The bravura biopic, “Selma,” is about more than one man; it’s about a community.
Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.
The bravura biopic, “Selma,” chronicles Nobel Prize-winning civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s pivotal participation in the historic events of a half-century ago.
But it’s about more than one man; it’s about a community.
And despite it being a period piece, it relates to and speaks to our times much more than we would like to admit.
Both timeless and timely, “Selma” (2014) addresses the life of its main character by concentrating on one chapter in that subject’s storied history. That is, it looks in on Martin Luther King long after the Montgomery bus boycott, after the Birmingham church bombing, after King’s arrest in Birmingham, after the 1963 March on Washington and the delivery of the indelible “I have a dream” speech, long after FBI surveillance of King had become a fact of daily life.
After establishing just how patently absurd, unjust, outrageous and inordinately hypocritical the voter registration rules were for African-Americans in the south, the narrative focuses on the U.S. civil rights movement during the few crucial and intense months in 1965, from the “Bloody Sunday” assault on peaceful protesters to the march through Alabama that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Director Ava DuVernay graduated from intimate dramas, television projects and lots of miscellaneous publicity and crew work to the director’s chair for this tale of epic scope and makes the transition look easy. The scenes involving crowded confrontations between protesters and police are especially well handled, boasting a documentary-like authenticity, with the brutality that occurred neither sanitized nor embellished.
That alone would constitute a valuable viewing experience. But DuVernay takes it a giant step further. Her admirably crafted work offers flowing narrative momentum, splendid ensemble acting, resourceful but unfussy shooting, and perfectly judged editing.
DuVernay obviously trusted her material to carry sufficient interest and gravitas. Wisely, she realized that any attempt to pump up the metaphorical volume would only undermine and reduce the emotional impact.
There’s a modesty, an unblinking integrity about the whole enterprise that makes the film’s depiction of events that much more moving and admirable than they would be in and of themselves.
The script she works from, by British screenwriter Paul Webb, demonstrates vividly the sharp contrast between pacifism and passivity, offering not only the strategy employed by and decisions made by King and his colleagues but the doubts and dilemmas that had to be dealt with along the way. And it makes abundantly clear the commitment necessary and the kinds of difficulties encountered as a result of the dedication to non-violence that King preached about and represented.
David Oyelowo, anchoring the movie as if born to play the part, delivers a towering, definitive performance as King, not only disappearing into the character he’s playing but capturing his oratory mastery without sacrificing the three-dimensional humanity of the man.
Throw in the top-drawer supporting cast, which includes Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, Nigel Thatch as Malcolm X, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson, Tim Roth as Alabama Governor George Wallace, Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover, and Oprah Winfrey (who also served as one of the film’s producers) as civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper, and you’ve got a very special PG-13-rated movie, which was nominated for Best Picture and won the Best Song Oscar (“Glory”).
“Selma” is remarkably rich and resonant and revealing and rewarding.
Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.