. It’s a great scene filled with playful banter and jests. There is also a piercing scene between King and his wife Coretta (exquisitely played by Carmen Ejogo). It’s a low-key but intense family moment that DuVernay films with subtle but brutal honesty. We get a number of these touches which are much more than just emotional gimmickry.


And you can’t have a discussion about “Selma” without talking about the performance of David Oyelowo. The British actor loses himself in the role of Dr. King. He is a great match in terms of physical appearance, but he gives us so much more. I was blown away by the steadiness of his voice and his near perfect accent. He also conveys the passion and charisma that I imagine from Dr. King. We see this most in his speeches/sermons at a church in Selma. Oyelowo’s performance is graceful, committed, and nuanced.

“Selma” has so many important things to say and it hits head-on the disgraceful racism that was prevalent at the time. It’s a film that could be taken as an important historical reflection. Unfortunately it loses a portion of its credibility due its historical liberties. I generally stay away from controversies surrounding historical inaccuracies, but for me “Selma” genuinely suffers due to decisions made by DuVernay and writer Paul Webb. It has nothing to do with the racism and violence shown in Selma. All of that was shown with such power and potency. Instead it’s the decision to cast Lyndon B. Johnson as an antagonist, something that simply wasn’t true.

History has shown that Johnson had King had disagreements. But they also had a deep respect and worked together to accomplish the shared goal of equality. Even some close to King have come out to defend Johnson from the film’s characterization. The movie shows Johnson as an obstructionist who grows more and more annoyed with King’s efforts towards equal voting rights. But it doesn’t stop there. The film stops just short of calling Johnson a racist. It also shows Johnson callously using the FBI to hurt King and his family. Many have said this never happened and it depicts Johnson as cold and pernicious. And when he does finally put voting rights legislation forward, the film shows him to be motivated more by his legacy than doing what’s right.


But why did this hurt the film for me? Historical inaccuracies happen all the time in biography movies. For me it hurts the film because it strips it of a potentially strong and relevant message. I mean which would have more impact and resonance, the movie’s characterization of an obstructive and self-serving sitting white President or the true depiction of a white and black man standing side-by-side working towards true and meaningful change? The power and relevance of that message in the current climate is undeniable. Why did DuVernay choose the direction she did? Some of her comments about the making of the film may shed light on her motivations. Regardless it is a frustrating decision that seems unnecessary.

Sadly the “controversy” surrounding “Selma” isn’t without some merit. A lot of people, particularly younger viewers, may look at the film and take it entirely as historical fact. While that may not be completely true, the majority of the movie serves as a forceful and unflinching reminder of the faith and courage shown by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the persecuted black community of that day. The film forces us to experience the undeserved attitudes of hatred commonly thrown at black Americans at the time. It also raises our spirits by showing the determination of a brave community unwilling to sit by and have their rights trampled. The true story of Selma, Alabama has an inspirational power. “Selma” the movie also has that power except when it wanders off into its own revisionist world.


33 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Selma”

  1. Nice account, Keith. I am wondering about Wilkinson as LBJ. I haven’t seen it, but I just can’t imagine Tom capturing his accent and his behavior; he was such a peculiar, complicated man. I recently watched ‘The Butler’ and thought it about a 3.5 film. It had fine moments like Oprah and Forest Whitaker’s acting. The pacing, the trying to stuff too many stories into one film made it impossible to appreciate fully. How would you compare Selma to The Butler?

    • Wilkinson is actually quite good in terms of his performance. He was a cantankerous man and we do see that. But the movie really goes all-in to make him appear like an obstacle for equality. It’s really a weird choice and I would love to know the motivation behind it.

    • Oh, as for the Butler. I think I gave it something like a 3 star review. I do think this is a better and more focused movie. Of the two this is one I would really want to see again

  2. DuVernay has responded to criticisms of her portrayal of LBJ by saying things to the effect of, “I didn’t want to make a white-savior film,” which is fine, but I can’t help but conclude she’s admitting, both in the film’s content and in the interviews themselves, that she’s consciously (and obviously) overcompensating for years of film’s about racism and civil rights stories that attempted to make white people the central focus and heroes of those stories.

    As such, I can’t help think this a little clumsy of her, although I for one didn’t really have a problem with her depiction of LBJ within the film itself. It’s merely obvious and shouting for attention when I view the film from a larger, more subjective sociopolitical context.

    What bothered me while watching the film was rather how the movie seemed to stop at multiple points and directly (and awkwardly) address the audience on the how-to’s of combating racism. “No, don’t shoot cops back, do this this and this!” “How can we spend so much money on foreign wars but spend little to nothing on our own oppressed citizens? Don’t you see, current-day (circa 2015) politicians???”

    Don’t get me wrong, I liked the movie overall, but much of the dialogue seemed very preachy and heavy-handed as these sorts of films often do….

