It's hard to think of a historical figure more intimidating to portray than the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. His life meant so much to so many, and his image and words have been so well-preserved, that to get him wrong on film would be a crime. That, in addition to Hollywood's institutional racism, might explain why it's taken until now for King to be the focus of a theatrical feature.
Finally, though, King takes center stage on the big screen, and it's a relief to report that David Oyelowo knocks it out of the park as the civil rights leader in director Ava DuVernay's Selma. You'll probably see ads for Selma plastered with adjectives surrounded by ellipses and quotation marks: "...powerful...", "...inspiring...", "timely...", etc. This is one case where they're true.
From its first shot, a tight close-up of Oyelowo as King, to its final moments on the steps of the Alabama statehouse, Selma brings this pivotal chapter of the civil rights movement of the 1960s to life with passion, humanity, and realism. Instead of indulging in sanctimony or stoking liberal guilt, DuVernay provides context and complexity to both King and the events of 1965 in northern Alabama.
Given the historical ignorance of so many Americans, an introductory title card may have been worth including. Selma opens with King in Stockholm, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. The bus boycott, the March on Washington and the 1964 Civil Rights Act are in the past; much has been accomplished. But, as we're immediately reminded by a jarring recreation of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls, much has not.
Oyelowo's portrayal of King doesn't aim for an impression; only a couple of times do his orations approach the transcendent, pastoral cadences that are so familiar. Neither does it, or the film, probe too deeply into King's psychology, although it does address the infidelities that the FBI attempted to use as blackmail against him. Most of what we see is the public King, meeting with colleagues, speaking to crowds, and facing down President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in the Oval Office.
These scenes have drawn criticism from some historians, but in broad strokes they depict both men as shrewd political thinkers with the same ultimate goal. As in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, Selma shows the machinations behind events and personalities that have often been simplified and smoothed out by decades of veneration. King and Johnson both know that the only way to garner popular support for a Voting Rights Act is to instigate confrontations with the barbaric, racist authorities of the deep South, and let the mass media do its thing. The sectarian conflicts between King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the more grass-roots Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee are also acknowledged.
King's entourage is well-cast. Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King with the ease of someone who's done it before (she met her husband, Jeffrey Wright, while playing Coretta to his Martin in the 2001 HBO film Boycott). André Holland and Stephan James make solid impressions as Andrew Young and John Lewis, as does Tessa Thompson as Diane Nash, one of the few women in the inner circle.
Selma does suffer, though, from a case of cameo-itis when it comes to the white roles. There's nothing inherently wrong with Brits playing Southern politicians, but Wilkinson's LBJ is too Nixonian and Alabama governor George Wallace's malignant drawl doesn't feel right coming out of Tim Roth's mouth. Giovanni Ribisi does better as a balding Presidential advisor, but when Martin Sheen shows up as the only decent Caucasian in the film, it feels like typecasting.
Selma shows up at a moment where some of the gains made by King and the many brave souls who surrounded him seem precarious. It's impossible, for instance, to watch scenes of protestors kneeling with their hands behind their heads in front of the county courthouse in 1965 Selma without thinking of the die-ins being staged in response to the killings of unarmed black people by police officers. A film this heartfelt and intelligent about social justice will never be unimportant, but it feels especially relevant today.