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Selma comes to the awards season a year after Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave won the Academy award for Best Picture. Both are violent and beautiful films concerned with significant parts of American history: slavery in the mid 1800s and the fight for Black Americans to be able to vote unencumbered that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Both are films by black directors; Ava Duverney is American while McQueen, like many of the actors in the casts of these films, is British.
It seems shocking that films like these are only really being made now. Neither slavery nor black civil rights have been appropriately covered by mainstream Hollywood cinema up to this point in the way that important historical events that do not make white audiences feel bad have. It seems wrong that we got Quentin Tarantino’s blaxploitation comedy Django Unchained before we got a film like 12 Years a Slave.
Selma is a political drama concerned with a particular struggle of the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jnr; it is not a biopic of King. That film will surely come; Steven Spielberg owns the rights to the speeches King made. This narrowed scope allows for the complexities of the situation to be coherently realised. It is a political drama about the different and interrelated ways politics affects us. From a personal and family level to the dynamics of activist groups and on a broader level, it is about the abuses suffered by black Americans and the high-level political work and posturing in relation to this.
Unlike 12 Years a Slave, Selma has not been recognised for being as great a work as it is, with only two Oscar nominations. It is one of the best films of the year and should have received more. David Oyelowo portrays King with a gravity that befits his public image while giving us the delicate moments that make this twentieth-century giant a man. Duvernay does a masterful job of directing that is really emotionally moving without ever being trite. Her decisions in relation to sound and violence are particularly affecting. Selma serves up a full spectrum of feeling while telling an important story that has a great deal of contemporary relevance.