    • You mention the DuVernay comment I was referring to. It seems like an intentional move to erase any white contributions to the events. I struggle with that because you could easily portray LBJ as he was without this being a “white savior” movie. I’m no filmmaker but I can easily think of ways to do that.

      The LBJ characterization wouldn’t be a big deal if this was some menial insignificant biopic. But this could have been a powerful historical piece and for me its liberties keep it from being that. Instead you have to pick out those portions that didn’t need to be controversial to begin with.

  3. Hmm. . .this factoid about LBJ’s portrayal has me quite concerned about how I’m going to respond to ‘Selma.’ Thanks for the heads up. Having not done a lot of reading up on this film (next to none actually, outside of this review) I haven’t gotten the news about how this character comes off as an unnecessary villain. I’m frustrated to hear that though, because this doesn’t seem to me to be the kind of story to do that. It’s not going to stop me from seeing this film, but I’m prepared to not like it as much as expected.

    Good review man

    • Tom I have no idea why this approach was taken. I have some ideas but it is totally unnecessary. The film has its moments that are simply brilliant. Unfortunately it undercuts that with this weirdly off-based characterization. And it isn’t just hinted that he may be antagonistic. The films depiction is clear and frustrating.

      • With any luck having this knowledge beforehand might help me prepare for it. I’ll be sure to let you know my thoughts after. 😉

      • Please do. This movie has earned a lot of attention but many people have had problems with it. It will be interesting to see if the controversy hurts it any.

      • You just know the Academy is going to be willing to overlook that kink and select it as the Best Picture. Possibly Oyelowo’s performance as Best Actor in a Lead as well (something that I don’t see myself disagreeing with)

      • Oyelowo is amazing. I think I probably could have overlooked the kink if they didn’t go back to it over and over. I mean they put layer after vile layer on Johnson. Not a bit of subtlety.

      • Yeah, that’s just a shame. You know after some time of blogging about films I am getting a little better about distinguishing certain. . I guess you could call them “patterns of opinion,” where someone says something and you see the rippling effect across the Internet, with others saying the very same thing. Sometimes these situations effect my opinion of films just b/c I can’t get what others have said out of my own head. Actors being miscast or doing disservice to their characters are among the big ones I see out there, but in this case it sounds like the LBJ situation is legit. I’m not sure if that made any sense, but I think you get me. . . haha

  4. Fine, fine review, sir! This is a film that had been a bit of sleeper my way but I’m very much interested in MLK and I’m astonished that a film hasn’t depicted his life sooner (unless I’m missing something). Historical inaccuracies aside, this still sounds good.

    • When it isn’t putting its own spin on history the movie is incredibly strong. It has numerous hard-hitting moments and I loved the more intimate touches. I just find its liberties to be perplexing.

  5. I’m keen to see this Keith, given the slowly-building hype over here at the moment (it’s not out for another month). I’ll be going in fairly ignorant of this period of American history, in all honesty; I know the basics about King’s life (and death of course) but – it pains me to say it – I don’t know all that much about the march or his relationship with LBJ, so given what you’ve said I ought to do some swotting up before I see it.

    • You definitely should see it, but be sure to read the numerous LBJ defenses that have popped up since the film’s release. They totally miss represent the guy. LBJ had a lot of issues as a president. His desire for equal rights was one thing he did right.

      What’s disappointing is that they vilify the man and it doesn’t need to be that way. There such a powerful and potent message there that they flush down the toilet. Aside from that it’s a very moving film. I just can’t shake the frustration over what it could’ve been.

      • That’s a real shame. I will still go into it with an open mind but I will definitely read up beforehand.

      • I do want to emphasize tgat when the film focuses on MLK himself, his private moments, the racial violence they faced, and the preparation for the march – all of that was perfectly done. I dont want to cut the movie short.

  6. Hey Keith! I like this a bit more than you, but I have less knowledge on the history surrounding this event (having grown up outside the US, they didn’t teach us about Civil Rights Movements, etc.). It seems that they made the MLK & LBJ’s relationship as more volatile though I don’t really see LBJ as obstructive, he just didn’t see as much urgency as MLK obviously did. I think the film shows that LBG respects King, and he probably thought his ‘war on poverty’ would be enough to satisfy him, which obviously it’s not the same thing as voting rights. In any case, it’s not the first time though that a film inspired by true events take some liberties (as did The Imitation Game), but overall it’s a powerful and gripping film boasted by Oyelowo’s fantastic performance. This will make my top 10 of the year.

    • If they would have stopped at hesitancy I think I would have been fine. That way it would have been strictly a difference of how to get it done. But then they make LBJ a racist. Also he never used the FBI to hurt King, his image, or to destroy his family. And then in the film he acts solely to protect “his legacy”.

      Some of the director’s words about the production gives some hints as to what may have been the motivation for the misrepresentation. It wasn’t necessary at all and I bet many will take it as fact.

