With David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Tom Wilkinson, Wendell Pierce. Written by Paul Webb. Directed by Ava DuVernay. Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language. 127 minutes.
SELMA is a good movie that’s being overpraised because of the importance of its message and story. The recounting of how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) led the battle in Alabama for what culminated in the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 is incredibly timely. This is a chapter of history that resonates in our time where the racial divide has evolved but is still all-too-present.
However, that should not blind us to the film’s flaws as we also note its strengths. For a historical drama, the biggest flaw is its rewriting of history with regard to President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), turning him into a lackadaisical supporter of civil rights who becomes one more obstacle for King to overcome. As has been discussed elsewhere, this is an unfair distortion as to Johnson’s actual role.
In 1965, the fact that black citizens had the right to vote was something that was widely disregarded in the South. Those attempting to register were stymied by a variety of obstacles–including a “poll tax” and a test of arcane knowledge devised by county officials–whose purpose was to prevent that registration from taking place. King, then a minister in Atlanta who had already been recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on civil rights, came to Selma, Alabama ready to insist that justice be done. The local sheriff responded with beatings and arrests.
King saw that the only way to move forward was to shock the conscience of the country, and proposed a 50-mile march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery. Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and state and local police vowed to stop it from taking place. The focus of the movie is on that struggle.
In telling that story, first-time director Ava DuVernay has some top-flight talent in front of the camera. David Oyelowo gives a powerful performance as King, the first time he has been portrayed in a dramatic feature film. Oyelowo captures his strength and his doubts, and turns in a solid performance. Likewise Carmen Ejogo conveys the difficulties of Coretta King, who has to face doubts about her husband beyond the obvious fears over his encounters with racist, violent authorities. Other actors pop up in smaller roles, like Oprah Winfrey, Martin Sheen, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and–as J. Edgar Hoover–an oddly-cast Dylan Baker.
It is behind the camera where DuVernay falters. Coming out of a background of television and documentaries, she doesn’t always get the dramatic pacing the story needs. There are long takes of conversations where the film just comes to a halt. The film does much better in depicting the internal struggles within the movement, with student activists and preachers having somewhat different agendas. Perhaps most surprising to modern audiences, who may not be familiar with the history, was how hard it was to keep the protest non-violent in the face of utter brutality by authorities and much of the local citizenry. The ugliness depicted here was all-too-real.
“Selma” is a film that demands to be seen, despite its flaws. It’s part of American history and a story that we should all know.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.