Art & Culture

The fact that this film was given an Oscar nomination, while the director and leading actor were both overlooked (in favour of a conservative snorefest like American Sniper) will go down in history as one of the Academy's grossest errors. This is an excellent film – not perfect but 50 shades of better than Eastwood's lump of lard – and David Oyelowo gives an exceptional performance, unlike Bradley Cooper.

It could be that Oyelowo, like Timothy Spall in Mr Turner, and Ralph Fiennes in Grand Budapest Hotel, suffered from an American fear of having an all-English Best Actor list, but I would argue that they are all as deserving or more so than those who were nominated. As for the exclusion of Ava DuVernay (the director of the film), how hard would it have been to put a black American woman before a tired old white guy? Too hard, evidently. Hollywood likes to stick to what it knows.

Moving on from the complaints, I can tell you that this is a very good film, and in fact (somewhat surprisingly) the first proper cinema biopic of Martin Luther King. Wisely, the writer and the director have concentrated on a single episode and a short time period, rather than going for the full monty of King's life. The period in question is 1964-65, when King was spearheading a movement to allow black people to be registered to vote in the Southern states. A scene early in the film illustrates the difficulties that were put in the path of any black person trying to register to vote.

King's tactics were those of any successful group trying to effect change. You provoke the controlling power into acts of aggression that put them in the wrong, and mobilise public opinion to the side of change. King had just had an unsuccessful campaign in Albany, where the police chief was too smart to play that game. Selma, Alabama was a different matter. The police chief was only too happy to send in baton-wielding policemen, and stand by while thugs attacked the protestors. King's job was to stand up to the violence, and not respond with violence of their own. Easier said then done.

His key ally/opponent is President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson); his key enemy is Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth). In a curious casting choice, neither actor resembles the person they are playing, and both are English. This is initially disconcerting, but it is not a major problem. More importantly Oyelowo does a superb job not just of impersonating King, but of embodying him. Most impressive of all is the way he delivers his public speeches, which feel as moving and inspirational as if you were watching and hearing the man himself.

But the film also takes the opportunity to show us the private side of King and in particular the difficult as well as loving relationship he had with his wife, as a result not only of his long absences, but also his relationships with other women. This allows us to see him as a rounded human being with weaknesses, rather than a saint who we should worship.

I hope the film does very well in this country. 50 years after the events described in the film took place, we are still witnessing acts of racism, discrimination and injustice. DuVernay's film illustrates the power of entrenched authority but more importantly the impact of resistance and mobilising public opinion. 


Phil Raby 

Front Row Films 

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