“Selma” isn’t so much a straightforward biopic of Martin Luther King Jr. as it is an examination of the voting rights marches from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery in 1965. At its center towers David Oyelewo as the iconic leader, essentially inhabiting his soul for two-plus hours in a performance that, in any other year (e.g. a less crowded one), would make him a shoo-in for the Best Actor Oscar. He wears the weariness and resolve of King like a second skin, embodying everything we’ve wondered, revered, and questioned about the man and his cause. This is a film of binaries. It’s both intimate and epic, subtle and sensational, raw and resplendent, specific and sweeping, depicting the past while reflecting the present. Despite its period trappings, “Selma” might be the most timely movie of 2014, exploring where we’ve been and where we are, still, today.
Director Ava Duvernay pulls no punches. Grade-school children are killed in the 16th Street Baptish Church bombing within the first ten minutes, and the pivotal march sequences wherein blacks are clubbed, kicked, and whipped by Alabama authorities contain some of the most brutal images to grace the screen last year. This movie is no sepia-hued hagiography, shying away from the ugly parts of history or even the ugly parts of Dr. King himself. “Selma” expertly navigates the tricky line between sanctifying him and desecrating his memory, particularly in regards to his purported extra-marital affairs. Instead of over-emphasizing his flaws to stake a moral high ground for the sake of finger-pointing, King is shown as he probably was, as a human being, with courage, convictions, and yes, self-doubt. As a husband, as a father, as an orator, as an organizer, working the competing factions of his own movement and the conflicting interests of his own government. It’s a vast portrait, and Oyelewo captures all of it in spellbinding fashion. He’s not alone either. Oprah Winfrey is voting rights activist Annie Lee Cooper, and no joke, for a moment she makes you forget you’re watching Oprah Winfrey. Tom Wilkinson is the blustery Lyndon B. Johnson, a President who wants to do the right thing, but can’t stop being stubborn long enough to get it done (voting rights) fast enough. He’s aware of the changing tide. He knows eventually he’ll be judged by the fallout of this fight, and he has no intention of aligning himself with the likes of a “backwoods hick” like Alabama governor George Wallace, played here by Tim Roth, who stops just short of caricature whilst still making him as hateable as he should be. Carmen Ejogo is moving as Corretta Scott King, left behind amid Dr. King’s seemingly endless travels across state lines and not willing to stay silent about the fragile state of their marriage. Duvernay was unable to utilize King’s most famous speeches, but incredibly, either due to her own talents or because there was a plethora of material unseen and unheard by the masses, his speeches in the film are so captivating and true to the man himself it’s hard to believe they’re not real, famous, or both.
“Who murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson? Every white lawman who abuses the law to terrorize. Every white politician who feeds on prejudice and hatred. Every white preacher who preaches the bible and stays silent before his white congregation. Who murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson? Every Negro man and woman who stands by without joining this fight as their brothers and sisters are brutalized, humiliated, and ripped from this Earth.” That’s just one example of such a speech, and it represents perfectly the script’s proclivity for relevancy. In 2015, following controversial, racially-charged cases in Florida, Missouri, New York, and Ohio, the words of Duvernay and screenwriter Paul Webb carry a weight that cannot be measured. “Selma” is a political and psychological reminder of what Martin Luther King sacrificed in his day, and what we’ve left unaccomplished in our own.