Film Review: ‘Selma’

Selma Trailer

Ava DuVernay's politically astute, psychologically acute MLK biopic makes the civil rights movement seem like only yesterday.

A half-century on from Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic voting-rights march from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery, director Ava DuVernay revisits those events with startling immediacy, dramatic force and filmmaking verve in “Selma.” A far cry from the dutiful biopic or ossified history lesson it could have become in lesser hands (or the campy free-for-all the project’s original director, Lee Daniels, might have made of it), DuVernay’s razor-sharp portrait of the civil rights movement — and Dr. King himself — at a critical crossroads is as politically astute as it is psychologically acute, giving us a human-scale King whose indomitable public face belies currents of weariness and self-doubt. Bolstered by Paul Webb’s literate, well-researched script and David Oyelowo’s graceful, majestic lead performance, DuVernay has made the kind of movie that gives year-end “prestige” pics a good name, which should equate to considerable box-office and awards-season gold for this Dec. 25 Paramount release.

While King has figured as a peripheral character in many civil-rights-themed dramas including Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” “The Long Walk Home” (about the Montgomery bus riders’ boycott) and the recent “The Butler,” the only attempt at a full-fledged King biopic to date was the three-part 1978 TV miniseries “King,” starring Paul Winfield in the title role. Probably, the sheer enormity of King’s life and achievements seemed a daunting subject for any one movie to convey, but it’s a task “Selma” ably tackles by focusing on a piece of King’s story that feels representative of the whole. The microcosmic approach recalls playwright Tony Kushner’s script for Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” a movie “Selma” also resembles in its fascination with the mix of politics, showmanship and media manipulation by which real change gets accomplished in America. But in the end, “Selma” may be the more impressive achievement in its effortless balance of the intimate and epic, and its notable absence of great-man mythmaking.

As depicted here, the Selma-to-Montgomery march (or, rather, marches) came at a crucial juncture in the civil rights movement, when the stubborn persistence of leaders like King had done much to turn the tide of race relations in America in theory, if not in practice. While the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act had legally desegregated the South, towns like Selma remained very dangerous places to be a black man or woman, with Jim Crow discrimination still in effect, especially with regard to the contentious subject of voter registration. Throughout the South, majority-black voting districts showed minuscule percentages of registered blacks and disproportionately large numbers of whites (often due to the names of dead or relocated residents being left on the voting rolls), while white police and voting officials employed a wide range of arcane laws and intimidation tactics to discourage black citizens from even attempting to register. And under the leadership of the racist Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth), Alabama was hardly inclined to change.

That was the battleground onto which King and other members of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference ventured in January 1965, and DuVernay and Webb spend much of “Selma’s” first half setting that stage — literally, in the sense that King is drawn to Selma in part because of its theatrical possibilities. At the time, King and the SCLC were still licking their wounds from a yearlong anti-segregation campaign in Albany, Ga., that had yielded relatively little media attention or measurable results, in part because of the uncharacteristically civil behavior of the local white authorities, who refused to counter King’s nonviolent protests with the kind of violent retaliations that had made headlines during the SCLC’s 1963 Birmingham campaign. “Is your sheriff Bull Connor or is he Laurie Pritchett?” King asks early upon his Selma arrival, trying to get a bead on where the local law enforcement falls on the Birmingham-Albany spectrum.  When the answer comes back “Bull Connor,” he knows he’s come to the right place.

A former publicist who previously directed two low-budget dramatic features (including the excellent “Middle of Nowhere,” also with Oyelowo), DuVernay has here made a panoramic, choral film that juxtaposes King’s grassroots work in Selma against his White House lobbying efforts (with a combustible Tom Wilkinson as LBJ), potent glimpses of the ordinary men and women drawn into King’s orbit (like the hospice nurse Annie Lee Cooper, well played by Oprah Winfrey, also one of the film’s producers), and a smart depiction of the internal friction within the civil rights movement itself, from the less confrontational likes of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to the aggressive agitation of a Malcolm X (played, in one superb, provocative scene, by Nigel Thatch).

Though the canvas of “Selma” is markedly larger than anything DuVernay has tackled before, she makes the transition with no evident strain. Shot on location in Selma itself, the movie is beautifully staged even when the events it depicts are at their ugliest — such as the infamous “Bloody Sunday” confrontation between King’s marchers and Selma police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, an expert action setpiece in which every thud of a nightstick lands with a sickening force. (The cinematography is by Bradford Young, one of the few cameramen who truly understands how to light black actors.)

