Ava DuVernay's historical drama "Selma" marches into theaters this Christmas as the first major Hollywood film to focus on Martin Luther King Jr. and his accomplishments. But although it's been nearly 50 years since King and his colleagues paved the way for the passage of the Voting Rights Act, movie critics agree that it's better late than never -- much better.
Starring David Oyelowo as King, "Selma" is garnering excellent reviews, with most critics praising it as not only a vivid historical drama but also a timely reminder of how far we've come as a nation, and how far we still have to go.
The Times' Kenneth Turan gave one of the more measured reviews, writing, "Selma" is a necessary film, even an essential one, with more than its share of memorable performances and vivid, compelling sequences." But as "welcome as it is" for highlighting King's work, "it is also inconsistent and not always as strong as its strongest moments. This may not matter in the grand scheme of things, but it is hard to avoid."
As "well done as much of 'Selma' is," Turan wrote, "it periodically falls from grace with moments that are either emotionally flat or excessively agitprop in nature." That said, "Even if you can't ignore the elements that do not work on screen, you can be grateful that this momentous chapter in American history has been filmed at last."
The New York Times' A.O. Scott -- and indeed, most other critics -- are less ambivalent. DuVernay, Scott said, "writes history with passionate clarity and blazing conviction. ... Even if you think you know what's coming, 'Selma' hums with suspense and surprise."
Scott continued: "Packed with incident and overflowing with fascinating characters, it is a triumph of efficient, emphatic cinematic storytelling. And much more than that, of course: It would be hard to imagine a timelier, more necessary popular entertainment in the year of Ferguson, Mo., a reminder both of progress made and promises unkept."
The Village Voice's Stephanie Zacharek called the film "quietly remarkable" and said that "in addition to being a meticulously detailed historical drama, ['Selma'] is the right movie for the moment."
As King, "Oyelowo is the movie's grave but radiant center," Zacharek added. The film shows him "in moments of weakness and triumph, and though it stops well short of portraying him as saintly, he's still a hero for our time."
The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday said "Selma" was "worth the wait" and that "DuVernay has created a stirring, often thrilling, uncannily timely drama that works on several levels at once." The director delivers an "impressive historic pageant" and also "rescue[s] King from his role as a worshiped -- and sentimentalized -- secular saint. Here, [DuVernay] presents him as a dynamic figure of human-scale contradictions, flaws and supremely shrewd political skills."
Like any historical drama, Hornaday wrote, "'Selma' contains its share of compressions and the stiff, declarative rhythms of 'important' billboard scenes. But for the most part, DuVernay makes sweeping, smooth work of a challenging collection of events."
In a season filled with "Great Man movies," Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty said, "['Selma'] isn't just the best film of the bunch, it also arrives with a raw-nerve urgency and timeliness that no one could have predicted."
Oyelowo "miraculously rescues the flesh-and-blood man from the myth," he added. As for Duvernay, she "has done a great service with 'Selma.' Not only has she made one of the most powerful films of the year, she's given us a necessary reminder of what King did for this country ... and how much is left to be done."