Selma, a stirring drama based on the 1965 civil rights marches from Selma to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to demand voting rights for African-Americans in a post-segregation South, is the first Hollywood movie to put Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. front and center. Perhaps King’s accomplishments were deemed too large and important to cram into a single film, or maybe studio executives, who place business and profits above all, decided such a large project wouldn’t justify its cost (Spike Lee’s epic-length Malcolm X, released in 1992, grossed a respectable but not-quite-stellar $48 million). Complicating matters was the fact that King’s three children, one of whom has become estranged from the other two, sold the rights to King’s life and speeches in 2009 for a film that never got made.
Whatever the reason, director Ava DuVernay (I Will Follow, Middle of Nowhere) and first-time screenwriter Paul Webb have started to correct the situation. Instead of trying to encapsulate King’s entire life, they focus on one of his most important achievements, the way Steven Spielberg did with Lincoln: Pressuring President Lyndon B. Johnson to sponsor a bill striking down voting restrictions. In the process, the filmmakers also give us a portrait of the man, his drive and his tactics. We first meet King, played by David Oyelowo in a mesmerizing, commanding performance that accentuates the man and not the icon, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. A few weeks later, he would find himself in Selma, reeling from the aftermath of a failed attempt at a march, later referred to as “Bloody Sunday.” Policemen armed in riot gear turned away the marchers, resulting in countless injuries and the death of a 26-year-old man.
Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), who used violence to stop a peaceful march, is satisfied with his decision. But the incident only serves to stoke the flames within King, who uses his personal access to the president (Tom Wilkinson) to push the matter of voting rights and takes to his pulpit to preach non-violence and persistence to his followers. Although the filmmakers did not have the rights to use any of King’s recorded words, they came up with facsimiles that sound like the real thing. Oyelowo nails King’s oratory prowess and his ability to inspire and mobilize. But he also captures King’s political savvy, his ability to read people and the manner in which he dealt with those who didn’t believe in his tactics (Malcolm X, played by Nigel Thatch, shows up in one scene in which the two men exchange respectful differences of opinion).
Unlike most biopics about heroic men who shaped our history or helped bring about change (such as 2013’s Mandela: Long Road to Freedom or The Butler), Selma doesn’t feel like freeze-dried hagiography. DuVernay is a dramatist first, a historian second, and she uses supporting characters to draw us into the film as if it were a piece of fiction, making it feel alive and vibrant. In one terrific scene, King’s wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) confronts him about his infidelities (DuVernay trusts her audience enough not to explain what the argument is about), and through her anger, you feel the profound connection and love these two people shared.
The scenes inside the White House, including one in which a weaselly J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) offers to sabotage King, or telephone conversations between Johnson and a seething Wallace, who made no effort to disguise his racism, illustrate the formidable enemies King had to navigate. The ongoing controversy over the film’s depiction of the relationship between Johnson and King as combative is overblown and, in the end, moot. It’s the sort of scrutiny and nitpicking that almost every fact-based film, from 12 Years a Slave to Foxcatcher, falls under. The movie ultimately depicts Johnson as supportive of King, which is what matters most.
Instead of a history lesson, Selma plays like suspenseful, absorbing drama. Even a cameo by Oprah Winfrey (one of the film’s producers) as a woman who gets turned down when she’s trying to register to vote doesn’t play like a distracting stunt. The movie ends on a triumphant, hopeful note, but the victory is bittersweet, and the racial tensions that continue to permeate our country, from Trayvon Martin to Ferguson, prove that King’s battle is still unfinished, regardless of who currently occupies the White House. Selma looks to the past to nudge us about the present: Like Dr. King did, the film captures your mind and your heart as it entertains, the way great movies often do.
Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Wendell Pierce, Common, Keith Stanfield, Dylan Baker, Nigel Thatch.
Director: Ava DuVernay.
Screenwriter: Paul Webb.
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 127 minutes. Brief vulgar language, brief violence, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.