There’s a reason Ava DuVernay’s sober and moving account of the months between the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church by white supremacists and Congress’ 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act is titled Selma and not, say, Dr. King. DuVernay’s film, which opens in limited release Christmas Day, doesn’t attempt to be a biopic about the towering historical figure at its center, the Rev. Martin Luther King, who’s played with quiet authority by the magnificent British actor David Oyelowo. Selma isn’t the story of a man but of a movement, and of a very specific turning point within that movement. You’ll see few of the famous touchstones of King’s short life here: no March on Washington (and hence no “I have a dream” speech); no composition of the letter from the Birmingham jail; no assassination on a motel balcony in Memphis. Selma limits its scope to a few key months of protest, struggle, and strategy within the civil rights movement—a decision which allows DuVernay to explore the ideas (and, sometimes, the rancorous debates) that drove the movement forward, rather than simply to re-enact its moments of greatest triumph.
The film’s opening scenes juxtapose King’s acceptance speech at a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony with the apparently peaceful image of four young black girls, decked in their frilly Sunday best, descending the staircase of a church. As they chatter about friends and hairdos, the audience, with the hindsight of history, senses with mounting dread what’s about to befall them. One deafening blast later, the children’s limbs are barely visible beneath a pile of lumber and rubble, as shards of debris and scraps of lacy fabric drift down in the air above them like snow.
By beginning her movie with this unflinching re-enactment of a particularly vile act of racial terrorism—filmed in a style that’s poetic rather than graphic, but that’s no less wrenching for that—DuVernay immediately lays out the stark moral stakes of the political fight to come. The battleground shifts slightly in the next scene, when a working-class black woman, Annie Lee Cooper (played with surprising naturalism by Oprah Winfrey, one of the country’s richest and most powerful people) attempts unsuccessfully to register to vote in an Alabama courthouse, where knowing the entire preamble to the Constitution by heart is somehow not enough to convince the white clerk of her qualification to cast a ballot.
A few months before the film’s main action begins, President Lyndon Johnson (a credibly glad-handing Tom Wilkinson) has managed to strong-arm Congress into passing the Civil Rights Act, making it illegal to segregate public facilities by race. But as King points out during a visit to the president—in which their respectful but openly confrontational dialogue makes it clear these two savvy negotiators have a history of brokering deals—the right to vote is worth little without a legal infrastructure that would enable people of color to actually get anywhere near a polling booth. Johnson prefers to shift his administration’s legislative focus to other issues, including a nationwide war on poverty, but King begs him to first push through a federal fix for the loopholes that allow racist politicians in the South to effectively disenfranchise black people en masse.
The rest of the film is built around three big protest marches that set out from Selma for the capitol building in Montgomery. (Not all of them make it there, for reasons I’ll leave you to discover if you’re not familiar with the seldom-retold backstory of this historical event.) King’s strategy—one that’s occasionally challenged by his fellow activists, including two hotheaded young members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, James Forman (Trai Byers) and John Lewis (Stephan James)—is to stage acts of nonviolent resistance in front of as many reporters and TV cameras as possible. Knowing that the Jim Crow government of Gov. George Wallace (a sly, unctuous Tim Roth) will put up a big, ugly fight, King aims to make state-sanctioned police brutality the top news story every night. That way, he reasons, he can force LBJ’s hand into taking action at the federal level.
All of King’s shrewd tactics give way to anguished self-doubt, however, when he finds himself in the streets of the capital with the safety of thousands of fellow citizens weighing on his conscience. In a demonstration where even peaceful protesters (elderly women not excluded) are at risk of being beaten by nightsticks, you don’t want to know what happens to the occasional marcher who loses his or her patience with the whole “nonviolent protest” model and starts to give the rampaging cops what-for. The protest scenes in Selma convey in a grounded and visceral way what it’s like to engage in collective action, to put one’s body and physical safety on the line for a cause. They’re not mocked up to resemble old news footage, or cut together in choppy hand-held style. They’re more like scenes from a war movie, with violent events unfolding in the moment and previously minor characters emerging into relief through unexpected acts of courage, cowardice, or generosity. Winfrey, whose acting career is becoming a thing to reckon with, gets a memorable encounter with a brutish officer on the steps of the capitol.
But Selma isn’t all backroom horse trading and grand-scale political action. DuVernay also drills into King’s intimate, if rocky, partnership with his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo). The politically savvy Coretta is her husband’s closest confidante and his advisor on everything from tactics to tie tacks. But she’s also acutely aware that he’s been cheating on her for years with a string of mistresses—a fact the movie introduces in dramatic fashion when the FBI (led by Dylan Baker’s J. Edgar Hoover) sends Coretta a tape of her husband having loud, vocal sex with another woman. In an emotionally grueling scene, Coretta forces her husband to listen to the tape in her presence, hovering above him as he sits paralyzed with fear and shame. Her chilly response to his fumbling attempt at denial is as irrefutable as it is devastating: “I know … I know what you sound like.”
There are elements of Selma (which was written by first-time screenwriter Paul Webb, with some uncredited rewrites from DuVernay) that could have been more fully fleshed out. The film’s running time is a swift two hours; I wouldn’t have minded an extra 30 minutes to learn more about the rest of the civil rights pioneers (all real historical figures) who march arm-in-arm on the front lines with King, including Wendell Pierce’s Reverend Hosea Williams and Tessa Thompson’s Diane Nash. And a rushed ending montage about the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act threatens to slip into the tone of nonspecific historical uplift that the film otherwise so successfully avoids.
But by focusing on the power of cannily staged collective action to turn the tide of public opinion, Selma achieves a contemporary relevance that few historical dramas can—especially those built around real-life figures as encrusted in layers of hagiography as MLK. Then there’s the unforeseeably prescient timing of Selma’s release in a season of racially motivated unrest and renewed public outrage about the unequal distribution of justice in 21st-century America. One thing this movie reminds us is that the protests of the early ’60s, spearheaded by black Southern organizers and fueled by ordinary Southern blacks standing up for their rights, roused many other Americans to action as well—hundreds of Northern whites traveled South to risk their lives in the fight, demonstrating to the watching world that systemic racism is everyone’s problem. Nearly half a century after that last, historic march across Selma’s heavily guarded Edmund Pettus Bridge—a humble steel structure that DuVernay’s camera (the cinematography is by Bradford Young) gives the solid grandeur of an ancient Roman rampart—King’s practice of nonviolent (but never truly “passive”) resistance seems less than ever like a noble historical relic, and more like an urgent design for living.