Movie Review: “Selma”

David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Stephan James, Tim Roth, Giovanni Ribisi, Wendell Pierce
Ava DuVernay

Though it coincides nicely with the upcoming 50th anniversary of the events depicted in the film, Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” has the unenviable distinction of being one of the timeliest dramas of 2014. But while there’s no denying that its message resonates even more in light of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, hopefully those parallels won’t end up overshadowing the movie itself, because although it’s not quite as sobering as last year’s Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave,” “Selma” is a deftly made drama about an important piece of American history that’s guaranteed to be a major awards contender, largely due to the outstanding lead performance from David Oyelowo.

The film opens with Martin Luther King, Jr. (Oyelowo) – having already delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech the year prior – receiving the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize for his part in helping to abolish segregation. But King knows that his work is far from done, and he turns his attention to voting rights in the South, where, although it’s technically legal for black citizens to vote, they’re made to jump through ridiculous hoops (like naming all 67 Alabama County judges) in order to register. When King and his group, the Southern Christian Leadership Council, are invited to Selma, Alabama to stage their latest fight, they organize a series of non-violent protests in the hopes that it will force President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass legislation that specifically prohibits the discrimination of black voter registration. Though Johnson refuses to budge on the subject, instead intent on pursuing his War on Poverty, King continues to test his resolve with a planned 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, fully aware that the racist state troopers and local cops will respond violently, thus generating the news coverage necessary to pressure Johnson to stop dragging his feet on the issue.

It’s hard to believe that it’s taken this long for someone to make a biopic about Martin Luther King, Jr., although to be fair, “Selma” isn’t really a biopic at all, at least not in the traditional sense. The civil rights leader may be at the center of the story, but it’s more about the movement (and the march, in particular) than a tell-all about King’s life. That’s a refreshing change of pace compared to most biopics, even if it risks coming off a little repetitive as a result. After all, there’s only so much material to cover from the three-month time period, and it hits many of the same notes as King repeatedly butts heads with LBJ, incites violence through peaceful protest, and delivers inspiring speeches (the kind that are tailor-made for Oscar highlight reels) designed to rally his troops and raise white consciousness among those who actually believe in equality.

To DuVernay’s credit, she manages to make almost every moment as riveting as the last, and a big part of that success falls on the casting, even those in bit roles. Oyelowo is fantastic as Martin Luther King, Jr., playing the late pastor-turned-activist with an expected gracefulness, but also a hint of exhaustion and self-doubt that reveals the toll this crusade has taken on him. Though the movie isn’t afraid to reveal his flaws both as a leader and husband, it doesn’t exploit them for unnecessary melodrama either, and that allows Oyelowo to explore the complexities of the character (this is a man that had accepted his fate years before his assassination) without it feeling hokey or contrived.

There are some strong supporting turns as well, including Tom Wilkinson as U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, Stephan James as future Congressman John Lewis, and Tim Roth as the devilishly evil Alabama governor George Wallace, but they pale in comparison to Oyelowo, who’s about as close to a lock for an Oscar nomination as you can get these days. It’s hard to imagine the film being nearly as effective with another actor in the role, because it’s his commanding performance that transforms “Selma” from yet another stuffy biopic into a stirring political drama worthy of Dr. King’s legacy.