It may surprise many that Martin Luther King Jr. never received the celluloid treatment prior to Selma. Sure he had been mentioned in other historical pieces, but short of documentary footage, King was never given center stage. Quite shocking given the man's legacy and the lingering effect of his efforts still felt today. Several years of production and a director change later, Selma arrives as the film worthy of the man.
Bio-pics are hazardous in that directors have at most two hours to capture a subject's life. Cover too little and the legacy is tainted. Force in too much and the finished product feels lifeless. Ava DuVernay wisely avoids this problem by covering the build-up and eventual event of Dr. King's march from Selma to Montgomery in protest of the Jim Crow laws that restricted black people from voting. More importantly, DuVernay understands that while this movie is about a movement, it isn't about one man.
Andrew Young (Andre Holland), John Lewis (Stephen James), and countless others who were essential to the success of a march that almost never happened. Acts of violence that took the lives of Jimmie Lee Jackson and Father James Reeb threatened to derail the struggle for rights that were so desperately needed for the Black community. Every unconscionable blow against those marching for freedom lands with a sickening thud. Period pieces dealing with race too often reward viewers for how enlightened our present time is, instead DuVernay makes you feel everything that transpired in Alabama.
The church bombing that killed four girls in Birmingham weighs heavily on King's mind as he plans the best course of this massive undertaking. Ideally, he would avoid risking any more lives by letting the White House pursue cementing voting rights through legislative means. The problem with that is President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) is looking to use his political capital on his War on Poverty, he can't afford for partisan strife to get in the way of his goals. King can't afford to watch politicians piss away time passing the buck in a circle with a solution never in sight, so he sets sights on the capitol steps of Montgomery, AL.
Victory didn't come easy for Dr. King and DuVernay focuses on the smaller, quieter moments where the activist lets his guard down to be just a man. Even moments not typically associated with bio-pics of great leaders, such as times of doubt, shame and even defeat. Too often depictions of real life figures lead to rose-colored distortions of how these icons actually were. What makes figures like Martin Luther King Jr. impressive is that they are just like any of us, yet they chose to perservere through such human fears and achieve great deeds. Even when defeat seems at hand from Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), hope lies in splashing those frustration onto televisions across the country so that their degradation may spark national outcry.
Ava DuVernay has only a few feature-length film credits to her name, yet she turns in one of the most solidly directed pictures of the year, aided by gifted cinematographer Bradford Young. The real star is, of course, lead David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. Oyelowo perfectly embodies the icon that is Martin Luther King Jr., revealing insights into the man as well. King's actions will always be what he is remembered for, but a particular late night chat between King and his wife, Coretta (Carmine Egogo), is revelatory and makes the man all the more relatable in ways that champions of history can't always be.
A powerful drama that is relevant now more than ever given recent events, Selma is not only about King, but the men and women who stood beside him to bring about a more equal United States. What marks DuVernay as a director beyond her years is that the regular men and women who gave everything for freedom are held in no less regard than King himself. The collective will of thousands for good hits a emotional crescendo that could only end with the words of King: "...the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Selma isn't just about one march, it's about our ideals. The struggle is long, but it is always eventually realized.