Martin Luther King, Jr… To most of us, this name evokes four words: “I have a dream…” – The opening line to one of the most profound, resonant and inspiring speeches of all time. A speech so definitive of the man, so central to his legacy, that’s it’s actually absolutely nowhere to be heard in Selma, Ava DuVernay’s controversial new biopic.
There’s a reason behind this: Doc King’s dream is under copyright protection. Not only to MLK’s (Martin Luther King’s) Estate, who famously sued USA Today for publishing the big speech at length back in the 90s, but also to Movie Mogul, Steven Spielberg, who secured the rights to a potential King biopic years ago, and has sat safeguarding his gold ever since.
This means that Ava DuVernay and co-screenwriter Paul Webb have had to practically paraphrase every political speech featured in the film. An arduous task indeed, but one the pair have somehow mastered with all the natural talent of The Great Dr King himself. It helps that they were aided by an astonishing David Oyelowo who, quite frankly, gives a performance so profound, he could very well be The Great Dr King himself.
Opening on The Doc’s acceptance of the 1964 Nobel Peace prize, the film follows King & Co.’s battle for the African-American vote. Occasionally, DuVernay and Webb’s rewritings are as subtle as changing the chant, ‘Give us the ballot’ into ‘Give us the vote’. For the most part though, the screenplay is seriously superb, evoking all the poignant passion of The Martin Luther Dream quite literally through a unique, unheard new language.
Oyelowo is a commanding, almost ethereal presence to behold, mastering Mr Martin right down to the cadences of his sing-song speech pattern, and bearing an uncanny visual resemblance to boot. The film takes a few liberties with the truth in favour of storytelling, but ultimately, this assists DuVernay’s picture in rendering it unpredictable, edgy and emotional even for those already familiar with the facts.
DuVernay claims to have taught herself filmmaking through working on documentaries, but insists on describing herself as “a storyteller, not a historian”. Both sides of the director are visible in Selma, but the movie certainly exercises brevity, and storytelling definitely takes prescience over style. Many important historical figures are merely glimpsed and name-dropped, as DuVernay shifts her narrative focus to the people of Selma, intending the picture as a sort of celebration of collective power and solidarity, as opposed to a cinematic history lesson.
Surrounded by authenticity debates and screenwriting scepticism, Selma certainly has its problems. But ultimately, when looked at merely as a slice of cinema, the movie is an uplifting heart-tugger with real drive. It could be argued that the picture’s power lies predominantly in Dr King’s legacy itself and the talents of David Oyelowo. However, DuVernay’s direction still represents an astonishing feat and, either way, Selma is an important, inspiring look at intolerance and inequality which shouldn’t leave cinemagoers feeling short-changed.