Review: 'Selma' is a powerful portrait of Martin Luther King at a crossroads
Often we put our heroes on pedestals. Yet, even the greatest men in history have made mistakes, suffered because of their personal vices and doubted themselves at the most critical junctures of their lives. Ava DuVernay's powerful new drama "Selma" tells the tale of the Selma to Montgomery marches that spearheaded the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but at its center is one historically prominent hero who finds himself at a crossroads, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
After leading the nonviolent movement that brought about the passage of the civil rights act in 1964, "Selma" finds Dr. King (David Oyelowo) and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), focusing their efforts on removing the discriminatory practices that are effectively blocking African Americans from registering to vote across a majority of the South. Following a year of trying to register voters in Selma, Alabama with little success, the SCLC decides to make that county the focal point of Dr. King's voting rights efforts.
In the film, DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb set up the stakes and backroom politics quite early on. King wants President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass legislation protecting the right to vote while LBJ wants King to give him more time so he can first focus on his ambitious War on Poverty agenda. Moreover, in one refreshingly blunt scene, King and his SCLC team are called out by their younger peers for using Selma's unique situation for publicity purposes, and we quickly find out why. Selma Sheriff Jim Clark was a staunch segregationist who could be easily baited into doing something oppressive if King and his supporters attempted any march or non-violent action. Get that on television and the president will face tremendous political support to deal with the issue King feels should be his priority. Over the course of the picture, DuVernay expertly plays on the back and forth of the protester marchers' experiences, King's justification of his plan and an increasingly frustrated LBJ.
Only her third movie in less than five years, DuVernay has taken a significant step as an auteur with "Selma." What is so refreshing about her overall approach is that the moral shades of grey are unexpectedly rich and varied for what many will wrongly assume is a traditional studio biopic. Johnson, who clearly wants to do the right thing, embarrasses himself by using J. Edgar Hoover's corrupt FBI to try and pressure King. To make matters worse, he will only go so far in convincing Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) to lay off the protesters while admitting to himself he knows he's on the wrong side of history as well by not doing so. King, on the other hand, not only has to contradict his usual philosophies for political gain, but begins to wonder out loud how much longer he can -- in effect -- lead the civil rights movement. King also has his marital infidelities dramatically thrown in the face of his wife, Coretta Scott King (a fantastic Carmen Ejogo), who painfully reminds of him of the continuing sacrifices she's made for the cause without complaint.
How the couple continues past this point is an example of DuVernay's intent to make Dr. King the most three-dimensional version of the icon we've seen on screen. Her King is not perfect, and realizing that actually makes his historical accomplishments even more significant.
In a year of remarkable performances, Oyelowo is simply magnificent as Dr. King. His voice may not sound like exactly what you've heard from numerous archived interviews or King's famous "I Have A Dream" speech, but he captures the charismatic weight of the freedom fighter's presence. Oyelowo has delivered noteworthy turns in "Lee Daniel's The Butler," DuVernay's own "Middle of Nowhere" and J.C. Chandor's "A Most Violent Year" (which just premiered last week), but he's almost a man among boys in "Selma." He's especially powerful when delivering a number of King's signature speeches, and when he orates "How Long, Not Long," he brings the film to another level.
Among the film's impressive ensemble, Wilkinson channels Johnson's bluster and certainly looks the part. Oprah Winfrey (also a producer) conveys the pain of local civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper. Tim Roth expertly avoids turning Wallace into a caricature and Giovanni Ribisi is nicely understated as presidential adviser Lee C. White . Familiar faces such as Alessandro Nivola, Common, Lorraine Toussaint, Jeremy Strong, Dylan Baker, Wendall Pierce, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Martin Sheen all make favorable impressions without distracting from the proceedings.
Cinematographer Bradford Young delivers yet another remarkable film to his resume following the debut of the aforementioned and beautiful "Most Violent Year" last week. He continues to show a stunning eye for framing a shot and pushing the boundaries of how natural light can be used to light a scene. It's not an exaggeration to say he's arguably the most exciting American DP working today.
Common also collaborates with John Legend on the original song "Glory," which contributes to the films moving finale.
It should be noted that "Selma" does have a few bumps, including a slightly under-paced first act and a Malcolm X cameo that is meant to serve Coretta Scott King's arc, but it simply unnecessary. Happily these qualms are overshadowed by DuVerney's impressive ability to turn the film into an emotional roller coaster in the second and third acts.
"Selma" is opening in limited release on Dec. 25.
The version of this film screened at AFI Film Fest on Tuesday, Nov. 11 was classified as a work in progress. A number of visual effects were not complete and the sound mix was not final.