Failure to indict white police in the killing of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island has nothing and everything to do with Selma, Ava DuVernay’s provocative probe into Martin Luther King Jr.’s landmark 1965 voting-rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery. The sad fact is that racial injustice is timelier than ever. Righteous fury is in the air. And that fervor to stand up and be counted is all over Selma.
Which is all to the good. DuVernay, working from a terrific, tightly focused script by Paul Webb, blows the dust off history to find its beating heart. Look at the situation facing King, played magnificently by British actor David Oyelowo: Black voters in the South are being intimidated, beaten and disenfranchised. Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) likes it the Jim Crow way. In the White House, Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) hems and haws. King had to take action. He thought a nonviolent march in Selma, where bigotry was on full boil, would create a media firestorm and force the president’s hand.
King was right. But at considerable cost. Within the civil rights movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee resented his intrusion. King expected push-back from proponents of violent action. But in a meeting between Malcolm X (a splendid Nigel Thatch) and King’s wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), a more surprising strategy emerges. Political gamesmanship is at play, and DuVernay shows how every hand gets dirty.
There are no halos in DuVernay’s film, and that extends to King. Selma isn’t a biopic – it celebrates community action – but in seeing King through the prism of one crucial event, the film offers a rousing portrait of a born preacher not without sin. Oyelowo’s stirring, soulful performance deserves superlatives. His delivery of King’s speeches, especially “How Long, Not Long,” rings with emotion. But it’s in quiet moments of humor, heartbreak and stabbing self-doubt that we see a man in full. King and his wife discuss his infidelities with a wrenching honesty that cuts deep. Ejogo’s work is also ardent and award-caliber. It’s ironic that Ejogo and Oyelowo are British, as are Wilkinson and Roth, but why grouse when acting is this artful?
On March 7th, “Bloody Sunday,” black and white marchers are forced to turn back on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the face of police billy clubs. Later, a judge forces a truce and the march proceeds. DuVernay and the gifted cinematographer Bradford Young, shooting in Alabama, achieve visceral wonders as we watch history forged in flesh and blood.
A word here about the real women behind the Selma march. Oprah Winfrey, one of the film’s producers, is deeply moving as Annie Lee Cooper, a nurse who decked a white sheriff for denying her right to vote. Lorraine Toussaint excels as Amelia Boynton, who is brutally pummeled on the march, and so does Tessa Thompson as Diane Nash, an unsung hero of the movement.
Still, the woman of these two blistering hours is DuVernay, 42, a former publicist for the likes of Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood. Her second feature, 2012’s Middle of Nowhere, made her the first African-American woman to win the Sundance award for directing. In Selma, DuVernay’s talent is in full blaze. The sprawl of an event that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Bill in August 1965 is uncontainable, especially in one film. But nothing is going to stop DuVernay. In “Glory,” a song by Common and John Legend that ends the film, we hear the lyric “That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up. . . ./They say, ‘Stay down,’ and we stand up.” DuVernay’s momentous film is a testament to those words. The struggle continues.