'Selma' follows Martin Luther King Jr. pushing forward
Director Ava DuVernay knows the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is more than one movie can hold.
Which is why "Selma" only focuses on one short, impactful period in that life. Within that period she is able to find the man — his doubts and infidelities, his courage and determination, his righteous spirit — while still making it clear he was trying to guide something much larger than himself: A political movement, a shift in consciousness, a people whose time had come.
Of course, that time didn't come easy, and after the many events of the past year, it's clear it hasn't yet fully arrived. But King's fight to win blacks the right to vote in the South was a key breakthrough.
The film begins with King (David Oyelowo) at a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 1965 while, thousands of miles away, a group of young black girls dressed in their Sunday best make their way down a church staircase in the South. A bomb goes off, the girls end up buried in rubble, and the tone of the time is set.
King and his supporters gather in Selma, Alabama, to organize a march on the state capital, Montgomery. King has been encouraging President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to push for a voting rights act that will allow blacks to vote, but LBJ thinks that's premature (in this telling) and would rather concentrate on his War on Poverty (another act that would benefit many blacks).
King knows that Alabama's outright racist governor, George Wallace (Tim Roth), and other local authorities will likely react violently to his intended march, and he has the media present in droves.
Whatever happens, it will be broadcast to the nation, and it may force LBJ into action.
Which is a fine strategic plan, but it also means King is risking a success built on the bloody bodies of marchers beaten along the way. Is King sending his people to the slaughter for political purchase?
Sort of, but then again, the movement is bigger than the man. DuVernay, who did uncredited work on the script by Paul Webb, films the first attempt to march out of Selma as a complete abandonment of law and civility. Marchers young and old are ridden down and hit mercilessly by white lawmen and citizens alike. King's nonviolent approach suddenly seems naïve, or possibly nuts.
The movie's violence is a great eruption of awfulness, as is the constant racist vitriol of the film's southern whites, all of which is heightened by DuVernay's somber control of the complications in King's day-to-day existence. He relies on his wife, Coretta, as his most trusted confidante, but he also has to face down revelations about affairs with other women. He is trying to present a united front, but other black activists resent him.
Despite the serious situation and constant threat of turmoil, DuVernay also manages to establish a camaraderie among King's crowd, men and women joined together in a move toward justice. DuVernay cast many lesser-known faces in the film and it helps sell these characters.
The great exception is Oprah Winfrey as a woman who wants the right to vote; she's fine, but recognizably Oprah Winfrey and something of a distraction. It's not about Oprah.
And it's not about rabid historical accuracy, either. "Selma" has been criticized for making LBJ seem a bit of a reluctant progressive. But even if DuVernay stumbles a bit when it comes to political sausage-making (really, who knows?), the film is dramatically tight and emotionally true.
In the end, "Selma" is about Dr. King, and it's about politics, and it's about media manipulation. But mostly it's about a great surge forward. And it raises the question: How much further do we have to go?
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language
Running time: 127 minutes
"Selma" (PG-13) Director Ava Duvernay looks at Dr. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) as he pushes for the Voters Rights Act in a sober, sometimes violent film about politics, media manipulation and a great surge forward. (127 minutes) GRADE: A