Selma gets it right in the very first scene: we meet Martin Luther King not on a speaker’s platform, in a church, or on a march. He is fumbling to get dressed in a fancy suit with an ascot and complaining about it to his patient wife, Coretta. (The reason for donning this uncharacteristic outfit: to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.) That is how screenwriter Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay introduce us to the legendary figure at the center of their film, not as a plaster saint but as an ordinary man.
The beauty and brilliance of Selma is how the filmmakers humanize every aspect of their story, refusing to make it a historical pageant. David Oyelowo’s performance is crucial in achieving this goal: he is as believable in a quiet domestic scene as he is in his most majestic moments, rallying his people with a galvanizing speech. We see King in his various roles as leader, negotiator, mediator, and husband.
DuVernay has proved herself with a pair of well-received indie films but she, too, rises to the occasion with this re-creation of recent American history. Both the flavor and the details of the 1960s are vividly evoked in moments large and small. If you’re old enough to remember the key moments (and players) in the Civil Rights movement, as I am, I think you’ll be impressed. Judicious use of news footage from the period confirms the solidity of DuVernay’s dramatic staging of those incidents.
Selma reminds us that history is shaped by a variety of factors including debate, conflict, decision-making, and happenstance. It’s the humanity of the people involved that create the fabric of history, from a hard-driving politician like L.B.J. to a sympathetic white priest from the North who feels impelled to join the headline-making march down South.
I’m not sure why British actors make such good screen Southerners, but Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo (as Coretta Scott King), Tom Wilkinson (as L.B.J.), and Tim Roth (as Alabama governor George Wallace) deliver perfectly persuasive performances along with their talented costars. The film rests largely on Oyelowo’s shoulders and he is simply superb; in his speech and in his bearing, he is Dr. King.
Selma builds to an emotional crescendo that brought me to tears. I don’t remember another biographical drama having the same effect on me—but then, there aren’t many stories as potent as this one.