Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech was one of the greatest ever made.

It was delivered in 1963, two years before he led the famous freedom march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery, but King’s stirring oratory is a feature of Ava DuVernay’s tense and righteous movie.

The degree to which racism was entrenched in the deep south of the US remains incomprehensible to us (or it should do), with coloured people virtually disenfranchised by the fact that their application to vote needed to be endorsed by a white.

Black resentment came to a head in Selma, as King and his supporters campaigned for legislation that would enforce their civil rights.

The script is overwritten in parts and sometimes stodgy with declamatory dialogue that threatens to overwhelm passion with politics, but having said that, it’s not a bad thing for any filmmaker to delve deeper than the superficialities that are so regularly dished up in historical dramas.

The behind the scenes negotiating with a reluctant President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) is enlightening, as is the exposure of rifts that threatened to erupt between the movement’s hawks and doves.

DuVernay does well to not wallow in the violence of the period – the little girls killed in the church explosion at the beginning and the attack on the bridge towards the end accentuate the ever-present physical threat much more than any gore-fest might.

Nor does she take the easy option of using big hit songs from the period to create atmosphere – her soundtrack is much more down-home and earthy, and, because it is held back to the last, her use of archival footage is incredibly moving.

David Oyelowo does a fantastic job in portraying a leader of dignity and solemn commitment coming to a slow boil, whilst Tim Roth’s Governor George Wallace is hateful in the extreme.

Doctor King was no angel, but he was a giant among men – would that we could find anybody like him in Oz today.

~ John Campbell


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