But “Selma” is rarely more affecting than in its quiet scenes of King, alone or surrounded by a few trusted advisers, at the end of a long day in the trenches, plotting his next move. The British-born Oyelowo, who was brilliant as Forest Whitaker’s Freedom Rider-turned-Black Panther son in the best scenes of “The Butler,” is a marvelously internal actor whose piercing brown eyes, fleshy cheeks and broad forehead seem to register every thought that flashes through his mind. He’s uncanny at replicating King’s fiery public orations, but he’s even more impressive as the pensive, reflective, private King, a man haunted by what he calls “the constant closeness of death,” played with none of the self-important airs that can sometimes afflict actors cast as secular saints.

Oyelowo’s King is, above all, a man with a man’s problems, including a damaged relationship with his wife, Coretta (the remarkable British actress Carmen Ejogo), who needs no surreptitious wiretaps from J. Edgar Hoover (a sniveling Dylan Baker) to know that her husband is far from a perfect man. Although King’s infidelities are a well-known part of the historical record, it still comes as something of a surprise to see the sober, unvarnished way “Selma” confronts them, in a shattering scene of two loving spouses trying to salvage what remains of their marriage.

As it turns its focus to the planning of the Montgomery march (which finally took place from March 21-25, after two aborted attempts earlier that month), “Selma’s” political shrewdness rises to the fore, as DuVernay and Webb detail the game of inches played by King, LBJ and Wallace to curtail a second “Bloody Sunday.” The movie has the electric feel of events unfolding in the moment, even if we already know how everything turned out. That feeling extends to King’s impassioned “How Long, Not Long” speech, delivered on the Montgomery capitol steps — a sequence DuVernay movingly stages through an assembly of re-enactments and actual newsreel footage. It’s a powerful moment by any measure, but one that takes on uncanny resonances as King talks about the “vicious lie” of racial superiority passed down from one generation to the next — words that seem all too prescient in the age of post-Katrina Louisiana, riot-torn Ferguson, and the various campaigns to delegitimize the presidency of Barack Obama. So “Selma” ends on a note of queasy triumph, with the sense that we have come so far and yet still have so far to go, and the hope that the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice.

The film’s ace ensemble casting extends to its smallest roles, including Cuba Gooding Jr. (doing his best work in years) as civil rights attorney Fred Gray and Martin Sheen as federal district court judge Frank M. Johnson. DuVernay’s intelligent, understated approach extends to the film’s musical choices: a sparingly used original score by Jason Moran and a few choice spirituals, including Sister Gertrude Morgan’s “I Got the New World in My View” and Martha Bass’ “Walk with Me,” in lieu of the era’s more familiar (and overused) pop protest songs.

Print screened at AFI Fest premiere lacked complete end credits, some final vfx shots and a complete sound mix.

Film Review: 'Selma'

Reviewed at AFI Fest, November 11, 2014. Running time: 123 MIN.

Production

(U.S.-U.K.) A Paramount (in U.S.)/Pathe (in U.K.) release presented with Harpo Films of a Plan B/Cloud Eight Films/Harpo Films production in association with Ingenious Media. Produced by Produced by Christian Colson, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Oprah Winfrey. Executive Producers, Cameron McCracken, Nik Bower, Diarmuid McKeown, Ava DuVernay, Paul Garnes, Nan Morales.

Crew

Directed by Ava DuVernay. Screenplay, Paul Webb. Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen), Bradford Young; editor, Spencer Averick; music, Jason Moran; executive score producer, Tracy McKnight; music supervisor, Morgan Rhodes; production designer, Mark Friedberg; art director, Kim Jennings; set decorator, Elizabeth Keenan; costume designer, Ruth E. Carter; sound (Datasat/Dolby Digital/SDDS), Willie Burton; supervising sound editor, Greg Hedgepath; re-recording mixer, Andy Koyama; visual effects supervisors, Dottie Starling, Susan Macleod; visual effects producer, Lauren Ritchie; visual effects, Wildfire Studios; stunt coordinator, Stephen Pope; assistant director, Myron Hoffert; casting, Aisha Coley.

With

David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alessandro Nivola, Giovanni Ribisi, Common, Carmen Ejogo, Lorraine Toussaint, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey, Stephan James, Andre Holland, Tessa Thompson, Omar Dorsey, Colman Domingo, Wendell Pierce, Corey Reynolds, E. Roger-Mitchell, Ruben Staniago-Hudson, Trai Byers, Lakeith Stanfield, Henry G. Sanders, Charity Jordan, John Lavelle, Stan Houston, David Dwyer, Kent Falcoun, Niecy Nash, Stephen Root, Martin Sheen, Nigel Thatch, Dylan Baker.

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  1. Thomas says:

    Touching, engaging, and educating, it’s a film that should be shown in schools, and which everyone even only remotely interested in this topic should have a look at.

  2. John says:

    Also, how is trying to delegitimize Obama racist? Obama is a bad president, and that has nothing to do with race.

