There are moments in Selma, director Ava DuVernay’s powerful staging of the months leading up to Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed 1965 march for voting rights in Alabama, that feel as if they could have been pulled from today’s TV news. Only the hemlines and tailfins beg to differ.
It may be coincidence that Selma reverberates with a particular timeliness as it’s coming out just as issues of voting rights have hit the media and the black-lives-matter protests have hit the streets.
Still, it’s thanks to director DuVernay and first-time features writer Paul Webb that the film has more than the luck of timing on its side. It dramatizes a pivotal moment in contemporary American history with verve, heart and dramatic tension, getting behind the heated headlines and magnificent oratory to reveal the politicking and maneuvering on all sides.
It’s 1964 and King (a phenomenal David Oyelowo, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Interstellar) has won the Nobel Peace Prize. But he realizes his biggest challenges are in front of him. Case in point, agitating for voting rights in the face of a president, Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who is shown as not wanting to anger the South anymore than he already has with the Civil Rights Act. Johnson wants to move forward but with more of a go-slow approach.
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On the other side is Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), who is dismissive of King’s nonviolent style and thinks it’s time for confrontation. King is in the middle, with followers who sometimes grow restless with the course of change, and a wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo, The Purge: Anarchy), who wants to desperately hold on to him even though she realizes she has lost him to a cause bigger than their marriage.
How King juggles all these balls — while still planning the Selma march, which could turn into a deadly confrontation with Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) and his supporters — is what gives Selma its narrative propulsion.
This approach makes Selma feel less like hagiography — a problem that afflicted Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom in 2013 — and more like intimate biography. It helps that DuVernay didn’t try to squeeze an entire life into two hours but merely a slice of it.
It should be noted that some have disputed the film’s take on history. Mark Updegrove, the director of the LBJ Library in Austin, has gone on record saying that the portrayal of Johnson is inaccurate.
“When racial tension is so high, it does no good to suggest that the president of the U.S. himself stood in the way of progress. … It flies in the face of history,” he said to The Associated Press last month.
Johnson across as conflicted, human and very political. Admittedly, it does make for good drama.
DuVernay deserves kudos for going with two relative unknowns — Oyelowo and Ejogo — in the lead roles. The actors are British but they inhabit their iconically American characters with authenticity.
Giovanni Ribisi, Common, Cuba Gooding Jr., Martin Sheen and Oprah show up in smaller roles. Oprah’s appearance is the only one that feels forced, as if she’s only in it because she’s one of the producers.
Most of all though, DuVernay, who only had done two small films previously, deserves applause for being able to tackle such a major subject with such a sense of grace and — for the big, Oscar-bait type film that this is — economy.
DuVernay is definitely someone to watch.
Cary Darling, 817 390-7571
Director: Ava DuVernay
Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth
Rated: PG-13 (disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, brief strong language)
Running time: 127 min.