Selma: Marching into history

by Mark Burger

Director Ava DuVernay‘s sturdy historical drama Selma recounts the events of 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) led the marches across Alabama, from Selma to Montgomery, to ensure and secure voter-registration rights for black voters.

Having just won the Nobel Peace Prize for 1964, King is at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement, a precarious position that puts him, his followers and many Southern blacks at risk. Yet with the eyes of the nation “” and, indeed, the world “” upon him, King was undaunted. Selma is a persuasive reminder that though strides have been made, there’s still a ways to go.

The most persuasive element of the film, which earned an Oscar nomination as Best Picture, is Oyelowo’s first-rate turn as King. A movie like Selma could have lapsed into preaching and speechifying, but Oyelowo so remarkably captures King’s physical and vocal inflections that he humanizes the icon and makes him a three-dimensional human being. Even for those who know the story’s outcome (and let’s hope they do) there’s urgency to the proceedings, even if DuVernay occasionally (and unnecessarily) resorts to slow motion to emphasize a scene’s importance.

Although some dramatic license is to be expected in a film of this nature, Selma is much more palatable and credible than Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2015), which tended to awkwardly wedge its historical characters into a dramatic framework that quickly became melodramatic. There has been some conjecture and controversy about the portrayal of Lyndon Johnson in the film, though he’s presented here as pragmatic and concerned enough about Dr. King’s actions to have them monitored by the FBI (Dylan Baker makes for a rather lean J. Edgar Hoover). Tom Wilkinson also resembles the character more than the miscast Liev Schreiber in The Butler. Even Tim Roth’s George Wallace (Alabama’s infamous governor) is portrayed not as the stereotypical fire-breathing caricature but as a fire-breathing human being “” and the racist he was, but a thinking racist, which makes him a more viable threat.

The film also addresses King’s infidelities, but in a tactful and tasteful manner that represents the best in Paul Webb’s screenplay. Carmen Ejogo, who played Coretta Scott King in the HBO film Boycott (2001), encores here and effortlessly brings an intelligence and compassion to the role. King isn’t a perfect man, and he knows it. He also worries (mightily) about the potential consequences to those he’s fighting for even more so than his personal safety.

Nigel Thatch (as Malcolm X), Wendell Pierce, Alessandro Nivola, Giovanni Ribisi, Cuba Gooding Jr., Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Stephan James, Stan Houston, Stephen Root, Andre Holland, Martin Sheen, Oprah Winfrey and Common round out a fairly distinguished cast in smaller roles with the latter also providing the Oscar-nominated (and very good) theme song “Glory” with John Legend.