Selma depicts many acts of bravery, and the movie itself is a small one – at least in the world of biopics. Rather than build itself around self-congratulatory and hagiographic moments in which Martin Luther King Jr. is the focus, the picture is instead founded on a communal sense of historical accomplishment. It’s significantly more potent as a result.
David Oyelowo plays King, and there’s no denying he brings a charismatic forcefulness to the part. This is particularly true in his speeches, which begin calmly, rooted in reason, and then whip up into a righteous fury that he struggles to contain and barely – just barely – does.
Equally moving, however, are the moments of King in doubt – and there are plenty. Oyelowo gives us a quiet, thoughtful and often flummoxed man, burdened by the weight of the challenge he’s taken on and often unsure of how best to meet it. Visiting the grandfather of a man who was shot to death by police during a protest he has led, King stammers before him, grasping for the right thing to say. He eventually finds words, but they ring less true than the empathetic exasperation that preceded them.
DuVernay has an eye and ear for such grace notes, ones that other filmmakers might bulldoze over.
Director Ava DuVernay, working with a script by Paul Webb, has an eye and ear for such grace notes, ones that other filmmakers might bulldoze over on their way to a scene with a bigger payoff. The movie opens, for example, not with a speech, but with a quiet marital moment between Martin and Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), in which he ironically says he plans to be “a pastor somewhere small” moments before accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.
This patience and generosity on DuVernay’s part is also crucial to the movie’s communal feel. We spend time with the likes of Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), who doggedly tries to register to vote but gets turned away because of discriminatory technicalities each time. We come to know the other pastors and activists of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who formed King’s inner circle and developed the group’s strategy. (Like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Selma is as much political procedural as it is biography.) We meet the Boston priest (Jeremy Strong) who joins the march in Selma after King has called upon the conscience of the entire nation in a televised speech. The result is that when this crowd locks arms and marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to demand voting reform, it isn’t only King’s face we know – it’s also the priest’s, Annie’s and the faces of many others.
That bridge scene is a moving moment, but again, Selma isn’t dependent upon it. In fact, DuVernay is more than willing to undercut it. Three marches took place in Selma, the second of which King calls off just when the protestors seem on the verge of triumph. Rather than skip that as an inconvenient detail, DuVernay is true to the sense of deflation many felt in the aftermath. Similarly, DuVernay gives ample time to the first march, which King didn’t even attend. An average biographic would have excised that bit of history because it didn’t include the main character. Selma features it, because the movie understands that the main character here is not the man, but the movement.