‘Selma’ overwhelms audience

Bringing the awards season to a close is “Selma,” a civil rights drama that takes its audience back a half-century to Alabama, where voting — a constitutional right — was a privilege African-Americans were still fighting for.

With political and cinematic acuity, it effectively captures the civic atmosphere and distress of the period, showing us how far we’ve come while pointing out how much further we are from the ideals Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and many others visualized.

Director Ava DuVernay (“I Will Follow”) and screenwriter Paul Webb’s approach on King and this campaign isn’t a panning overview of his achievements or focused character study, but a tribute that veraciously concentrates on the issue at hand — it’s also the first feature-length biopic based on the iconic martyr.

In “Selma,” the issue is the continuous battle for equality — more specifically, the Selma Voting Rights Campaign. In 1965, King organized the Selma to Montgomery marches, a 54-mile trek in territory infested with those who’re still stuck with the archaic convictions people like King fought against.

In DuVernay’s pseudo-biopic, King persistently consults with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tim Wilkinson) on what will eventually be a focal stepping-stone for their cause — the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

However — as suggested by the movie — their goals weren’t reached easily. Obstacles like Johnson’s hesitant decisions and Governor Wallace’s (Tim Roth) ruthless resistance impede the protagonists’ process.

Historically, Johnson was consistently supportive of King’s actions, but, sometimes, Wilkinson’s LBJ seemed vaguely supportive until the final act — fortunately, his conflict isn’t aimed directly at the cause, and he isn’t portrayed as an over-the-top, stubborn antagonist.

With only a few films under her belt, DuVernay delivers a properly unsentimental look at the immediate remnants of Alabama after the ban on segregation — which was nothing but a brutal reflection. With the first few scenes, DuVernay shows her audience that “Selma” won’t be the overly sentimental biopic most directors have problems avoiding. Instead, she utilizes sentimentality and drama with such expertise that she has viewers grasping for tissues by the end of the first act.

With sensitive issues like this, over-sentimentality is inevitable — except with “Selma.” The film is filled with scenes that — if put on the wrong hands — could cripple its triumph, but DuVernay decisively guides the narrative away from failure and, instead, proves her prowess.

Bradford Young is the skilled cinematographer (“A Most Violent Year”) behind the camera for this project. For a man who doesn’t have that many feature-length narratives in his filmography, Young shows a lot of promise with the skill he displays in “Selma.” He precisely picks a very muted and grainy color palette that helps create the proper ambience, which directly sets the viewers in the sixties.

Oyelowo doesn’t just give a great performance many actors are capable of doing — he disappears into character. The star is able to emit vigorous inspiration in every speech while showing focus in scenes that require him to depict King’s reflection and meditation when at home.

“Selma” confidently shows King’s achievements, but DuVernay and Oyelowo aren’t afraid to illustrate his flaws as well. Even though Oyelowo’s performance is immaculate in its own way, the film is upfront in acknowledging the more unknown — and unpleasant — qualities of the celebrated icon.

Speaking of flaws, even if “Selma” more than deserves the Oscar nomination for Best Motion Picture it received, there’re some to point out.

It’s hard to ignore the big cast of “Selma” with Oscar veterans Oprah Winfrey and Cuba Gooding Jr., but it’s also hard to acknowledge — the two aforementioned actors unfortunately don’t have very much screen time.

Even though Winfrey and Gooding play real-life advocates — civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper and civil rights attorney Fred Gray (respectively) — the two well-respected supporters were portrayed in very meager roles with little character development.

Unfortunately, the same can be said for most of the supporting characters. DuVernay and Webb have no problem leading the narrative to where it needs to go, but their fixation on the conflict revolving the Civil Rights Movement results in an improper distribution of attention and development to most of the character arcs.

With the nominees for this year’s Oscars being recently announced, it’s disheartening to see “Selma” receiving only two — for Best Motion Picture and Best Original Song. With Oscar-caliber work from DuVernay, Young and especially Oyelowo, them being left out comes as a big surprise to many.

“Selma” was, for the most part, shut out in regards to Academy Awards, but it’s still a genuine piece of work that exhibits artistic accomplishments on numerous accounts. Driven by DuVernay’s direction and Oyelowo’s performance, “Selma” emits the very same influence and inspiration King did, but also calls attention to how far we are from achieving the success he dreamed of.