One of the first things you should know is that Selma isn't a Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic. Dr. King does indeed play a crucial role and is the story's central figure, but Ava DuVernay's film is about a movement, not a man. It's one of the few movies made about the Civil Rights Movement which actually seems to have a full understanding of that movement's identity, and one of the few mainstream movies about the movement which doesn't place the focus on a white savior (see: Mississippi Burning, The Long Walk Home, Ghosts of Mississippi, etc.). It's a film which succinctly highlights a chapter of America's recent past, while simultaneously drawing thought-provoking parallels to the racial tensions of our present (odds are you'll be having flashbacks to Ferguson long before Common makes an explicit reference in the film's end credits song). It's clearly an important and relevant film, but thankfully, it's also a good film.
Unlike the other 2014 historical dramas nominated for Best Picture (The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, American Sniper), Selma doesn't attempt to stuff a full life into a two-hour movie. It smartly zeroes in on a very specific moment in time. The film opens not with depictions of conflict or struggle, but with a scene of King (David Oyelowo, Jack Reacher) accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. It was certainly a big moment for the esteemed civil rights activist, but the film uses it as a reminder that winning a battle is not the same thing as winning a war. By that point in time, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been passed, but it hardly ensured equality for all citizens. Black voters across the country (particularly in southern states like Alabama and Mississippi) were being denied the right to vote for the flimsiest of legal reasons, and King is determined to make sure that changes.
King visits President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton), who seems preoccupied with his poverty bill and would prefer to push civil rights issues aside for a while. “It's gonna have wait,” the President insists, but King knows – to quote his great Letter from a Birmingham Jail – that, “wait has almost always meant never.” King and other civil rights leaders determine to push the issue to the fore by staging a march across the state of Alabama from Selma to Montgomery, knowing that their efforts are likely to be met with strong resistance from local, state and federal officials. Working alongside such collaborators as James Bevel (Common, American Gangster), Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce, The Wire) and John Lewis (Stephan James, 12 Dates of Christmas), King begins navigating the trial-and-error process of staging this ambitious march. Meanwhile, he's forced to contend with the intimidation of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker, Spider-Man 2), who uses all sorts of nasty methods in an effort to damage King's relationship with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo, Alex Cross).
The film places the emphasis on the strategy being laid by King and his collaborators, of course, but also takes time to consider the methods and motivations of President Johnson, Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth, Reservoir Dogs), federal judge Frank Minis Johnson (Martin Sheen, The West Wing) and even Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch). Refreshingly, it feels no need to elaborate on who most of these people are, instead assuming that we have at least a passing knowledge of American history and otherwise letting the actions these characters take define them. The scenes between King and Johnson are particularly compelling, a series of tense negotiations between passion and politics. “You're an activist, I'm a politician,” Johnsons sighs, “You have one issue, I have one hundred.” It's a reasonable point, but one which fails to take the moral urgency of King's single issue into account.
In a way, Selma plays like a more accessible version of Steven Soderbergh's two-part, four-hour epic Che. Like that film, it's fundamentally an examination of the challenges involved in conducting a revolution, but in this case there are a couple of crucial wrinkles that Mr. Guevera never had to contend with. First, King hopes to achieve major social change through exclusively peaceful methods of protest. Secondly, King is required to balance his desire for practical change with his sense of humanity – he can only endanger the lives of those who support him so much before feeling he has crossed a moral line.
The second element is reflected most potently in a late, spiritually-charged sequence which sees King getting on his knees and silently asking God for guidance. Selma takes care to note the important role King's religious beliefs played in his life – in defining who he was and how he made the choices he made. In many ways the Civil Rights Movement doubles as a spiritual movement, a notion underscored (literally) by the use of gospel music selections on the soundtrack and further emphasized by the reminder that this march was largely comprised of religious leaders (black and white) and those acting for reasons of religious conviction. The film's final words are from King, quoting a famous hymn: “His truth is marching on.” Many awful things have been done in the name of Christianity, but Selma offers a potent, moving reminder that it has also driven people to do great good.
Oyelowo's performance as King is an impressively understated piece of work. He nails the fiery cadences of the public speeches, but the performance is largely a quiet, subtle one. He's both a diplomat and a man unafraid to speak his mind; stepping forward and making bold proclamations while simultaneously biting his tongue on certain matters. An impressive ensemble of familiar faces and dependable character actors fill out the supporting cast, but this isn't really an actor's movie. Everyone works in service of making each moment as authentic as possible, even if that means simply lingering in the background of most scenes. This is a film about ideas: those we had in the past, those we're confronted with in the present and those we need to pave the way for our future.
At its best, Selma is a passionate and powerful work, but it doesn't quite achieve cinematic greatness. A number of early scenes feel curiously flat, and briefly made me wonder if we were in for another respectfully stiff, forgettable take on the subject. DuVernay's musical choices are particularly hit-and-miss, with a generic score and certain inspirational song choices occasionally making the whole thing feel a good deal more conventional than it actually is (a whole separate piece could be written on how many historical drama cliches Selma deftly avoids). The domestic scenes don't register quite as strongly as everything else, and the relationship between Martin and Coretta comes across as just a bit underdeveloped. The much-debated historical alterations don't bother me (they don't really alter anything particularly fundamental), but your mileage may vary (particularly if you're a former member of the Johnson administration).
Minor issues aside, Selma is a rich and rewarding experience. DuVernay's staging of the protest sequences in particular feel definitive in their attention to detail and thought-provoking artfulness. It could be argued that they are softened a bit more than they should be in an effort to attain a PG-13 rating, but the compromise is completely understandable in this case: this is a film younger viewers need to see and discuss. When I was a young child, I picked up a library book about the civil rights movement. I was too young to understand the complexities of the era and the complicated root causes of racism, but I understood the pure, simple rightness of the notion that all human beings should be treated with equality. Somehow, that issue gets cloudier as people grow older. If you have kids, see this movie and discuss it with them. If you don't, see this movie anyway and consider it for yourself. The film is not a bronze statue – it's a battle cry.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Year: 2014