I always write with one eye on how history will judge the movies I’m writing about. From that standpoint, I have a sneaking suspicion that Selma will look a bit square and conventional in 20 years. Right now, though, coming after racially tinged events that have roiled America in the last few months, this rousing, passionate civil rights drama is exquisitely timed, a quality that’s just as important and elusive as greatness.
The story picks up in early 1965, as President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) welcomes the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) to the White House to congratulate him on winning the Nobel Peace Prize. The minister and social activist uses the meeting to urge the president to pass legislation ensuring voting rights for African-Americans. Johnson demurs, giving higher priority to his War on Poverty. Rebuffed, King and his lieutenants immediately move on their contingency plan to keep the issue in the press and in front of the president by registering voters in Selma, Ala., where the sheriff and the white establishment are fully prepared to use violence to keep black voters off the rolls.
The movie succeeds gloriously at its hardest task, which is making King into a dynamic character instead of a plaster saint. One way that director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb do this is by focusing on the granular details of King’s life — early on, a domestic scene presents him as just another suburban dad in Atlanta taking out the trash. The movie also shows us King’s tactical genius in a scene when he explains to the young activists with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee how Selma’s layout allows for a head-on confrontation with the white racists in power.
Of course, none of this means much without a great performance, and Oyelowo delivers one. The Nigerian-British actor has been impressive in character roles before this (the idiot school principal in Interstellar, the evil CEO in Rise of the Planet of the Apes), but he comes through magnificently in this leading role, rising to a proper pitch of eloquence and fury in the movie’s big, booming speeches. He does equally well with a quiet scene early on when Martin and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo) share a jail cell in Selma, and Martin wonders whether he might be making a mistake to focus on voter rights instead of poverty, like the president.
This film was budgeted at $20 million, which is 100 times more than the budget of DuVernay’s previous film, the finely wrought 2012 drama Middle of Nowhere. She makes the transition to this larger scale with no visible strain, capturing the tension between SNCC and King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the alarm that spreads through King’s camp when Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) suddenly shows up in Selma with unknown intentions. The movie may have some minor issues with pacing, but DuVernay hits shudderingly correct notes in a great many scenes, from the re-creation of the Bloody Sunday march to a domestic encounter when Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) confronts Martin over his infidelities. One of the most satisfying bits is when LBJ delivers a dressing-down to Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) in the Oval Office. This is a filmmaker with all the tools necessary to thrive at the highest levels.
Selma was written and shot well before the events in Ferguson, Mo., and yet it’s strewn with reminders of them, from the re-creation of Johnson’s American Promise speech (“There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is only an American problem.”) to the John Legend and Common song “Glory” over the end credits that explicitly mentions Ferguson. It’s hard not to think of poor Michael Brown and Eric Garner during the movie’s re-creation of the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, an unarmed black man murdered by a white cop, whose funeral inspires King to ask, “How many fingers were on that trigger? Every white preacher who stands silent. Every Negro who stands back.” Our society has made great progress in race relations since 1965, but this movie reminds us of everything that has resisted change. At a time when white lawmakers are raising paranoia about voter fraud to try to roll back the very rights that Martin Luther King fought so hard to ensure, Selma is a rallying call to thought and to action that cries out to be seen this very moment.
Starring David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo. Directed by Ava DuVernay. Written by Paul Webb. Rated PG-13.