Ava DuVernay's Selma is an epic movie on an intimate scale, a sobering, moving account of how Martin Luther King, the last great leader this country has seen, compelled a reluctant Lyndon Johnson to give Black people the right to vote. Focusing on the period after the murder of four little girls in a church bombing in Alabama and the marches from Selma to Montgomery, it chronicles Dr. King's leadership and the toll his non-violent methods took on him, as well as the effect they had in getting the president to enact legislation.
David Oyelowo's towering performance as King, supported by a uniformly splendid cast, anchors the film with dignity and humanity. He gets the cadence and oratorial charisma of King's speech perfectly, but he also embodies his moral authority and shrewd intelligence. He is burdened by the enormous impact that each one of his decisions has on everyone, from his family to the fate of Black people, but he is also a practical strategist. He understands the power of the political theater of marches on hostile ground, as well as the fact that marches are not enough; the laws have to change. In a pivotal scene in which marchers are attacked by state troopers, he witnesses the violence without intervening, because he knows that this display of cruelty by the authorities helps his cause. He alternates protest with legal challenges and emerges as a skilled tactician.
The film also portrays some of the divisions within the civil rights movement, namely, the resistance of the Selma students who had been leading the movement locally, and King's opposition to his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) meeting with Malcolm X, who had called him, among other ugly things, an Uncle Tom. King's fabled infidelities are exploited by J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to try to cut a rift in the Kings' marriage. The portrayal of King as an extraordinary leader is tempered by the acknowledgment of his personal failings and a sense of humor, but Selma hails him as the great hero he was and recreates the incredible courage that he and those marchers had in risking their lives for their rights. I was unconvinced by Johnson's pretexts not to act on voting rights, and some historians are up in arms about his portrayal as an antagonist instead of a staunch supporter of King and his movement, but it is not altogether a negative portrayal.
The elegant script by Paul Webb and an uncredited DuVernay is mostly faithful to facts and avoids inventing characters for dramatic purposes. Most, if not all of the characters in the movie are historical figures. The movie is more a recreation than a fictionalization and it is very powerful.
I don't know why it seems to be law that British actors portray Southern characters in American movies, but all the better for us. Besides Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson is great as Lyndon Johnson and Tim Roth is perfectly despicable as Alabama governor George Wallace. Excellent African American actors like Oprah Winfrey (also a producer), Lorraine Toussaint, Wendell Pierce, Colman Domingo and others round up the cast. DuVernay directs with great restraint. Bradford Young provides epic camerawork, and Jason Moran a powerful, understated score.
Even as it ends in the triumph of the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the final march from Selma to Montgomery, the movie reminds us that even with all this sacrifice, and despite some of the important gains of the civil rights movement, there is still a long way to go for racial equality in this country. Despite the uplifting finale, it is a devastating film.