In “Selma,” President Lyndon Johnson (a commanding Tom Wilkinson) tries to convince Gov. George Wallace (a terrierlike Tim Roth) to rethink his suppression of the black vote in Alabama.
As leaders, they need to consider their legacies, Johnson tells Wallace, and how they will be viewed in 1985, not 1965, the year in which their conversation takes place.
Watching this, one’s mind immediately leaps to how it’s now 2015, and to how many African Americans still do not believe they have attained the full rights of U.S. citizenship, at least where treatment by law enforcement is concerned.
Like the Johnson-Wallace scene, a brutal sequence in “Selma” in which Alabama police officers tear-gas and beat nonviolent civil rights activists during their first attempt to walk from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., cannot help but evoke the current furor about alleged police brutality in our country. Though this sequence lacks a neat parallel to today, there is no denying the power of the visual: of watching historical unrest on a big screen just after watching current unrest on cable news.
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That the discussion of race in America has reached its greatest boiling point in years just as the film arrives in theaters lends a greater power to “Selma,” which follows the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) before and through the historic march that led to the Voting Rights Act, than it might have held a year ago.
But “Selma” did not need a news hook to be relevant. It chronicles one of the civil rights movement’s most pivotal moments and is the first theatrical release to feature King as lead character.
It also marks a breakthrough for two bright talents: Oyelowo, who does the seemingly impossible by approaching King, one of history’s great orators, in charisma and conviction; and director Ava DuVernay, who made two tiny features before taking on this sweeping historical drama.
DuVernay shows visual assurance and a way with actors and especially words. The director revised Paul Webb’s script – without receiving credit – and wrote speeches to replace King’s speeches after the King estate would not allow use of the real ones.
The speeches in “Selma” are stirring, eloquent and very much in the spirit of King. Oyelowo, a British actor previously best known for playing the rebellious son in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” captures King’s intelligence and physical solidity. But he impresses most by nailing King’s great oratory skills – the way King could brim with indignation and reassure in the same moment.
Students of history and political science will enjoy the methodical way in which DuVernay lays out King’s strategy in Selma. Having just won the Nobel Peace Prize, King turns his attention to the systematic denial of voting rights to black Alabamans.
“Selma” shows how, in 1965 Selma, potential voters were forced to take tests that were virtually impossible to pass. In a heartbreaking scene, activist Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, also a “Selma” producer), having studied up for her test, gets tricked by the white registrar (Clay Chappell), whose eyes shine with hatred as his questions become increasingly obscure.
King arrives in Selma from Atlanta with a cadre of fellow preachers. He lays out his plan of nonviolent protest based partly on what actions might draw the most cameras (“Selma,” deliciously, presents King as a man of great faith and also great media savvy).
As “Selma” emphasizes, King’s nonviolent approach did not equal non-provocation. With President Johnson having put voting rights on the back burner in favor of his war on poverty – at least in the film’s version of events – King believes his best shot at winning federal protection for voting rights is through the back channels of the press and public support. Once he finds out the local sheriff is a hothead and thus a magnet for press coverage, he cements his plans.
But King does not anticipate the viciousness with which Alabama authorities respond to the marchers’ first attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
DuVernay shot on the real bridge, and shows great authority in orchestrating a sequence that involves high emotion, many moving parts and horses. As marchers try to run through the fog of tear gas from officers on foot and horseback wielding billy clubs, “Selma” uses the voiceover of a reporter, describing the events as he dictates his story to an editor via pay phone. The effect is bone-chilling.
In between scenes of confrontation, “Selma” can lag. Characters speak too formally, as if delivering speeches, in regular conversation. The movie can feel crowded – and not in march scenes, but living-room scenes.
Too many characters are introduced without being fleshed out. No single member of King’s camp stands out, despite the presence of well-known actors Wendell Pierce and Common in two of those roles.
The activist highlighted most, apart from King, is a young John Lewis (Stephan James), who would become a Georgia congressman. Although the real John Lewis is dynamic, James in the role of Lewis is not.
Exchanges between Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo, as King’s wife, Coretta, carry an easy intimacy but do not reveal much more about the private King than most people already know.
DuVernay has drawn criticism for her portrayal of Johnson as foremost a political animal, who thinks Wallace is backward but urges King to hold tight for now on the federal voting act. Wherever the truth lies, scenes between Wilkinson and Oyelowo, bristling with tension and ego, rank among the film’s best.
Regardless of their personal interactions, Johnson eventually did what King and many members of the public demanded – after seeing the violence against Selma activists on TV – by signing the Voting Rights Act five months after the march.
This fact speaks to today’s political climate as much as any aspect of “Selma.” Just as the judicial and legislative processes have been central to the nation’s progress, so has the individual’s right to hit the streets and demand change.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson
Director: Ava DuVernay
PG-13 (disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, brief strong language)