When we first see Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) in director Ava DuVernay's riveting drama Selma, it's in a familiar context: He's delivering a speech. It's October 1964, and King is about to win the Nobel Peace Prize, but he's not yet at the dais — he's rehearsing that speech in a mirror. One of the greatest orators in American history is doing something rarely considered when we think about the greatest at anything in history: He's practicing, doing the unseen work essential before anything amazing can happen.
Selma could have been just an inspirational drama about a pivotal historical moment, and it could have been just a hagiographic portrait of King's efforts at promoting African-American civil rights. But DuVernay and her team are interested in doing something much less common, something that echoes the similar success of 2012's Lincoln. They've chosen a single crucial philosophical battle, and shown us all the struggle, negotiation, strategizing, self-doubt, mistakes and intelligence that went into winning it. It inspires not with a tale of victory, but with an instruction manual for how to get there.
The narrative focuses on King's 1965 struggles,
his Southern Christian Leadership Conference colleagues and other allies to secure voting rights for Southern blacks, whose in-name-only legal franchise was often thwarted by onerous state and local regulations. As they plot strategy on the ground — focusing on Alabama, then under the thumb of proudly racist Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth), and plan peaceful protest marches from Selma to Montgomery — King begins meeting with Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), hoping to find an ally but instead encountering a president with other legislative priorities.
Those conversations between King and Johnson form a vital center, but there are other places where the film wrestles with the best methods to achieve social change, and the timing to use specific methods. In one crucial scene, King explains to local activists why a specific method of confrontation worked in Birmingham, where the aggressive Public Safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor ran the show, yet would not be as appropriate in a different place. Later,
when King turns away from a confrontation on the Pettus Bridge — where marchers earlier faced a violent response from law enforcement — King's fellow activists argue about whether they missed an important opportunity. Turbulent events do indeed play a significant role in Selma — DuVernay does not shy away from the beatings and other attacks the police inflicted on protesters — yet the film is ultimately more concerned with the decisions that led to those events, and the ripple effect on later decisions.
It's also a fairly powerful portrait of King himself, precisely because it takes him off the pedestal. Oyelowo's performance isn't merely an uncanny impersonation of specific cadences, but a look at someone who's determined yet flawed — we see him confronted by his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), over his extramarital affairs — and who understands his significance as the public face of the Civil Rights movement, especially when he makes a choice that may have been a mistake. Oyelowo's complex, layered performance helps make up for less-effective casting in other significant roles, particularly Roth's generally miscalculated decision to make Wallace a smug villain. Fortunately, the rest of it's so densely thoughtful, it doesn't suffer from that oversimplification.
Given recent racially charged incidents and protests in America, it was perhaps inevitable that Selma would be freighted with contemporary significance — which seems both somewhat unfair, and deeply appropriate. DuVernay's film is too effective on its own dramatic terms for it to be simply reduced to an allegory for Where We Are Today, yet it's also tremendously encouraging for anyone who wonders if there's any hope for change. The film's tag line proclaims that "one dream can change the world," but that may actually do Selma a disservice. With every moment that shows Dr. King fine-tuning his speeches and sermons, it reminds us that having a dream is only a start. Somewhere along the way, even the most eloquent dreamers have to roll up their sleeves and figure out the best way to do the work.