Selma, a rare Hollywood biographical film that eschews melodrama, does something noble instead. Its story portrays the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches, spearheaded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1965. Instead of worshipping King, it makes a human being out of him.
Directed by indie talent Ava DuVernay, Selma is an intimate film. It has big moments, but most of the film happens behind closed doors. DuVernay wonders what went on and the script by Paul Webb (which the director reportedly rewrote much of) recreates these events. King, played by British actor David Oyelowo, holds court with his inner circle, and also with his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo).
But Selma begins with King accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. It's a high honor that runs contrary to the rest of the film's narrow scope. Quickly, DuVernay takes us to Selma, where black voters are systematically rejected by state and federal regulations. President Lyndon Johnson's (Tom Wilkinson) Civil Rights Act gave African-Americans the vote in '64, but the film shows the obtrusive, racist ways voters were turned away at the state level. Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) is rejected when she cannot name the 67 county judges of Alabama.
King wants the unencumbered vote and Selma depicts his testy meetings with President Johnson to try to make it happen. He's denied multiple times, and the film pits the two men against each other as King threatens to march 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital, in non-violent protest. The debate about how strongly Johnson opposed King has raged since the film's opening (and well before that), but the film isn't a documentary. DuVernay uses the tension to build urgency and she more than succeeds. Anyone looking to Hollywood for their history lesson is behind the eight ball already.
More concerning than DuVernay's treatment of Johnson is the film's lack of authentic King speeches. The King estate sold the copyrights to Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks years ago so none of what you hear King preach in the film is accurate. But you'd probably never know it. The writing is so good and Oyelowo so fantastic, that King's spirit infuses every scene.
A film about the life of Dr. King is long overdue, but you can't force these things. The world had to wait for David Oyelowo. Not just any actor can make the words "His truth is marching on! Glory, hallelujah!" believable. Reunited with his Middle of Nowhere director, DuVernay, Oyelowo strides with pure confidence and speaks with the thunder of the Reverend. But again, the intimacy of the film is its greatest asset, and Oyelowo is most impressive off stage, consulting with his peers and convincing his doubters.
Selma is also much more than a vivid look at King personally. It has scenes of intense violence that DuVernay punctuates with ominous drum beats. The first, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, takes us by surprise near the beginning of the film. And as the movie transitions to the Selma marches, DuVernay doesn't shy away from the violence. In fact, she hits us over the head with it. As surely as the marchers felt the bludgeons and whips of the Alabama police in 1965, so too shall we feel their pain. Marchers take full swings to the face from clubs, men and women alike. Those who run away are quickly chased down and beaten in the street. You can feel the hatred of the era.
In the end, all the urgency, intimacy, and drama of the events leading up to the Selma marches pales in comparison to the film's most powerful message: Change isn't affected through violence. That sentiment has never been more true or topical (Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice). King's lasting legacy is one of peace, and DuVernay champions that message throughout the film in many ways. Her leadership, and Oyelowo's incredible performance have raised the bar. Selma is now the benchmark American Civil Rights film.