A confident historical drama, 'Selma' doesn't waste a second

MLK biopic speaks to today's political concerns on multiple levels

Thursday December 25, 2014 04:00 am EST

As suits a film about bold political brinkmanship, Selma isn't shy about drawing parallels between Martin Luther King Jr.'s voting rights campaign of 1965 and the police brutality protests of today. The film was in production in Selma and the Atlanta area well before the high-profile deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but Selma's closing credits include a hip-hop song by Common that explicitly name-checks the tensions in Ferguson, Mo.

Scenes in Selma depict police using choke holds and shooting unarmed demonstrators, directly evoking the charged contemporary conversation on race and law enforcement. Such relevance alone would make Selma a compelling film, but the confident historical drama speaks to today's political concerns on multiple levels.

Director/co-writer Ava DuVernay covers complex events and multiple points of view with remarkable economy: Selma doesn't waste a second. After a warm, quiet scene between MLK and Coretta Scott King (English actors David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo), the film hits the ground running, recalling U.S. race relations in the mid-1960s. The year 1965 should be a time of triumph, with King having won the Nobel Peace Prize the year before and U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) having just signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But small-town Southern registrars deny African-Americans the ability to vote through absurd, draconian requirements. King and his inner circle choose to focus on Selma, Ala., as a means to lobby for legislation to put teeth in the Civil Rights Act. When King first visits Selma and tries to check into an apparently segregated hotel, some racist rando walks up and punches him square in the face. Even more shocking than the violence is the sneering impunity behind the good ol' boy's act, since he clearly fears no reprisals. DuVernay masterfully builds suspense leading up to confrontations with the authorities, including multiple scenes on the notorious Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Selma doesn't settle for showing good confronting evil, but conveys the characters' competing agendas. LBJ genuinely supports King, but also wants him as the face of the Civil Rights Movement as opposed to "one of those militant Malcolm X types." In Selma, young activists with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, including future Georgia congressman John Lewis (Stephan James), express suspicion that King and his colleagues will swoop into town and take all the glory. And everyone's fully aware of the media attention — what today's politicos would call the "optics" of the campaign.

King even questions himself, and while briefly in a Selma prison, wonders how much good the vote can do for African-Americans shackled by poverty and poor education. Selma presents an admiring but not idealized portrait of King, acknowledging his marital problems with Coretta and some potential missteps in his leadership. Oyelowo's round face, contained body languages, and rolling rhetoric in the pulpit convey the experience of seeing King in the flesh.

A full two hours, Selma could have carried an even longer run time. The film includes most of King's inner circle, including Rev. Ralph David Abernathy (Colman Domingo), James Bevel (Common), and Andrew Young (André Holland), but doesn't much distinguish between their personalities and roles in the movement. Hosea Williams stands out mostly because he's played by the wry, charismatic Wendell Pierce. Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) even appears on the scene extending an olive branch to King's organization, but we don't see how the episode plays out.

On the other hand, the out-of-nowhere celebrity appearances, like Cuba Gooding Jr. and Martin Sheen as a lawyer and a judge, respectively, feel kitschy and distracting, if not as obtrusive as Brad Pitt's white-savior turn at the end of 12 Years a Slave. Selma may be likely to follow that film as this year's Oscar winner for Best Picture. A film's awards prospects tend to be a sideshow to its merits as art, but Selma's potential laurels could raise its ability to contribute to a real-world dialogue. (Boyhood may be the critical favorite, but Selma seems closer to the kind of film the Academy honors, and is good enough to deserve it.)

Selma serves as a reminder of the virulence of American racism and the courage underlying nonviolent protests. The hatred and underlying fear didn't dissipate with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and while this country has seen significant social improvements since 1965, you don't have to look far on the Internet to find far uglier attitudes than you might expect. But Selma reminds viewers that individuals acting in concert can genuinely effect positive change — a heartening message in disheartening times.

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