There were many campaigns of resistance and resulting flashpoints in the African-American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. But none is as symbolic of the movement's struggles and successes as three Selma-to-Montgomery marches in Alabama that led to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the marches proved the power of nonviolent civil disobedience to change the hearts and minds of the American people and inspire substantive change.
Surprisingly, no narrative feature film has told the story of Selma or fully addressed the singular life and career of King. Director Ava DuVernay's Selma changes that with a moving and finely crafted portrait of King during his three months in Selma in 1965. By mostly limiting the story to a particular time and place, DuVernay avoids the pitfalls of historical biopics, which often suffer from predictably linear structures and tend to reduce complex lives to a series of symbolic turning points.
Events in Selma are depicted in sequence, but the film takes a kaleidoscopic view of its subject. In addition to depicting the strategies and tactics employed by King and his collaborators, it delves deeply into King's contentious relationships with President Lyndon Johnson and activist Malcolm X, infighting among local and national civil rights organizations working for the same cause and the strains King's career put on his marriage to Coretta Scott King. Selma is steeped in recent history but never feels like a history lesson.
Credit for that must go to DuVernay, who became the first woman to win the best director prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012 for her film Middle of Nowhere. She walks a very fine line in developing the right tone for Selma, one that carries the weight of world-changing events while telling an intimate and uniquely human story, all with a flesh-and-blood King at its center. It's no small thing that Selma's success comes at the hands of a black woman with a long family history in Alabama, especially in the context of a still white- and male-dominated Hollywood.
Selma also benefits from a remarkable central performance by British actor David Oyelowo as King. Oyelowo has appeared in films ranging from Lincoln to Interstellar and breaks out here not only by capturing King's style as an orator, but by conjuring his presence. A string of supporting cast performances keeps pace, with standout work by Tom Wilkinson as Johnson, Tim Roth as Gov. George Wallace and Oprah Winfrey — who also served as a producer and helped raise the budget it deserved — as activist Annie Lee Cooper, who famously punched Selma Sheriff Jim Clark in the face for his abuse.
It's no surprise that a fair amount of controversy has already surrounded Selma, mostly regarding the film's historical accuracy and in particular its less-than-flattering depiction of Johnson. But unlike many historical dramas, DuVernay's film has no composite characters and clearly strives to stick with historical fact. Its relevance to today cannot be ignored, from the Supreme Court's dismantling of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013 to the recent and nationwide protests against the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police.