I only found out about Odeon's Screen Unseen programme this month, but I was intrigued and bought a ticket for this month's screening on Monday night. Essentially, you pay £5 for an advance screening of a surprise film ("not your typical Hollywood fare. These are films that are edgy, intriguing, controversial and thought-provoking"), which is unveiled on the night. Odeon gives away a few clues on Twitter and I was pretty confident that I had worked out that we were going to see Ava DuVernay's Selma — the fact that the screening was on Martin Luther King Day only sealed the deal — and I was right.
Selma is the last film of this year's Best Picture Oscar nominees that I've watched and it wasn't my favourite, but it is an important and well-told film with stand-out performances from David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo as Martin Luther King Jr and Coretta Scott King. The film opens in 1964. King is about to receive his Nobel Peace Prize while his wife frets over his outfit. He wonders, wryly, what the brothers back home would think of his fancy attire. Meanwhile, a few months earlier in a church in Birmingham, Alabama, four young girls are full of admiration for Coretta but—within moments—the building is violently blown to pieces.
The film takes place in the few months between the Nobel ceremony in late 1964 and the protest marches in spring 1965 between the titular Selma, Alabama, and the state capital Montgomery, some 50 miles east. King is campaigning hard with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) over the lack of enforcement of the recent law permitting African Americans to vote in some states, especially Alabama where Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) prefers the status quo.
King and some of his fellow activists in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference visit a few Alabama towns to try to find a good test case. King is beaten up within moments of trying to check in to a hotel in Selma, and they realise that "this place is perfect". Town sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) helps them to create national headlines by ordering his troops to attack and scare off the peacefully protesting activists who have gathered outside the town hall to register to vote.
Several tragic deaths at the hands of the Selma law enforcement and a few more front-page headlines draw more focus on King and on Selma, but King knows that he has to do something really big to persuade Johnson, who—as he reminds King—is a politician not an activist and has more than one issue to consider, to take immediate action on voting rights. "Let's not start a second battle when we haven't won the first," Johnson urges.
Although we get some detail on King as a person and, in particular, as a husband, Selma is also a one-issue movie. And given the importance of this story in American—and world—history, it is hard to argue with that. Certainly, I knew embarrassingly little about the protest marches and the town of Selma—or that marches were so key in the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965—until the film was released. The film-makers didn't have the rights to King's real words, but writer Paul Webb did admirably, slipping only occasionally into grandiosity.
Oyelowo is also really, really good as King, conveying a sense of calm leadership combined with highly compelling charisma. The whole ensemble cast is good, in fact; I particularly liked seeing Dylan Baker (AKA creepy wife-killer from The Good Wife) playing a super-creepy J. Edgar Hoover. Overall, Selma is a powerful and uplifting story and although it is clearly never going to be as fun as Birdman or Grand Budapest Hotel, it is essential viewing nonetheless.