127 min., rated PG-13.
Directed by former studio publicist turned filmmaker Ava DuVernay (2012's underseen "Middle of Nowhere") and written by Paul Webb, "Selma" is a stirring and very long-overdue portrait of the revered Martin Luther King, Jr. and account of the Selma march. What it all stands for may very well be nourishing and its topic of fighting back against racial injustice rings relevant even today. However, where it really matters, the filmmaking itself is also assured and anchored by David Oyelowo's towering, profoundly eloquent lead turn as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. "Selma" is a history lesson, but really, it's a powerful and passionate film made with technique and a fire-in-its-belly voice. Instead of billing itself as a comprehensive biopic that might only scratch the surface in two-plus hours' time, the film narrows its scope, Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln"-style," to the three months leading up to the 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
Clergyman Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) has just been a recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize. Following the racially motivated bombing and murder of four little girls in a Birmingham church in 1963, Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) is soon denied her right to register to vote as she is forced by the white registrar to recite the preamble of the United States Constitution. She recites it, but when she can't list the names of the judges in the state of Alabama, her request is denied. From there, Dr. King corrects voter discrimination in the South and then attempts swaying President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The time might not be right in the president's eyes, but King and his followers (a third of the participants being white) take to the streets, preparing to march and make the dream of equality come true.
A poignant, reverberating reflection of how far we have come but how far we still have to go, "Selma" never oversells its importance, nor does it ever mute its voice. The film strikes a graceful power during Dr. King's speeches and, inevitably, overwhelms during its incendiary moments of violence, especially an early attack on Annie Lee Cooper, the beating and shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson in a cafe, and then the first march along the Edmund Pettus Bridge erupting into tear gas and beatdowns, all of which are capable of standing the viewer's arm hairs on end. Director Ava DuVernay conveys emotion without big, sweeping music but as small and intimate. She clearly trusts her own organic, restrained form of storytelling, and while Paul Webb's screenplay could have fully fleshed out some of the other other civil rights leaders, everyone is consolidated into a people and it is more about a movement.
It's always a daunting undertaking to take on an iconic figure. David Oyelowo is just simply outstanding, modulating a performance that is commanding, soulful, charismatic, yet rarely ever saintly. The UK actor not only captures the icon of Dr. King, looking pretty close to the genuine article and delivering the fire-and-brimstone speeches with an uncanny cadence, but finds room for faults that make him human like anyone. Carmen Ejogo beautifully articulates the frustrations and fear felt by King's wife Coretta, particularly when she speaks of the "fog of death" surrounding them and another tense exchange between husband and wife after hearing an FBI tape involving an extramarital affair. Fully erasing the fact that she is one of the richest and most powerful people in America and vanishing completely into her role, Oprah Winfrey makes a natural, heart-stopping mark as rest home employee Annie Lee Cooper, who was denied her right to register to vote and is later beat up by a billy club-wielding sheriff. The rest of the ensemble is so strong across the board, too, including Tessa Thompson (2014's "Dear White People"), Lorraine Toussaint (Netflix's "Orange is the New Black"), an against-type Niecy Nash and Common, Wendell Pierce, Cuba Gooding Jr., Martin Sheen, Giovanni Ribisi, Dylan Baker, and Alessandro Nivola. Also, Tom Wilkinson is effective as President LBJ, and Tim Roth, as Alabama governor George Wallace, is appropriately slimy without playing him as a broad Snidley Whiplash (despite the portrayal being dubbed an inaccuracy by some bothered critics and fervid history buffs). Over "Lee Daniels' The Butler," this film doesn't distract as much with its casting of character actors playing politicians.
As a director, who just so happens to be a woman and a woman of color, director DuVernay brings something special to the film. Her point-of-view often peels away the iconography and lionization of Dr. King—the speaker, the holiday namesake—for more interesting ground and transcending him beyond his historically set-in-stone speeches. How she opens the film with King's practicing of a speech being interrupted by his tying of an ascot is a telling, subtle detail of her humanistic approach. Anybody could make a film about King, the icon, but DuVernay makes him a flesh-and-blood human being. Without tumbling into melodrama, artificial uplift, or incessant point-driving, "Selma" is very good, if not quite masterful or as inflammatory as, say, a "12 Years a Slave." Stacked next to what the film gets right, the film actually feels important, rather than trying to be IMPORTANT, and not like a lecture. This is vital in the world of cinema and the world and deserves to be seen.
Grade: B +