If Selma is suddenly embroiled in controversy as Oscar nominations loom (it's awards season, and challenging the integrity of the perceived front-runners is par for the course), audiences should not be swayed from seeing this powerful and poignant restaging of a crucial time in America's history. Director Ava DuVernay's depiction of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his campaign for voting rights for Southern blacks may take unnecessary license with Lyndon Johnson's role in supporting - or not supporting, if you believe the movie - King's mission. But that's not what Selma is about.
It's about Alabama state troopers, Ku Klux Klanners, sheriffs, and deputized white males wielding batons and firing tear gas at 500-plus peaceful protesters trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge (named for a U.S. senator who was a grand dragon of the Klan). As TV news cameras whirred on that Sunday, March 7, 1965, scores of African American men and women were toppled by police on horseback. They were beaten and teargassed, all for trying to assert their constitutional right to participate in the electoral process.
The violence was witnessed by 70 million Americans on the nightly news. And it can be witnessed again in DuVernay's salient salute to an indomitable figure of the civil rights movement. As portrayed by English actor David Oyelowo, King is both a charismatic orator and a visionary, a spiritual and practical man who came to Selma in the wake of that "Bloody Sunday" to lead a larger procession to Montgomery, where he spoke on the steps of the state Capitol.
DuVernay's film begins with King's facing a different kind of struggle: awkwardly attempting to tie a fancy ascot. He and his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo, another Brit), are preparing to step onto a dais in Oslo, Norway, where the Baptist preacher will receive the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent pursuit of racial justice. This is what Selma dares to do so well: show us the small, private moments in King's life, the intimacies, the humanity.
For a figure who looms so large in the American psyche, King has been mostly absent from film, despite efforts by directors and actors (Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker for two) to get his story told. In Selma's quiet confabs, the meetings between King and other civil rights leaders, the tension and the tenderness between King and his wife, we get a sense of his intellect, his resolve, his insecurities and fears.
DuVernay and the credited screenwriter, Paul Webb, do set Johnson up as a kind of antagonistic force. In the scenes with King at the White House, face to face with the towering Texan commander in chief (Tom Wilkinson, another Brit), the president tells the preacher that the Voting Rights Act will have to wait. There is Vietnam to deal with, discord in Congress. Despite the systemic prejudice, the police beatings, the defiant stand of Alabama's segregationist governor, George Wallace (Tim Roth, another Brit), LBJ is not ready to throw the full force of his office behind King.
Over the last few weeks, historians, members of Johnson's administration, and others have challenged Selma's portrayal of the 36th president, who brought both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law. DuVernay has cited accounts from other historians in defense of her portrait of a more reticent, calculating politician. But anyone who thinks that Hollywood's version of history is all about factual accuracy is delusional: Liberties are taken with the true record of events, in high-minded historical dramas and low, all the time.
Selma may be flawed, even spurious at points. But in its larger portrait of a man of dignity, purpose, and courage, and in Oyelowo's performance as that man, the film rings true.
Selma ***1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Ava DuVernay. With David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours, 7 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, profanity, racial epithets, adult themes).
Playing at: Area theaters.EndText