There’s not much to complain about in Ava DuVernay’s Selma. In fact, the movie’s unobjectionable-ness, as a serious narrative of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, is its chief drawback.
It’s fair to say that one of filmmaker DuVernay’s main objectives in telling the story of the 1965 Civil Rights marches in Selma, Alabama is to remind the audience of a time and place they have heard of, but whose details they might be a little hazy on. Think of it as “Civil Rights for beginners,” compared to the harrowing post-grad lecture of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.
When Reverend King (played by English actor David Oyelowo), his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo, another UK player), and the membership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference bring their activist campaign for full racial equality to the heart of the Old South in the days of strict segregation and punitive bigotry, their nonviolent principles echo those of Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jesus Christ: Turn the other cheek; it’s the right thing to do. King, attorney Fred Gray (Cuba Gooding Jr.), Reverend Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), Reverend Ralph Abernathy (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), and their followers know they are going to be violently opposed, perhaps killed, but they keep the faith and persevere. History is on their side, and today they are righteous heroes and martyrs.
Oyelowo (Lincoln, The Help, and the upcoming A Most Violent Year) turns in an authoritative, even-keeled performance as Dr. King. The actor is not as strong an orator as King, but who ever was? The film’s producer, Oprah Winfrey, is completely believable as Annie Lee Cooper, a black Selma resident — it’s the type of character she knows intrinsically, going all the way back to her role as Sofia in The Color Purple. The other African-American protagonists — with the exception of police victim Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (Bay Area favorite Ledisi Young) — tend to blend into the background as faces in the crowd. Director DuVernay’s gaze lingers on the faces of the righteous a little longer, lovingly caressing them, enshrining them in the light. That gets to be a bit of a bore, frankly. In large-scale, broad-palette movies like this one, the unjustly persecuted are never quite as interesting as the lowdown scoundrels they face.
Segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) is bogeyman number one, closely followed by FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker, somewhat miscast) and Jim Clark, the bully boy sheriff of Dallas County (Stan Houston). Roth, particularly, fulminates with great vigor. He naturally gravitates to portrayals of deceitful, venomous human beings the same way Winfrey does to humble, upstanding ones. He’s definitely more fun to watch. As the movie rolls on, you can keep mental tabs on how many American characters are actually played by British actors. Oyelowo, Ejogo, Roth, and Tom Wilkinson (as President Lyndon B. Johnson) are all UK-based — most of the film’s high-profile roles.
The appearance of Wilkinson’s LBJ and Roth’s Wallace give a certain political dimension to the grassroots, street-level impetus of the movement — cynicism as opposed to idealism. Crazy as he seemed at the time to American liberals, Wallace is shown by first-timer Paul Webb’s screenplay to be a governor who reads the polls and knows when he’s beat, while Johnson comes across as a Texan who also calculates the political winds, and knows how to cultivate a vital segment of Democratic voters. As for Hoover the racist red-baiter, he’s portrayed the same way he has been in every Hollywood movie made about him since his death in 1972: vindictive, hate-filled, unscrupulous, drunk on power, a total monster.
In dialogue, King talks about “raising white consciousness” on the subject of racial inequality. The police-versus-marchers head-banging on the Edmund Pettus Bridge — one of the movie’s strongest scenes — certainly accomplishes that, mostly because it is nationally televised. Publicity-consultant-turned-director DuVernay, a maker of African-American-themed dramas (her 2012 Middle of Nowhere is a notable example), understands that much of the work King began in the 1960s is not yet finished. With that in mind, Selma resonates. It might well have happened yesterday.