Selma David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo. Directed by Ava DuVernay. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
Selma opens with a pair of scenes that illustrate the stark divide in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in 1965: First, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo), dressed in a tuxedo, accepts the Nobel Peace Prize, giving an eloquent speech to a receptive audience in Norway; then, four young girls chat as they walk down the stairs in their Birmingham, Alabama, church, only to have their conversation interrupted by a bomb blast that kills all of them. That dichotomy between rhetoric and violence informs all of Selma, a sometimes powerful, sometimes stilted look at the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama to rally for voting rights for African-Americans.
The movie’s most effective moments are ones like that, when director Ava DuVernay brings home the very real dangers that activists and average people faced when asserting their basic rights. The movie’s centerpiece is a harrowing depiction of the notorious “Bloody Sunday” march, when activists were attacked and beaten by police officers as they attempted to cross a bridge outside of Selma. All of the impassioned arguments pale in comparison to the sight of scared but determined marchers fleeing for their lives from vicious bullies with badges. DuVernay stages the scene with artful immediacy, more intimate than documentary footage but just as striking.
By narrowing her focus to the Selma marches, DuVernay avoids the obligation to provide an account of King’s entire life, and she’s able to portray him at a crucial time, when he’d achieved enough to be a recognized and respected figure, but was still railroaded in his efforts at further progress. The key relationship in the movie isn’t between King and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), but between King and President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), an ally who nevertheless insists that King bide his time on voting rights until the political climate is more favorable.
The scenes between King and Johnson are more workmanlike than the on-the-ground action in Selma, and the movie can get dragged down by its parade of recognizable faces as historical figures (look, it’s Martin Sheen!), who appear mainly to recite classroom-textbook dialogue. DuVernay, who did an uncredited rewrite on the Paul Webb script that reportedly focused even more on the King/Johnson dynamic at first, excels at the small, personal moments between King and Coretta or King and his associates, making the larger-than-life figure into an identifiable human being (helped by Oyelowo’s balanced, humane performance). Those moments make the rote historical re-enactments seem even clumsier by comparison, and many of the talented actors who show up in smaller parts fail to make their characters more than mouthpieces for history lessons.
Still, as history lessons go, Selma creates a sense of real life being lived, rather than just facts and figures being dramatized. The closing-credits song by John Legend and Common works in a reference to Ferguson alongside Jim Crow and Rosa Parks, emphasizing just how relevant the events portrayed in the movie still are. The drama preceding the song gives those events weight and meaning.