Finally, we have a movie about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and it’s a great one.
Director Ava DuVernay has made a most impressive film, taking on the unenviable task of helming the first cinematic portrayal Dr. King’s life. Her approach is a series of smart choices: while never demonstrably stylish, many scenes have a compelling stillness, no-nonsense staging and are artfully framed by cinematographer Bradford Young (who also shot the wonderful, little seen “Pariah”).
Rather than attempt to cram Dr. King’s entire life into one movie (hopefully, this will lead to forthcoming films that attempt this), the focus is on a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement.
Set in 1965, the film portrays Dr. King’s efforts to compel President Johnson to allow equal voting rights for African-Americans. This culminates in the courageous efforts of activists marching through Selma, Alabama, which led to police intervention and violence. News reports of the movement in Selma would lead to a wider awareness and compassion for Dr. King, and the efforts of those who stood for racial equality.
The depiction of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls comes with a shocking visual, but the CGI-slo-mo of the aftermath didn’t feel right. While I can’t think of a single scene I’d cut, the film is too long at 128-minutes.
A touch that impressed me: Dr. King’s marital indiscretions are brought up in tactful but direct ways. I assumed the touchy subject of Dr. King’s infidelity would be bypassed but it adds a complex layer and additional dramatic weight. “Selma” may be overstuffed but it doesn’t sugar coat. I also admired the scenes depicting LBJ, J. Edgar Hoover and George Wallace: rather than portray them as villainous, one-note bigots, Tom Wilkinson, Dylan Baker and Tim Roth paint them as savvy politicians, all-too-aware of how their decisions regarding Civil Rights will forever be stamped into their legacy.
While watching “Selma,” I struggled to find the right word to describe David Oyowelo’s lead performance as Dr. King. All I could come up with was “glorious.” Dr. King famously had a way with people, a demeanor and manner of speaking that, even today, seems otherworldly and uniquely elegant. Oyowelo taps into that, finding the tortured center of a man who struggled in his efforts to be a leader and fighter. There is in Oyowelo a light that burns from within, a quality that makes his performance deeply felt. At times, I was overwhelmed by his power, focus and the extent to which he seems to truly embody Dr. King, rather than merely playing him. There may be later films that cover more of Dr. King’s legacy but Oyowelo’s performance will ensure that “Selma” will remain a vital, if not definitive, portrait of an incredible man.
Great movies have stand-alone scenes that play like perfect short films within the narrative, conveying the themes and passion of the filmmaker. There are two scenes here that continue to haunt me: we see Dr. King call a friend of his, late at night, and ask her to sing a gospel song for him. There’s also the heartbreaking moment when Dr. King comforts an elderly man, his son a victim of senseless police brutality. Ferguson, Mo gets name-dropped in the John Legend/Common track, “Glory,” that plays over the end credits, though the film is already flush with imagery and dialogue that reflects modern day struggles with racism and abuses of power.
Carmen Ejogo is excellent as Coretta Scott King and Nigel Thatch puts in a great (but too brief) appearance as Malcolm X. Oprah Winfrey is a good actress and it makes sense including her in the supporting cast, as she symbolizes the unheard-of level of success an African-American woman would be making in the years to come. That said, she’s too much of a distraction. A cameo appearance is one thing, but having her play a protestor who slaps a white cop is a bit much. So is the camera angle that follows her, as she’s beaten down to the ground; the visual is strong but, because it showcases one of the most famous women on the planet, it’s too much of a movie moment. Ms. Winfrey’s best contribution to the film was signing on as executive producer.
Yolanda King, one of Dr. King’s two daughters, came to the university I was attending in 1996 and gave a heartfelt speech. She shared her father’s warmth, grace and eloquence of language. The odd detail I remember about her appearance: she was there to help promote a film she had appeared in, Rob Reiner’s “Ghosts of Mississippi.” Reiner’s film, while good, was justifiably criticized. It portrayed the assassination of Civil Rights figure, Medgar Evers and avoided other details of his life. More attention was given to Edgar’s assassin than anything else. This oversight short-changed the film. I wish Yolanda King had lived to see “Selma,” which mixes politics, historical reenactment social commentary and entertainment value in manner that truly honored her father.