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.