'Selma' shows Martin Luther King, Jr. was flawed, yet focused

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

The film is more worthy than wonderful, but actor David Oyelowo's portrayal of King is the best thing about the movie.

Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures/AP
'Selma' stars David Oyelowo (center) and Carmen Ejogo (r.).

A blot on Hollywood is that, until now, with “Selma,” no feature-length dramatic film has ever been made about Martin Luther King, Jr. Was he not incendiary enough? Was his audience not demographically acceptable? For whatever reason, “Selma” is, historically, an event. I only wish the film, which charts the 1965 march through Alabama that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, was as wonderful as it is worthy.

Director Ava DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb have chosen a middle course between the standard historical waxworks biopic and an intimate depiction of the public politician as private man. The film makes it clear that King was not the sole guiding force in the march, that he had doubts about its effectiveness, that he had affairs that threatened his marriage – in short, that he was human and not a marble statue.

The best thing about the movie is David Oyelowo’s performance as King. He doesn’t simply portray King; he inhabits him. We can see how King, in his public appearances, or in his pressurized White House meetings with LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) to push voting rights legislation, deliberately maintains the statesmanlike aura. But because we also see the doubts and disputes that are the backstory to this stance, his dignity in the national arena does not seem like mere posturing. It’s extremely difficult to portray a legendary historical figure in a way that does justice to both that figure’s momentousness and his humanity, but Oyelowo has found a way to do it.

Too much else about “Selma,” however, is in the stiff historical biopic tradition. DuVernay, whose previous directorial efforts were small-scale domestic dramas, is one of the very few black women making Hollywood movies. Except for a well-staged scene depicting the attack on the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the best scenes in “Selma” are the small-scale ones: Oprah Winfrey (also one of the film’s producers) as an bedraggled activist denied the opportunity to vote; a scene where King’s wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), confronts him about his philandering; a cameo involving the father (portrayed by that marvelous actor Henry G. Sanders) of a murdered man in Selma. But whenever the movie, which is all too often, veers into backroom political machination mode, especially in the scenes involving LBJ or with George Wallace (Tim Roth), the movie’s molten core cools and it loses its intimacy.

The filmmakers behind “Selma” wanted to break out of the talking-heads-history-lesson syndrome, but they only succeed halfway. That’s still halfway more than anyone else ever attempted. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language.)

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to 'Selma' shows Martin Luther King, Jr. was flawed, yet focused
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today