Director: Ava DuVernay
Stars: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ojogo
Rating: [this film is not yet rated, actually]
5 (out of 5) Globes
“Selma” is Hollywood’s first Martin Luther King Jr. movie, but it doesn’t feel like it. That’s a good thing; the biopic — as some of us apparently never tire of pointing out — has the tendency to smush complicated figures into bland blobs of greatness. In a sense one hasn’t really made it until they’ve inspired a turgid filmed history lesson filled with half-truths, simplifications and generic inspirational pabulum. “Selma” has its share of those, but it goes as light on them as one can and still qualify as Oscar bait. In fact it’s roughly 20 percent Oscar bait, 80 percent something trickier and less sexy (or sexier, depending on who you are): a tough, sober, lived-in look at the gruntwork of activism.
Indeed, one emerges from “Selma” appreciating not only King’s spirit but his gifts for bald, sly, necessary political manipulation. The story hangs tight on the marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in the fight for voter rights in the Deep South. “I Have a Dream” has already happened. King (David Oyelowo) is not only already a public figure, but has just been feted with the Nobel Peace Prize. The trophy doesn’t mean anything’s over; in fact, he proceeds from the ceremony to the White House to pester Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). The president assumed the Civil Rights Act was enough, and can barely contain his annoyance when asked for what will become the Voting Rights Act as well, as though King was merely greedy.
What follows is closer to “No” — about the fight to unseat Augusto Pinochet — and “Lincoln,” which zeroed in on the battle to instill the 13th Amendment. Like those heroes, the good guys in “Selma” win because they know they can’t effect change with mere nobility. The fight for voter’s rights is depicted as a series of chess moves separated by discussion scenes, in which laidback but fiery activists sit in dimly lit rooms, weighing the odds, debating tactics, planning on the next step. A ream of terrific actors — Wendell Pierce as Hosea Williams, Andre Holland as Andrew Young, Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper — mill about and getting one stand-out scene each, maybe. Everyone surrenders themselves for the movement, including, at times, King himself, who occasionally disappears from the narrative, sometimes by necessity: it’s not wise, it’s agreed upon, to put the face of the movement in the way of the state troopers who will turn one march into the incident dubbed “Bloody Sunday.”
This is a most practical docudrama, which is not to say it’s not emotional. In fact, it’s moving in large part because it’s detached. Its emotions lie deeper down anyway. You can sense the group commitment from every actor to tell this story, just as you can sense it in Ava DuVernay’s direction. An independent filmmaker who suddenly found herself taking over a production abandoned by Lee Daniels, she made tiny, intimate dramas, like “Middle of Nowhere” and “I Will Follow,” marked by a kind of detached sincerity.
That carries over here too; King is very much a man wrestling with his own fame/infamy, and the ever-present threat of death that brings. But you sense in the bigger scenes, including the skirmishes, a director careful with every shot, who’s more conscious than others of getting it feeling right and true. She doesn’t overdo the violence; so many civil rights movies dwell on the beatings and the deaths to rub viewers’ faces in getting on the cause they’re likely already on. She trusts her viewers, and doesn’t ever come off as a mere hunk of white liberal guilt.
That said, DuVernay doesn’t always trust viewers to get everything. Some biopic cheese remains; some famous characters “casually” declaim their names, while the white characters — notably Tim Roth’s frothing George Wallace and Dylan Baker’s preening J. Edgar Hoover — seem to hail from a sketch comedy spliced-in accidentally. It’s easy to forget about these missteps when Oyelowo is nailing not only King’s charismatic speech-making but also his molasses drawl when speaking in private. He feels like a real character — not just flawed and human but present, working through the minute issues most biopics mistakenly think are boring when rather the opposite.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge