4 reasons to go see Selma – and they’re all English

Screenwriter Colin Welland famously proclaimed “The British are coming!” when he picked up the original screenplay Oscar for Chariots of Fire in 1981. Then the drought followed. Then Film4 (the movie-making bit of Channel 4) helped correct that with prestigious Oscars for The Last King of Scotland [Best Actor], Slumdog Millionaire [Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and 5 others] and last year 12 Years a Slave [Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress, and 6 nominations] and for the first time a black hand clutching that Best Picture statuette. Which brings us neatly to Selma, the powerful new movie about Martin Luther King and the break-through protests he led at Selma, Alabama which ultimately secured the vote for African-Americans. So an American icon (the only modern American with a public holiday named after them – this coming month you can join in on the 19th [January]) and a very American subject yet the 4 lead roles are filled by Brits.

I went to a BAFTA viewing last week attended by the film’s main lead, David Oyelowo. I didn’t know anything about him, not having been a Spooks fan – that’s a UK drama on BBC about spies (= spooks) for any American cousins reading this, I’m pointing that out because spooks means something else that side of the water (= derogatory term for African-Americans). They changed the title to MI-5 in the US for just that reason. So I almost fell off my perch when he started talking in a South London accent. Much like when I first heard Eton-educated Dominic West speaking after watching The Wire – BTW McNulty’s partner The Bunk (Detective Moreland) shows up as a token American actor in Selma, Wendell Pierce plays the Reverend Hosea Williams who leads the first Selma to Montgomery march in MLK’s place.

Actor David Oyelowo speaking about his role as Martin Luther King in the movie Selma

David Oyelowo on playing MLK at Vue West End, Leicester Square – 17th December 2014

1. David Oyelowo plays the big man himself, Dr Martin Luther King Jnr

Actor David Oyelowo as Dr Martin Luther King Jnr in Selma

David was born in Oxford and trained at LAMDA in London. His portrayal of MLK certainly makes him a Best Actor contender in the forthcoming awards season – I thought Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking was way out ahead of the pack before I saw Selma. He’s done the whole African-American story at this point with roles in Lincoln, The Butler and The Help. He also appeared in the aforementioned The Last King of Scotland as well as a small part in fellow Brit Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.

He puts the success of British actors down to their training which he characterises as focusing on building the character from the inside out, diametrically opposite The Method. His accent in the movie is flawless, King having a very particular mix of accents with an equally distinctive preacher’s inflection.

He felt fated to play this role (it took eight years to get the movie made and he was cast early on). Shooting on location in Selma and Montgomery, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge which was the frontline of the protest (the bridge being named after an Alabama senator and general who also led the Alabama Ku Klux Klan – surprisingly (to a Brit at least) it retains its name to this day), shooting on location in the places where the civil rights history played out made for some very powerful experiences for the actor. One Twilight Zoney story he told was how when they came to shoot the final speech in front of the Capitol building in Montgomery the Production Designer was unhappy with the rostrum and podium. He went over to the nearby church, where MLK had preached, and asked to borrow a lectern. The pastor went down into the basement to look for anything suitable and found one covered in dust. When the Production Designer got it cleaned up and onto the set he checked back against contemporary photos and found it was the actual one used in 1965.

2. Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King, MLK’s wife

Actress Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott king in the movie selma

Carmen was born in Kensington (London, England) of a Nigerian father and Scottish mother. She’d already played Coretta in the HBO TV movie Boycott thirteen years earlier. She met her current husband, actor Jeffrey Wright (Felix Leiter in the Daniel Craig era Bond films), on the set of that movie but was previously married briefly to British trip-hop artist Tricky. She met Coretta King when making Boycott. She captures the dignity of CSK well and has a good scene with Malcolm X as well as a key one confronting her husband about his infidelity.

3. Tom Wilkinson plays LBJ (President Lyndon Johnson)

tom wilkinson as lyndon johnson in selma

Tom lives up the road from me in Muswell Hill. He’s great as Mr President, a touch crude and ultimately concerned with his legacy. He was born in Leeds and trained at RADA. He is in a strong tradition of Brits playing US Presidents including Anthony Hopkins as Nixon and Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln.

4. Tim Roth plays Governor George Wallace

actor tim roth as governor george wallace in the movie selma

Tim is from Dulwich, South London and studied at Camberwell Art School. He is in a strong tradition of Brits playing evil baddies. Wallace qualifies as indicated by the assassination attempt which left him in a wheelchair from 1972. Roth set out to play him as a despicable monster and pulled it off pretty well, you really want to hiss every time he appears. Roth came from a left-wing/Communist household and the Selma-Montgomery Marches were well known to him from it.

It’s a really striking movie and very well acted by the Brit Pack. What makes it particularly resonant though is that recent times have made it abundantly clear that the race issues that dog America (not least because it’s a nation founded on a genocide) are still here #ICantBreathe

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1 comment so far

  1. […] and there were only three screenings before the voting started.” Well I remember not only going to one of the screenings but also getting a DVD Screener through the door in good time for Christmas, the intense viewing […]

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