      And I do agree with you about the historical liberties taken in movies. I think what frustrates me here is how it kills what would be such a powerful message. A white sitting president working hand-in-hand with a brave and forward-thinking black man to accomplish important meaningful change. We do get that through a few throwaway characters. But it could have been a powerful eye-opener for a country in need of that inspiration right now.

      But I don’t want to be too hard on this film. I LOVED Oyelowo’s performance and the intimate moments we get. I thought the moments in Selma depicting the ‘courage versus hate’ was powerful stuff. I just think it stinks that we can’t hold this ENTIRE film up as important and truthful historical film.

      Sorry for the rambling! 🙂

      • I think the fact that I’m neither white nor black sees things as more, um neutral I guess. I read that the director Ava didn’t want to make this about ‘some white savior movie’ and I get why she says that partly because there are so many out there. Now I’m not bothered by it as most of them are probably accurate, but I also understand why a black filmmaker wants this story to be more about MLK and his team’s struggle to get voting rights passed.

        As I was walking home from the film, I actually didn’t hate LBJ nor think of him as a racist. I think when he used the racial slur w/ George Wallace, he was sort of trying to be on the same playing field w/ the obviously racist governor. It’s obvious even LBJ couldn’t stand the guy. I also think that even if LBJ and MLK had been portrayed as more of a partner in the film, it would NOT lessen the fact that it was such a huge struggle for the Black community and that the victory of getting the voting rights act passed was indeed a testament of their tenacious endeavor.

        It’s crazy how timely this film was in regards to police brutality with black minorities. I do wonder how far we have really come in that regard, y’know?

      • I love your perspective. Living in the south I know there are people who don’t want to face the past. I love that this film hits them directly between the eyes and forces them (and all of us) to see and experience it. Powerful stuff.

        I really disliked LBJ in the film. Wallace was definitely unashamedly racist. But LBJ was a slime in my eyes. I cringed when I heard him flippantly toss out the n-word. And directing the FBI to damage or destroy an innocent man and his family made me dislike him more.

        I do think get that there are many “white savior” twists on these stories. I guess I’m just curious as to why she thinks distorting LBJ was the only way around that. I mean with LBJ’s unhindered support, it was King marching into the fire. It was King preaching and encouraging the people. It was King truly fighting the fight for equality in the sometimes violent trenches. LBJ didn’t do any of that.

        Does that make any sense?

      • Oh right, that whole FBI damaging King is abhorrent. You’re right that ppl who had no idea about history would make them totally despise LBJ.

        Yep you’re right, it’s still King who did most of the legwork in this cause and even if they kept his relationship w/ LBJ more historically-accurate, the film still wouldn’t have a ‘white savior’ complex.

        I really appreciate your thoughts on this Keith!

      • In the end I still liked this film a lot. And in a couple of years I look forward to sitting down and watching it with my kids.

        Thanks for the great conversation Ruth.

      • Ah yes, I think it’s important for young kids to see this. I have to say that as I’ve been waiting to see a big-screen adaptation of MLK’s story, I’m glad they finally did. It’s great that they focus on the march too instead of a standard biopic on his life a la the latest Mandela movie, which was not nearly as powerful nor memorable as this one.

      • Oh btw, I just saw that the screenwriter for SELMA is actually a white guy, which I found surprising. Sorry I don’t mean to make a racial comment about that and normally it’s not a big deal at all in most films, but I think in this case it’s a notable one.

  7. I’m excited about seeing this movie, but echoing you along with many of those who have commented, I already know that there will be some historical inaccuracies in this film, and it’s disappointing, because I agree that a more powerful message could be told if a white man and a black man could work together instead of cast LBJ as a villain.

      • That’s exactly what I was thinking. I feel like it’s fueling the misguided view that many whites are indifferent or don’t care about racism when indeed we do. I hate the idea of a historical white man being painted as racist when he wasn’t. There are already far too many of those, that I feel like we don’t need to ADD to that list. It’s not a clear representation of how so many white people feel, think, or believe. (Sorry for the rant, but seriously, with everything in the media, I almost feel like we’re getting a reversed racism portrait painted when filmmakers are adding more white people to the lists of racists rather than recognizing that not every white person is/was racist.)

  8. “That revisionist world” you mentioned is what concerns me but I am looking forward to this film no less. I usually cannot take too many historical biopics and dramas in one year much less those that overtly contend for awards and accolades. So, with that said, I think it’s a no brainer for me to catch Selma soon. Exquisite review, Keith. Well done.

    • Thanks so much. I don’t want to cut this film short. When it has its focus it is extremely powerful and real. Just some weird historical inaccuracies that added nothing to the actual story being told. Still, it’s a good movie filled with strong moments.

  9. Pingback: Selma | The Soul of the Plot

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