The civil rights movement is well documented, well recorded history, but for all the recordkeeping, there has not been a more detailed narrative feature film dedicated to the heroes of the movement, than Ava Duvernay's stirring and soulful biopic Selma, which brings Martin Luther King, Jr. back to life onscreen in a more humanized version than we've ever seen before, thanks to a magnificent performance from David Oyelowo, who channels the civil rights leader in downright bone-chilling fashion.
It's not a perfect film, but it's made with such dedication and obvious passion for the cause that it becomes a highly emotional and more moving experience than many more technically proficient biopics that put the focus squarely on the figure at hand. Selma is not just a tribute to Martin Luther King, he's seen as the center of a bigger picture in the call for civil rights that feels more relevant and immediate today in light of recent news events, than it might have even last year. DuVernay has a clear vision and a definite devotion to what King and his colleagues were fighting for, and Selma takes its time to make clear the struggle it was for all involved to be prepared to fight and if necessary, to die so that a better future could be procured for the citizens who were coming into this world decades down the line. To see all that it took to get the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed makes you despair in the recent Supreme Court rulings that stripped that very act of its purpose, especially in the context of recent racial unrest across the country.
The film takes its cue from 2012's Lincoln, taking place during a short window of a few months in 1965, right after Lyndon Johnson had been elected in the biggest landslide in history. King had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and was on to his next battle cry, which was for voting rights legislation that would grant African-Americans the right to vote unencumbered. Most of this struggle was a political one, with backroom dealings that took place between King and Johnson, their respective aides, and King and his co-workers in the SNCC and other organizations over how best to accomplish their goals. Where Lincoln was concerned with the process of passing legislation through Congress, Selma deals with a similar process that activists face in attempting to have their voices heard by political leaders. King was a savvy political mind himself, and one who knew what had to be done in order to get those at the top to pay attention. He knew that it required sacrifices, publicity, and in this case, was going to involve violence and even death.
Oyelowo plays the reverend as a man who struggled deeply within himself over what he was asking those around him to do, who relied heavily on his faith to guide him through the times, and though DuVernay cannot help but portray King in a nearly reverential light (many shots are framed from the back of his head as he takes his place in front of a crowd) Oyelowo does most of the heavy lifting by turning in a performance that embodies King so powerfully that it moves an audience in nearly the manner the man himself once did. Where DuVernay shines most is in the crowd scenes- King's speeches and the brutal attacks of the march on Selma are shot uncompromisingly and are intensely effective in conveying a sense of urgency. Less effective are some of the backroom conversations- though interesting, there's a staginess to it that dialogue as remarkable as say, Tony Kushner's, would be better cinematically suited for.
But that aside, the film as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts- undeniably emotional and powerful as a clarion call for civil rights that continues to this day, and as a deeply heartfelt and utterly sincere portrait of a time not so long ago, about people we as a nation are deeply indebted to for doing what they did to move history along the arc of progress. The film has been under heavy scrutiny for its portrayal of LBJ as insufficiently sympathetic towards the cause of civil rights, but in truth, Johnson, as portrayed by a scraggly Tom Wilkinson, is seen mostly as a politician attempting to carve out a path that would best suit the goals for which he himself was pursuing, while King's role as the activist was to push the president to the point of action driven by events themselves. The historical accuracy of the interaction between them is in no way what the film is about- this film centers on the activists and the movement more than anything else- the story of LBJ's presidency is a topic for another movie entirely. What you're left with in this one is the passion of the men and women who had to fight for what was rightfully theirs, and their story deserves to be told as much as anyone's.
* * * 1/2