Like Spielberg’s Lincoln that preceded it two years prior, Ana DuVernay’s Selma sidesteps the idea of a biopic and rather focuses on a short but integral passage of time in its subject’s life. The focus is on Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1965 Voting Rights marches in Selma, Alabama. The film provides a history lesson that takes strides to not portray its central figure purely as a saint – nor does its perspective shy away from criticism of President Lyndon B. Johnson, while also acknowledging his achievements.
The film opens with King (David Oyelowo) and wife Coretta (Carmen Ejojo) in Norway circa 1964 to accept his Nobel Peace Prize. They speak of an alternative lifestyle in the opening scene that doesn’t involve the constant threat of death and his constant search for equal rights and justice. The couple seems to know that this is only talk and it is not what he’s destined for. Back home, the recent signing of the Civil Rights Act by President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) has done little in the South to allow African Americans the right to vote. And this sets off a decision by King to organize a march in Selma that is met with Johnson’s objections, though not near to the level of Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth).
Director DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb do not shy away from showing us the brutality that took place in this era in the South. We also witness the goodness of people of many faiths and races who come to lend their support to Dr. King in his efforts. It is not one march on Selma – it’s three. The first ends in violent resistance from the police. The second time it’s halted is due to a more surprising manner of resistance. The third is history. The filmmakers also tackle the Kings marital status, including Dr. King’s infidelities.
His political skills are shown as well and they are often as powerful as his oratory abilities. The scenes with King and LBJ have been challenged by some for inaccuracy, but this is not a documentary and I won’t judge it as such. My only drawback to these sequences are Wilkinson, a fine actor that’s simply not the right choice for the 36th POTUS.
The flaws don’t stop there. The complex relationship between King and Malcolm X is touched upon so briefly that it begs for further fleshing out. Adding familiar faces like Martin Sheen and Cuba Gooding Jr. for cameos threaten to take you out of the story than involve you more.
Where it delivers is its willingness to tell this important story as a real one. A human one. King is a great man, but is written as experiencing the doubts and insecurities that he must have had. Oyelowo nails the role and he excels at embodying MLK’s mannerisms and spirit.
Selma tells the story of imperfect men fighting for a more perfect union. The film is imperfect as well but it’s worthy of its important subject matter that might have occurred a half century ago, but still resonates on many levels today.
*** (out of four)