Turning real-life events into a motion picture can be a daunting and perilous task; that is even more risky when the events in question are both famous and important. Selma tackles such a time and event -- the circumstances and choices that led to the 1965 civil rights march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery -- and succeeds by exploring the history and humanity of that time.
In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) is both successful and challenged. Laws have been passed and a fight is on to end segregation. But state and local government still keeps black people from registering to vote, which in turn leads to an institutional oppression of black Americans; there's also daily violence and intimidation against black people in the South. King wants every American to be able to vote, but he faces opposition from numerous fronts. President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) wants to focus on ending segregation and thinks voting rights will stir up more trouble. Alabama Governor George Wallace (a nicely evil Tim Roth) is happy to send troops to intimidate, beat, and even kill black protesters. Even other black groups have issues with King's methods, from disliking his non-violence to believing they should raise up the black community instead of confronting the white power structure. But King is adamant, and he decides that Selma, Alabama is the perfect place to get headlines and raise awareness of the cause.
Director Ava DuVernay makes Selma work by both explaining the importance of what happened in Selma, and looking at the humans behind what happened. Selma is partly a history lesson, as we learn the full importance of what happened there, as well as how being able to vote was for empowering those who were kept from voting. At the same time, we see King's public and private selves. In public he was a firebrand, equally skilled at preaching in church and to reporters. But in private, he struggled with the cost of his protests, as people were hurt and killed following his lead. He also had problems with his marriage, as his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) tries to raise their family (and deal with King's weaknesses as a man) in the middle of the threats against her husband and their family.
My only complaint with Selma is that the movie turns to slow motion almost every time there's any sort of violence; it works in the initial attack on a black church, but soon it becomes an unnecessary distraction. But that's a small issue for a movie with a phenomenal lead, a very good and extensive supporting cast, and a dramatic, intelligent look at a seminal time in American history.
Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch