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.