“Selma” is a necessary film, even an essential one, with more than its share of memorable performances and vivid, compelling sequences.
But welcome as it is for being the first Hollywood production to put the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his accomplishments front and center, 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.
If there is a temptation to canonize “Selma” and brush aside its less successful elements, that’s not surprising given how good much of it is and the heroic nature of the story, not to mention the decades it’s taken for this history to reach the screen.
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Directed with passion and conviction by Ava DuVernay and starring a mesmerizing David Oyelowo as King, “Selma” relates one of the great American dramas, how events in and around a small Alabama city forced this country to live up to its democratic rhetoric and ensure the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Oyelowo, whose recent credits include “Interstellar” and the forthcoming “A Most Violent Year,” met DuVernay when he starred in her moving and accomplished “Middle of Nowhere,” and his support was key in getting the director this job.
DuVernay’s intimate style helps in her successful attempt to humanize King, his wife, Coretta Scott King (a deft Carmen Ejogo), and his circle of advisers and comrades in arms, to see them not as monumental icons but, rather, real people with personal lives and problems. Given what they accomplished, “Selma” can’t help but mythologize this group as well, but it is a low-key mythologization rather than the bombastic sort.
This technique works best with King and his wife, in part because of what the actors bring to the table. Oyelowo has felt driven to play the civil rights leader for years, and how expertly he has captured the body language and the cadences of King’s delivery is even more remarkable when you realize that copyright issues mandated that the speeches he delivers are not word for word accurate but only reasonable facsimiles of the real thing.
Ejogo, especially strong in the scenes that reveal the strains and tensions in the King marriage, also has a history with her role, having played Scott King in the 2001 HBO movie “Boycott,” about the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycotts a decade earlier.
As written by Paul Webb, “Selma” starts with just such an intimate moment, with King practicing his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in a Stockholm hotel room while his wife helps him with an unfamiliar ascot and he worries about living too high on the hog.
DuVernay is equally good at conveying the sense of camaraderie the civil rights movement could not have existed without. Helped by Bradford Young’s clear-eyed cinematography and Aicha Coley’s spot-on casting, this is especially visible in an early scene of a warm, convivial luncheon of leaders of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It’s an ability to convey the black experience that brings to mind such fine Charles Burnett films as “Nightjohn” and the masterful “To Sleep With Anger.”
After the Nobel, compelled by the near-impossibility of black people registering to vote (something we see firsthand with Oprah Winfrey as a would-be voter), King decides this is an issue that cannot wait.
That puts him on a collision course with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who thinks the war on poverty should be more of a priority. “This voting thing is just going to have to wait,” he tells King, but, presidential support or not, King is not to be put off.
Selma, we come to understand, was hardly picked at random. Not only were the statistics especially grim — a 50% African American population who made up only 2% of voters — but the state courthouse was an especially camera-ready target, and the local county Sheriff Jim Clark was racist enough to be a tempting adversary. In fact, one of the themes of “Selma” is how tactical so much was, how geared to getting on the network news and influencing public opinion nationwide.
That doesn’t mean anything was easy. Far from it. As on-screen type from FBI logs indicates, the bureau followed King everywhere, and he and his wife were plagued by abusive anonymous phone messages. And King had to deal with rifts within the civil rights movement, specifically with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which had been organizing in Selma before his people arrived.
The heart of “Selma” is the three separate 50-mile marches attempted by the movement from Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to Alabama’s capital of Montgomery. Each had a different character, each is choreographed to different music. But it is the first one, when the marchers were met with horrific violence, that makes the most disturbing impression.
Yet as well done as much of “Selma” is, it periodically falls from grace with moments that are either emotionally flat or excessively agitprop in nature. Consistently the most ineffective scenes are those that involve powerful but obstructionist white people, especially the unhelpful trio of Johnson, Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker). The deftness with acting and character that can be this film’s strength simply deserts it here.
But “Selma” never loses its ability to be powerful when it needs to be, and the film gets frequent infusions of momentum from its big emotional scenes, like the murder of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson (Fred Stanfield). 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.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Playing: In limited release