Recently, a listener called into a talk-radio show I was on, asking if Paramount had sped up the release of its Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. drama Selma to capitalize on the recent deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The timing just seemed too perfect. I had to tell him that it was all just coincidence: Director Ava DuVernay's film about King's 1965 quest to raise awareness for equal voting rights has long been teed up for a Christmas 2014 release in the thick of awards season. But what would have always been a strong drama about racism and the slow process of social change now feels even more urgent, more sickeningly topical.
Chronicling roughly three months in the spring of 1965, Selma stars David Oyelowo as King, who as the movie opens is receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in the fall of '64. Already recognized worldwide for his efforts to advance the cause of African-Americans, King is a charismatic, thoughtful leader not yet chiseled into caricature the way all famous Americans eventually are. The King we see is still trying to bring together a coalition, and with the murder of four black girls in a 1963 Alabama church bombing still ringing in his ears, he knows that despite having the respect and ostensible support of President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), there's a lot of work to do towards equal rights.
As its title suggests, Selma concerns King's effort to organize a peaceful march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery to advocate for a voting rights act. In King's inner circle, there's agreement that blacks will never experience equality in America if they can't first be able to vote without the hindrance of obstacles like poll taxes. (In one scene, we see a woman, played by producer Oprah Winfrey, be denied the opportunity to vote because a racist white clerk quizzes her on the names of different local judges, waiting for her to get a wrong answer so he can throw out her application.) Preaching nonviolence as always, King believes that the march will put pressure on the waffling Johnson to enact legislation.
In its broad strokes, Selma resembles 2012's Lincoln in that it focuses on the minute, behind-the-scenes political maneuvering that resulted in a profound national change. In another similarity, Selma eschews the birth-to-death CliffsNotes overview of its main character's life, instead observing King during a short amount of time crucial to his legacy. The close attention only serves to underline not only how momentous his achievement was—Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in the summer of 1965—but also how hard it was. Until the very end, Selma is not a movie about big speeches: It's about strategy, the political chess matches that must be undertaken to get anything done in this country. Most viewers will know how King's mission ends, but even then, the film ripples with grim uncertainty about the outcome.
Initially, Oyelowo didn't necessarily seem like the ideal candidate to play King. To be sure, he's an excellent actor. (He's popped up in everything from The Paperboy to Interstellar—he even shows up at the beginning of Lincoln—and he was particularly great in DuVernay's terrific 2012 film Middle of Nowhere, where he played an L.A. bus driver falling in love with a woman whose husband is in jail.) But Oyelowo has always exuded a calm, soft-spoken demeanor: There's not much previous onscreen evidence that he possesses the fire to play such a magnetic figure. What Selma does quite well, though, is strip away that narrow cultural impression of King, reminding us of the organized, imperfect, reflective, life-sized man underneath. DuVernay and writer Paul Webb want to honor a civil rights icon by making him human, in the process highlighting how difficult his road to Birmingham was.
Just as King is demystified, Selma takes a street-level view of the typical social-progress film. It would be accurate to call DuVernay's film "inspirational," but it rarely cues you to cheer in a manipulative, overfamiliar way. Working with rising cinematographer Bradford Young (he also shot the forthcoming A Most Violent Year), DuVernay doesn't always have a very strong visual sense—that may also be a product of a relatively low budget—but it does help emphasize the nuts-and-bolts practicalities of King's quest. Meeting with Johnson and negotiating with Assistant Attorney General John Doar (Alessandro Nivola), King spends plenty of his time in Selma talking to powerful white men sympathetic to his cause but unable to help him out of concern for their own political interest. These scenes, lacking the linguistic flair that Tony Kushner brought to Lincoln, can be a bit dry, but that appears to be part of DuVernay's point: You don't change the world by speeches, but through diligent, determined action.
The supporting cast is a little shaky: The usually great Wilkinson falters a bit with his Texas accent, and Tim Roth turns the racist Alabama governor George Wallace into a bit of a Southern-redneck cartoon. But those limitations are mitigated by Selma's unfortunate but perfect timing. Although DuVernay made this before the recent protests in Ferguson and Staten Island, the racial tension inherent in those tragedies echoes throughout. Watching armed white cops assault black men and women here, you can't separate the images from what's been on television lately. You can nitpick some of its storytelling, but the film's quiet, blunt force has to be acknowledged, too.
Maybe it's hard to be objective about a movie so in tune to our current events. But what's saddest about Selma is the dark irony of King's achievement that DuVernay leaves provocatively unspoken: The Voting Rights Act that he fought so hard to secure was largely wiped away by the Supreme Court this year. That's why Selma wisely sidesteps those predictable inspirational-movie clichés: Deep down, the film knows that the more things change, the more they stay the same. And there is still much work to be done.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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