Directed by: Ava DuVernay.
Written by: Paul Webb.
Starring: David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King Jr.), Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King), Tom Wilkinson (President Lyndon B. Johnson), Tim Roth (George Wallace), Wendell Pierce (Reverend Hosea Williams), Oprah Winfrey (Annie Lee Cooper), Tessa Thompson (Diane Nash), Lorraine Toussaint (Amelia Boynton), Common (James Bevel), André Holland (Andrew Young), Stephan James (John Lewis), Giovanni Ribisi (Lee C. White), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Fred Gray), Alessandro Nivola (John Doar), Martin Sheen (Frank Minis Johnson), Dylan Baker (J. Edgar Hoover), Keith Stanfield (Jimmie Lee Jackson), Niecy Nash (Richie Jean Jackson), Jeremy Strong (James Reeb), Nigel Thatch (Malcolm X), Stan Houston (Sheriff Jim Clark), Corey Reynolds (CT Vivian), Trai Byers (James Forman), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Bayard Rustin), Omar J. Dorsey (James Orange), Colman Domingo (Rev. Ralph Abernathy), E. Roger Mitchell (Reverend Frederick Reese), Tara Ochs (Viola Liuzzo), Henry G. Sanders (Cager Lee), Charity Jordan (Viola Lee), Kent Faulcon (Dr. Sullivan Jackson), John Lavelle (Roy Reed).
The best historical movies never treat their famous characters as icons, but as real, living, breathing people. This is one of the reasons why Ava DuVernay’s Selma is one of the best in recent memories. Its central character is Martin Luther King, played in an extraordinary performance by David Oyelowo, but it never seems in awe of King, and shows us in the audience a complex man. While he was the most famous person involved in the protests in Selma, Alabama – he was hardly alone, and Selma shows us that as well. Surrounding Oyelowo’s King is a very large cast – many of whom are interesting enough in their few shorts scenes that they could support entire movies all of their own. It is a movie that doesn’t shy away from the complexity of history – there are small moments here that hint at larger stories playing out in the background.
The movie opens with the murder of four little girls in their church in Birmingham, Alabama – a moment DuVernay treats with respect. It then flashes to King accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in Sweden, before cutting back to King meeting with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in Washington. While King is happy with the Civil Rights Act – he now wants more from Johnson. He wants him to pass a Voter’s Rights Act – because while blacks have the rights to vote everywhere in America, in many places in the South, the hoops they have to jump through to register are insane, and prevent them from voting. As King makes clear, this undermines everything. What good is the right to vote, if the bureaucracy can make it impossible to register? How can black voters make their voices heard, if they cannot vote? How can crimes, like the bombing of that church, be properly prosecuted, if the juries that hear those cases are all white – you cannot be on a jury after all, unless you are a registered voter. Johnson agrees with everything King says – but doesn’t want to move on the issue right now. He is riding high on a landslide victory – and doesn’t want to waste all his political capital on this one issue. King is undeterred – if Johnson won’t act, than King will force his hand.
The movie focuses a lot of time of the groundwork that needed to be laid in order for a protest like the one in Selma – that led to the march from Selma to the state capital of Birmingham, 50 miles away. King, and the other leaders of the SCLC, did not pick Selma arbitrarily. They picked it because the groundwork was already laid by the people there – and because it has a racist sheriff with a hair trigger temper – one that they believe can be provoked into doing something stupid and violent – which is exactly what King needs him to do. If the Sheriff does nothing, no one cares about the protests. But if they can provoke a response, than the world will be watching. It works almost too well – people will lose their lives for this cause – and while to a certain extent, King knew this was possible, they all tear him to pieces just the same.
As King, Oyelowo delivers one of the best performances of the year. He is gifted at giving the number of speeches that King gives throughout the movies (which are not the same speeches that King gave – strangely the copyright of these speeches resides with Steven Spielberg, so they didn’t even try to get the rights to them). He holds court, and preaches, and these are among the most mesmerizing and emotional moments in the film. But the film shows the more human side of King as well. He was intelligent, and idealistic – but also realistic about what needed to be done. Throughout the movie, we see King negotiate and explain himself to those who support him – and those he wants to support him. While King has become a larger than life figure in American history in the decades since his murder, the movie doesn’t try and convince you that everyone was fully on board at the time. Nor, does is shy away from some of the flaws in his character. Perhaps the single best acted scene in the movie is between Oyelowo’s King and his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), who finds out that her husband is cheating on her. It is a powerful moment in many ways because DuVernay plays it – not with fireworks, but with understated subtlety. When Coretta asks King if he loves any of the others he pauses for an excoriating amount of time before answering. These are both icons – but here, they are just a husband and a wife at a crossroads in her marriage.
While Oyelowo and Ejogo delivers the two best performances in the movie – the large supporting cast never hits a wrong note. From Oprah Winfrey as a woman who tries in vain to register to Henry G. Sanders as an old man who just wants to vote once before he dies, to Tom Wilkinson as LBJ – who is neither hero nor villain (no matter what the fact checkers – who completely miss the point – would have you believe) – but a politician making a calculated decision, to Tim Roth, as the gleefully, insidiously racist Governor George Wallace, to the multitudes of other Civil Rights leaders – Wendell Pierce, Tessa Thompson, Lorraine Toussaint, Common, Andre Holland, Stephen James and many others, Selma makes you look on in awe of all the ducks that had to line up – and all the hard work, and calculated risks, that went into a protest like this.
Ultimately what makes Selma one of the best films of the year is DuVernay’s mastery of moments both large and small – large scale scenes like the riot that happened on the bridge, where state troopers attack and beat peaceful protestors, and small, intimate scenes that the aforementioned martial showdown, are handled with the same intelligence and humanity. It certainly marks DuVernay as one of the most interesting directors working right now.
But there’s even more to the greatness of Selma – and that’s the way it uses this protest from 50 years ago to highlight problems that still exist today. Selma came out at precisely the right time – a happy accident really – right at the end of the year where once again people took to the streets to protest systematic racism. The film captures the zeitgeist at just the right moment. The fact that Selma does all of these things in one mesmerizing, entertaining, emotional, heartfelt movie is what makes it one of the most important – and best – movies of the year.