“Like writing history with lightning.”
That was President Woodrow Wilson’s reaction to a 1915 White House screening of the Civil War epic “Birth of a Nation,” a film whose artistic ambitions were matched only by its racism.
A century later, director Ava DuVernay has given us “Selma,” a docudrama about a pivotal campaign in the fight for civil rights for black Americans. You could say this film writes history not so much with lightning as with compassion.
“Selma” often gets the details wrong (shuffling chronologies and geography, for instance), but its emotional heft is undeniable. In re-creating the 1965 protest marches from Selma, Ala., led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the movie captures the epic sweep of social upheaval, but also the way it played out for the individuals — famous and anonymous — who made it happen.
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It’s as close to being there as most of us will ever get.
The screenplay by Paul Webb (his first) cannily begins with three scenes that establish the film’s breadth and what is at stake.
In Oslo, Norway, King (David Oyelowo, who like most of the lead players is British) accepts the Nobel Peace Prize.
In Selma, black housewife Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, one of the movie’s producers) attempts to register to vote. A sneering clerk orders her to recite from memory the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. When she does so flawlessly, he tells her to come back when she has memorized the names of all the county judges in Alabama.
And in Montgomery, Ala., four black girls are killed when a bomb planted by racists goes off in their church during Sunday services.
King and other civil rights leaders focus their efforts to register black voters in Selma, a racially backward burg with thuggish law enforcement. With the media riveted on the situation — dignified protesters being abused by white cops and racist mobs — the federal government will be forced to get involved.
In Washington, President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, offering a near caricature of Texas movin’ and shakin’) wants to put voting rights on the back burner while emphasizing his planned war on poverty: “This votin’ thing’s just gonna have to wait.”
When it becomes clear the protesters won’t back down, a frustrated Johnson — “You tryin’ to (expletive) over your president?” — entertains a suggestion by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) that audiotapes of King in compromising sexual situations be anonymously mailed to King’s wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo).
(LBJ experts already are complaining that the film makes the Prez look like King’s adversary rather than one of civil rights’ strongest supporters.)
And in Montgomery, Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth, villainous but lacking the real Wallace’s bigger-than-life bluster) does a slow burn as he realizes he’s about to be squeezed between the overreactions of his racist electorate and a federal government that will be forced to step in.
“Selma” crams an awful lot of history, intrigue and familiar faces (Cuba Gooding Jr., Wendell Pierce, Giovanni Ribisi, Alessandro Nivola, Martin Sheen, Lorraine Toussaint) into two hours.
Central to all this is Oyelowo’s portrayal of King. He gives us not a saint (although with his spectacular grasp of language he could be considered a prophet) but a pragmatist who works like a master politician in smoke-filled rooms to reconcile black leaders vying for control.
We’re all familiar with the public King (at times Oyelowo uncannily channels the great man’s physicality and vocal cadences), but the actor also digs deeper to show his subject’s moments of conflict, fear and doubt. And though King’s well-documented (thanks to the FBI) sexual peccadilloes are referred to only tangentially, it’s hard not to see them quietly boiling beneath his seemingly genteel marriage.
It’s a very strong performance and a likely Oscar contender. But do not think that “Selma” is simply the Martin Luther King Story. This movie is about the movement and the moment, with King just one of many important players.
DuVernay and Webb create an atmosphere of hope and dread that not only engenders deep respect for the men and women who risked life and limb to march, but leaves us wishing that we could have been part of it.
And lest you think that “Selma” is a complacent depiction of a long-ago battle fought and won, the movie ends with fresh news footage of protesters in Ferguson, Mo.
The message is inescapable: This war isn’t over yet.
Read more of Robert W. Butler's reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
Rated PG-13 | Time: 2:08
MAN WHO WOULD BE KING
Three things we learned from the L.A. Times and New York Times about British/Nigerian actor David Oyelowo:
▪ His preparation for playing Martin Luther King Jr.: The 38-year-old gained 30 pounds and shaved back his hairline. He says he learned the most from unseen video footage provided by longtime King ally Andrew Young: “With this, he was just there, not putting on any of that (dignified demeanor) — eating fried chicken, belching, laughing with his friends, being the prankster, the guy’s guy. And that was huge for me.”
▪ His films: He was a soldier in “Lincoln,” a rebellious son in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” a preacher in “The Help” and an astronaut in “Interstellar.” Next: a complicated prosecutor in “A Most Violent Year” (Jan. 30).
▪ His faith: The devout Christian said he heard a voice tell him he would land this role: “I knew that voice, because it was the same voice that told me to marry my wife, the same voice that told me to give names to my children before they were even conceived.”
| Sharon Hoffmann, The Star