There's a distinction between an artistically bold film and one that is important because it takes on a weighty subject. Last year's big race-relations movie, 12 Years a Slave, accomplished both: Director Steve McQueen's focus on gazing on suffering had a universality and power of implication that made it much more than, as cynics suggested, about how slavery was bad.
Selma is this year's big movie statement on America's race history and, by comparison, it's conventional, an above-par docudrama chronicling the historic voting-rights marches from Selma, Ala., to the state capitol in Montgomery that ultimately led to the landmark federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. What takes it out of the movie theatres and into public discourse is its timing and comparisons to the rallies that have swept the United States in recent months, in protest against the killing of unarmed black men by white police officers. By unavoidable implication (not to mention the lyrics of John Legend and Common on the soundtrack), it's clear the struggle for the vote in 1965 is part of the same long march that leads to the protests of 2015.
Selma is about political consciousness-raising, which is hard to criticize. Taken strictly as a movie, though, Selma is an uneven yet generally skillful effort that has probably drawn more praise and criticism than it warrants.
We meet Martin Luther King (played by British actor David Oyelowo) on the night he receives the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, fussing with his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), over how to tie an ascot. Moments later, we witness the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., by the Ku Klux Klan, an act that killed four girls. The juxtaposition feels heavy-handed (particularly given that the bombing took place more than a year before King's award), but it sets the tone: Intimate backstage moments combined with momentous historic events.
But the violence is a foretaste of what is to come. While King may have been a global figure, his doubts and sense of vulnerability were warranted. The humane lead performance by Oyelowo – who captures the cadences, if not the majesty, of King's oratory (which is used sparingly) – focuses on the quiet turmoil behind the outward confidence, and on his sense of destiny. The "constant closeness of death" haunts both him and his wife. King's serial infidelities, bluntly if briefly dealt with here, add to the strain of the marriage.
Mostly, though, this is a movie about strategy. The march from Selma was intended as a showdown, a battle aimed at the television cameras, pitting non-violent symbolism of the orderly, dignified, peaceful black protesters against the rabid white police goons with their guns, truncheons and attack dogs. This is where King and other members of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference headed in January, 1965, to force legislators' hands. Simultaneously, we see King lobbying the U.S. president, Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who is portrayed here, perhaps with some dramatic licence, as a man forced into doing the right thing.
King may be the prime mover, but as the movie's title suggests, Selma is an ensemble story, which crams a multitude of characters into its two-hour running time. The many players include Oprah Winfrey as hospice care-worker Annie Lee Cooper, who we see in an early scene facing the absurd double standards for black voter registration. A single scene sees a visit from Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), a formerly contemptuous critic of King's who declared himself an ally shortly before his own assassination. The casting includes an effective Cuba Gooding Jr. as civil-rights lawyer Fred Gray and Martin Sheen as federal district court judge Frank Johnson. A separate subplot concerns the conflict within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, between James Forman (Trai Byers) who resents King's high-profile opportunism, and the future congressman John Lewis (Stephan James), who sees the bigger picture.
Not all these casting choices are on the money: Wilkinson's LBJ is tall, ostentatiously condescending and wily, but something of a caricature. Dylan Baker is an eccentric choice as FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover, and Tim Roth downright improbable as Alabama Governor George Wallace. (It would have been better to cast the great Stephen Root, who plays a Wallace underling, in the role.) There's a sense that the project, made for a modest $20-million (U.S.), was important enough that everyone wanted to be involved, and too important to fuss about strict verisimilitude.
In those moments when Selma works, it flies high. The initial march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, which led to a savage attack by troopers on horse back, is terrifically staged. In one short scene, veteran character actor Henry G. Sanders, as the stricken 82-year-old father of a man killed by Selma police, is heartbreaking. And as any preacher knows, a rousing ending can cover any number of small flaws. Selma reaches its climax with King's victory speech from the steps of the state capitol, and Oyelowo rises beautifully to the occasion, with the promise that, "Our freedom will soon be upon us." To which the only proper response is a fervent, "Hallelujah."