Film Review: Selma

An impassioned lead performance and timely parallels to contemporary social issues enliven and elevate this otherwise somewhat routine biopic.

The decades-long quest to get a Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic off the ground could make for a gripping film in and of itself. Various attempts have been made over the years to mount a movie based on the life of the Civil Rights leader over the years, but for various reasons those projects have never come to fruition. (The lone exception to date is the telefilm Boycott, which starred Jeffrey Wright as Dr. King and aired on HBO in 2001.)

The degree of difficulty involved with dramatizing this particular biography is regrettable, but also understandable. Unlike his contemporary—and occasional adversary—Malcolm X, whose controversial life and legacy provides fertile ground for such storytellers as Spike Lee (Lee's eponymous 1992 biopic remains one of the genre's finest offerings), King has been justifiably deified for the bold actions he took and the selfless sacrifices he made in service of achieving equal rights for African-Americans. Since his assassination in 1968, he's become almost more of a monument than a man and upholding his legacy, while also acknowledging his all-too-human frailties, would be a steep hill to climb for any filmmaker, with no guarantee of success waiting at the top.

So all credit to relative newcomer Ava DuVernay, whose previous films include the well-received micro-budgeted indies Middle of Nowhere and I Will Follow, for accepting the challenge and finally putting a version of King's life onscreen. Truth be told, Selma isn't the definitive Martin Luther King, Jr. film nor is it the cure for the common biopic. Eschewing a pillar-to-post approach for a more targeted window into its subject's life—specifically March 1965, when King organized a historic march from Selma, Alabama, to the state's capital city, Montgomery—DuVernay and first-time screenwriter Paul Webb commit some of the same sins that often plague the genre.

Those include the tendency to condense years of history into stilted, expository dialogue exchanges, as well as populating the movie with supporting characters whose primary purpose is to act as competing points-of-view, rather than fully realized human beings. DuVernay and Webb also gingerly skim over certain aspects of King's private life that conflict with his legend, tacitly acknowledging his infidelities and making only passing note of his occasional opportunism. (More than one character accuses him of manipulating the already tense situation in Selma to suit his own ends, and while King is shown wrestling with some of the graver consequences of his actions, the movie never really asks him—or us, for that matter—to doubt or question his approach.) Perhaps not surprisingly, Selma seems to understand King best when he's behind a podium or at the head of a march. After all, that public Martin Luther King, Jr. is the one engrained in our collective memory, representing the kind of person we all should be so lucky to aspire to be.

Those sequences are made all the more resonant in Selma by David Oyelowo's standout star turn. The British actor flawlessly replicates King's unique style of oratory, making every well-chosen word or turn of phrase register and linger. Even if the film itself is arguably guilty of presenting King as a capital-G Great Man (an honor he obviously deserves, even if it stymies certain elements of first-rate storytelling), Oyelowo refuses to play him that simplistically, straining to reach depths in his performance that Webb's script never quite reaches. He's well-matched by an equally impassioned Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, although, again, her role suffers somewhat from the filmmakers' uncertainty about how to characterize their home life.

If Selma isn't as complete a portrait of King as he perhaps merits, it benefits from being released in a year when his guidance and spirit are needed more than ever. In the wake of tragedies like the untimely deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, racial tensions in America seem at their highest level since the Civil Rights era, particularly in regards to the relationship between the African-American community and police departments around the country. Watching King strive to organize a non-violent protest that's answered all too quickly and all too eagerly with violence from Selma's heavily armed police force, it's hard not to flash to the images from Ferguson, Missouri that were splashed across television screens earlier this year. (It's also maddening to hear that show of force justified by local law enforcement, using words that, decades later, were trotted out by certain cable-news bloviators and Internet trolls in response to Ferguson.)

What Selma makes clear is that the longstanding mistrust between the two sides provided the kindling for what could have been a prolonged and brutal war. It took an individual like Martin Luther King, Jr. to understand that the only way forward was through patience and persistence, even when the temptation to lash out was too overpowering to resist. Despite its flaws, Selma ensures that King's message is still heard loud and clear today.

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