Measured, earnest, and levelheaded, Selma is an overdue tribute to a revered icon; a stately, sober depiction of the 1960s American civil rights movement; and a solid, if unspectacular, look at the gruntwork of activism. It’s vital correspondence with an impassioned and reverberating message.
Chronicling the tumultuous three-month period in 1965 and the epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama (including the well-known “Bloody Sunday” attack), Selma tells the real story of how leader, visionary, and 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo, Middle of Nowhere, The Butler, Interstellar) led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights from President Lyndon B Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton, Belle, The Grand Budapest Hotel) in the face of violent opposition.
With impressive texture and firepower, Oyelowo inhabits King like Daniel Day-Lewis inhabited Lincoln. Oyelowo brings humanity, grace, and torment to a historical figure who once seemed to loom too large a legend to make flesh on screen. Taking full advantage of his close physical resemblance to King, Oyelowo seems to penetrate into King’s soul and camp out there for two hours. Whether electrifying his congregation at the podium or calmly addressing his wife (Carmen Ejogo) with a sense of fatigue, Oyelowo is dynamite. In his hands, King is the man we knew, and never knew. Oyelowo is reason alone to see Selma; another reason’s the superb Ejogo.
Writer-director Ava DuVernay (I Will Follow) shapes Selma with poise and integrity. In collaboration with Oyelowo, she gives us a human-scale King, whose indomitable public face belies currents of weariness and self-doubt, and honours his legacy by dramatizing the racist brutality that spurred him to action in order to right wrongs and overcome indignities. DuVernay cut her directorial teeth on small, intimate moments – like raindrops forming a thunderstorm – and these opportunities resonate most in Selma as well: a quiet funereal exchange at a coroner’s office between King and a compatriot includes the beautiful line of dialogue “God was the first to cry for your boy.”
Lived-in, resolute, and undeniably urgent, Selma is a moving and well-meaning film that never quite manages the greatness one expects, given its soaring subject material. Gravitas abounds, and yet it sometimes comes off as stolid. While DuVernay sidesteps the pitfalls of adulatory biopics, screenwriter Paul Webb’s script is dramatically uneven in its encapsulation of bygone events. The dynamic between MLK and LBJ is disappointingly off-kilter, and some of the casting is a bit of an overreach (the British Wilkinson and Tim Roth as Governor George Wallace seem out of place).
As psychologically acute as it is politically astute, Selma is most nimble when illuminating scenes rather than trying to explicate them. Yet racial strife is a subject that cries out for a more volatile treatment. The Alabama marching sequences and resulting violence, filmed where they actually happened, are too understated – almost journalistic – and the finale is so restrained that it’s jarring, rendering the actual four-day march something of an afterthought.
If there’s a temptation to canonize Selma and brush aside its less successful elements, that’s not surprising given its handsome presentation, its topical importance, and the heroic nature of the story, not to mention the ridiculous amount of time it’s taken for this story to reach the screen. It has all the hallmarks of a trophy winner, for better and worse. In the end, it’s probably drawn more praise and criticism than it warrants. Regardless, Selma is elaborately staged and phenomenally stirring, a spine-chilling reminder that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.
Vivid and timely, Selma demands to be seen, despite its flaws. To see it is to appreciate anew the burden of greatness. Needless to say, Dr. King’s message has never been more relevant. As cinema, then, Selma is mostly commendable; as cultural barometer, it’s beyond reproach.