To say Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” feels relevant is a mammoth understatement. It’s altogether animated, propelled and enlivened by its contemporary urgency. “Selma” is a history lesson that throbs with today.
DuVernay, a former publicist with two low-budget dramas to her name, dramatizes the events around the 1965 Civil Rights march through Alabama, from Selma to Montgomery, with a straightness of purpose befitting the famous protest’s direct path.
Hollywood often doesn’t nail this kind of historical drama, and such films frequently sag under the weight of their intentions. But DuVernay, working from a script by Paul Webb, stays away from the Martin Luther King Jr. biopic this might have been. Eluding myth-making, she instead goes for a focused realism. “Selma” captures a movement, from the grassroots to the White House, and the many it takes to move history.
“Selma” would pair well with Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” another atmospheric telling of history that cast an expansive gaze at the not-always-pretty grunt work that enabled the world to change.
Early in the film, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference tries to check into a Selma hotel, and a white man extends his hand only to clock King in the jaw. “This place,” says one of King’s cohorts, “is perfect.”
This is the Deep South after 1964’s landmark Civil Rights Act, but when poll taxes, vouchers and the like kept black people away from the ballot box. In an early scene, an elderly hospice nurse named Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) tries to register to vote, only be to be warned of “startin’ a fuss.” She’s told to name Alabama’s 67 judges.
King’s group arrives in Selma having just waged an unsuccessful campaign in Albany, Georgia, where the police avoided the kind of confrontations that would draw headlines. The toxic discrimination of Selma, though, offers King the “drama” he requires to elevate the cause to front pages. Selma Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) and Alabama Gov. George Wallace (an excellent Tim Roth) supply the racist brutality that plays right into King’s mission.
A central theater of “Selma” isn’t just the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where marchers were brutally beaten by baton-wielding police — it’s in the White House. King strategy is trying to pressure Pres. Lyndon Johnson into acting on voting restrictions. LBJ, played with appropriate Texan cajoling by Tom Wilkinson, wants to focus on poverty with his Great Society. (White House tapes suggest a more collaborative LBJ than shown in the film.)
It’s the political front of a battle gathering in Selma, where activists debate, plot and rally support. There’s argument over tactics: Compromise is an essential part of the movement seen in “Selma.”
Throughout, the film is charted by FBI field reports that tracked King’s activities. (Dylan Backer plays J. Edgar Hoover, sneering that he’ll “dismantle” King’s family.) The subtitles are a constant, ominous reminder of the movement’s sizable foes and the nation’s sometimes shameful allegiances.
King is seen both intimately with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) and publicly from the pulpit, where David Oyelow’s King is fullest. He’s not a savior, but a wise man exercising the reaches of his power to the best of his ability. As spectacular as Oyelow’s humanizing performance is, “Selma” is not the MLK show. King is more a savvy operator, gathering together the strong forces around him.
Like few movies, “Selma” is peopled, teaming with the individuals that comprise a mass. By the time the protestors have assembled on the bridge for the 50 mile march, DuVernay has put us among them, from the future Congressman John Lewis (Stephan James) to the Rev. Hosea Williams (the impeccable New Orleans native Wendell Pierce, whose anxious eyes look at the amassed troopers with an unforgettable mix of fear and bravery).
Particularly affecting is Keith Stanfield’s Jimmie Lee Jackson, the 26-year-old who was shot by a trooper ahead of the march. It’s a death — an unarmed black man — that telescopes the 50 years between then and now with tragic immediacy.
There’s a stirring freshness to the cinema of “Selma,” and it’s not just because of Bradford Young’s rich, moody photography. The 1978 TV miniseries “King” is the only real attempt to grapple with MLK. There are shamefully few precedents of civil rights tales in Hollywood to “Selma.” A change is gonna come.