It’s December, which means the multiplex is once again starting to look a lot like the biography section of your local bookstore. Joining an already crowded field of Great Man movies about the likes of Stephen Hawking, Alan Turing, J.M.W. Turner, and Louie Zamperini (not to mention Moses) is Ava DuVernay’s rousing biopic of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Selma. It isn’t just the best film of the bunch, it also arrives with a raw-nerve urgency and timeliness that no one could have predicted.
Rather than chronicling the full epic sweep of King’s inspirational life, from his 1929 birth in Jim Crow Atlanta to his 1968 assassination in Memphis, DuVernay and writer Paul Webb wisely zero in on one crucial chapter of King’s legacy: the tinderbox three-month period in early 1965 when he led a campaign of civil disobedience to help speed up the passage of President Johnson’s Voting Rights Act. I realize that may sound like the snoozy stuff of a high school civics lesson, but as Steven Spielberg did with Lincoln, DuVernay brilliantly uses a micro event as a way into a larger, more compelling macro story. She makes the backroom drudgery of compromise, gamesmanship, and veiled threats burn with intimacy and intensity. Even though we know how the March on Selma will play out, we’re hanging on every act of potentially deadly political theater, every speech and small gesture of defiance.
As King, British actor David Oyelowo (who played the firebrand activist son of Forest Whitaker’s character in Lee Daniels’ The Butler) miraculously rescues the flesh-and-blood man from the myth. He reveals to us the King who’s not in our history books — his humor, his human failings, and his self-doubt. Just as important, he nails not only King’s physical appearance and charisma but also the unique cadence of his soaring oratory. He’s magnificent. And his delivery of King’s ”We Shall Overcome” speech toward the end of the film is guaranteed to make the hairs on your neck stand up and salute. But let’s back up…
As the film opens, we’re shown the everyday humiliations suffered by African-Americans in the ’60s — the institutional disenfranchisement and hurdles that make the constitutional right to vote a farce. To draw media attention to this injustice, King and his fellow leaders (including Common as James Bevel, Stephan James as John Lewis, and a wonderful Carmen Ejogo as King’s wife, Coretta) plan a historic, nonviolent march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery. In the walk-up to the protest, King meets with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who futilely urges him to take the slow path to progress. And as LBJ, Wilkinson makes you see the no-win pressure he was under. He’s a progressive whose ideals are ahead of most of white America’s and more in sync with King’s than either is willing to admit. He understands the inevitability of equality, but he’s also beholden to good ol’ boys, such as Tim Roth’s racist Alabama governor George Wallace, who helped put him in office but whose politics he can’t stomach.
DuVernay, whose previous film was the 2012 indie Middle of Nowhere, doesn’t soft-pedal the violence that led up to King’s triumph. In one hauntingly staged fracas, Alabama state troopers beat King’s followers with billy clubs and worse. It’s sickening to watch, especially when you consider just how recent this moment in American history was. DuVernay has done a great service with Selma. Not only has she made one of the most powerful films of the year, she’s given us a necessary reminder of what King did for this country…and how much is left to be done. A