  3. John says:

    Why are you, the filmmakers and every other critic comparing this to Ferguson. There is no proof that Ferguson’s shooting was racially motivated. I’m not quite sure why so many critics are praising this movie solely for being “relevant.” I severely dislike how you compared Selma to what is currently happening today. What happened in Ferguson and New York have nothing to do with race; it was police brutality that the media turned into a race issue. Do you realize that there are many unarmed white, hispanic, and native people who are also murdered by officers? And do you realize that there were many protests that were not peaceful in Ferguson. People’s businesses were looted and burned by protesters and you do not bring it up once, even though Selma could be argued as a call for peaceful protesting over looting and violence.

  4. Andrea Ruby says:

    I don’t understand why this film is receiving so much attention. The movie isn’t that good, definitely not worth 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. I assume it’s difficult to make a historical film because what don’t we already know? Also this film makes LBJ look like a saint. Terrible movie. This cannot beat Birdman.

  5. Melvis McIlroy says:

    Separating aspiration from actuality, this was a terrible movie. Wish it had been in more capable hands to have avoided the yawning social studies book text and the cartoonish Caucasians that populate the screen with clubs, harsh lightning and camera angles, and enough N words to make Quentin Tarrantino take notice. While attempting social relevance and trying to teach a history lesson for which they are not qualified, the makers missed the opportunity to make a nuanced and powerful portrait about Rev King and this moment in history. The massive star cast is wasted with literal cameos worthy of Love Boat, and we never get to know any of the men that shared the harrowing journey next to MLK. Add in long, talky scenes that run together like a student film, and you see where this whiffed. I get that everyone wants films to be important, to say important things, whether it be Milk or Selma, but for pete’s sake don’t forget to start with a watchable script. #dontbelievethehype

    • Gregg Calumet says:

      I truly believe you are trolling. Have you even seen the actual film? And for a film that occurs exactly when Jim Crow was high, the film did not use that many N-word references (albeit it was casually used by Southern whites so much). And definitely not at the same gratuitous level that Tarantino uses in his films. The cast did an EXCELLENT job with the material, and I agree with Scott Foundas, the cinematography on the film was great; especially when capturing the events of ‘Bloody Sunday” on Pettus Bridge.

      • Charles says:

        I did see the film on Friday night at the request of a friend. I am 66, not a Southerner, and a History major who was familiar with the strife of the time. I found the film to be average at best, the acting mediocre, the story fairly accurate for a movie and the dialogue incredibly boring. How this is up for any award is beyond me. I believe all the good reviews are coming from those not wishing to be labeled racist. A much better film of the time is Mississippi Burning.

    • Daphne says:

      100% right on
      Well cast, brilliant acting, no script, no direction
      Plodding and aimless with Oprah popping up on screen every 10 minutes

  6. dr Mimi sisson says:

    A rousing thank you for Cynthia
    stillwell casting for an enormous cinematic task of interviewing and choosing extras for Selma. Visual
    perfection.

  7. Dennis Brown says:

    At the risk of being a vocabulary bore, may I point out that Foundas doesn’t seem to know what “enormity” means. It does not mean “hugeness”; it means “extreme wickedness”.

  8. Regular Joe says:

    Had “12 Years A Slave” not won 2014, I’d say this was a lock for 2015. Initial critics are gushing about Selma the way historians gush about MLK. Will be very interesting (and entertaining!) to see how this plays out, with middle America and with the Academy. Could go many ways.

  9. John says:

    I see Oprah attached to this and I think “cheesy”. No thanks.

  10. This is a great review. However, it’s vital to note that it wasn’t the “riots” (which could be more correctly called “demonstrations”) that tore Ferguson apart but the murder of Michael Brown. To call Ferguson “riot-torn” is hideously misleading. It is a grieving community that cannot trust its “protectors”.

    • Michael Daniels says:

      I agree with Ashlie Atkinson. The police attitude towards African Americans in our community of St. Louis/Ferguson is emblematic of Jim Crow combined with a state law that encourages and supports the use of deadly force. In Missouri Michael Brown must prove excessive deadly force as opposed to the cop being required to defend his action. Who represents the Michael Browns? We do and we must!

    • Frida says:

      Sorry. It was rioting, arson and looting with some peaceful people standing around.

      • So, you look at what the one percent of people do to color how you represent the other ninety-nine? The vast majority of individuals demonstrated peacefully. And to clarify, people need not be polite or kind in their words when demonstrating. They can yell, scream, use all sorts of profanities, if they want. The vast majority of protestors did not riot, and the record proves that.

  11. Amy Taubin says:

    How could you have overlooked the 2001 HBO movie “Boycott”. Jeffrey Wright’s stars as King and gives one of the all-time great American movie performances.

  12. Michelle says:

    Too bad were practically right back to that same era with Police Brutality, murders of unarmed men going unprosecuted and the Voter ID Acts.

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