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.)