Movies about the African-American Civil Rights Movement are and always have been in a strange place. The events of the period are a rich vein of fantastic story potential, but it’s one that’s gone mostly untapped by the film industry. Institutional cowardice about “black” movies, which supposedly don’t do well (except that they totally do) keeps Hollywood out of the period, and it’s difficult for independent filmmakers to fill the void, since a Civil Rights film is by necessity also a period piece, and making those requires a big production budget.
It’s ridiculous that it’s taken this long for a major motion picture with Martin Luther King, Jr. as a main character to come out, but it’s finally happened thanks to the marriage of some select big Hollywood money (producers Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt) and indie artists (writer/director Ava DuVernay). The fact that it’s taken so long means that there are outsized, even unfair, expectations weighing on Selma. Does the movie live up to those expectations? In some ways, yes – but in others, sadly not.
The film follows Dr. King (David Oyelowo) from when he won his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 through the protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in early 1965. Despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act, many southern states enforce ridiculous restrictions on voter registration in order to prevent black people from voting (gee, sound familiar?). King and other leaders of the SCLC join with local activists in Selma to make the city the focal point of their efforts to combat voter suppression, but they’re met with nasty resistance at every turn from the white establishment, eventually necessitating the march to Montgomery, in hopes that press attention will force President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to address the issue.
Thrust upon Oyelowo is the unenviable task of trying to make one of the most revered men in American history feel like a human being, and he has to do so while also making it plainly evident why he’s so important – playing Dr. King means you have to give some mean speeches, and Oyelowo smashes it each time. There are elements of imitation (mannerisms, speech patterns, body language) that are all but expected of biopic-ish leads in his performance, but he concentrates more on creating a character with evident depth than putting on an impersonation. His King is almost awkwardly reserved at times, and Oyelowo’s best actor moments come not when he’s at a pulpit but when he gets a moment to breathe behind the scenes.
It’s a shame that the movie doesn’t service much of the rest of the cast nearly as well. Carmen Ejogo gets an unfortunately cliched “constantly concerned but ultimately supportive wife” role as Coretta Scott King, though there’s a weird, brief, abortive subplot where she tries to mediate cooperation between King and Malcolm X (who, in unfortunately typical fashion, is kind of thrown under the bus as a legitimate activist – he’s “the scary one”). A lot of great character actors (Wendell Pierce, Common, Lorraine Toussaint, Andre Holland, Tessa Thompson, many more) are cast as important movers and shakers in the Movement, but not given terribly much to do. They stand around in conference debating various strategies, their roles never made clear for the audience and their personalities even less clear.
Anyone familiar enough with history will be able to tell who they’re playing, but their appearances feel more like name-checking than anything else. And that’s where bit roles aren’t played by recognizable actors to hugely distracting effect (Winfrey as a minor activist, Cuba Gooding Jr. as a lawyer, Martin Sheen (!!) as a judge).
More of an issue is how Selma ticks through its plot with only scattered moments of verve. Directorial flourishes like the horrifically dreamlike explosion in a church bombing are the exception to the rule of standard biopic / period piece rhythms. The seeming obligation to hit the “important” story markers is a major reason the characters besides King are left in the dust. And it sometimes leads to baffling results – included in the “what happened after” title credits of the closing sequence is a woman who barely got any attention in the movie.
Selma does a few things that break from the image of King as a distant saint (one detail I liked was that it’s the first fiction film that I know of to acknowledge his constant surveillance by the FBI, even using the agency’s dispatches on his activities as exposition). And thanks to cinematographer Bradford Young, who makes some brilliant color and lighting decisions, the look of the film is elevated above that of the standard historical piece. But overall, it’s just okay. Which isn’t a bad thing, but again, its subject matter is in too-rare cinematic company.
The Upside: Looks better than the average historical drama; some top-notch performances, especially from Oyelowo; occasional moments of greatness
The Downside: So many supporting characters merge into the background; overly, stultifying and conventional in many respects
On the Side: Alessandro Nivola has a bit part as John Doar, the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights from 1960 to 1967. The real John Doar died just a few days ago (as of the time of this writing). Amelia Boynton Robinson (Lorraine Toussaint’s character), on the other hand, is still alive – she’s 103 years old.