Oscar season always includes at least one shallow film about American history that lurches into theaters and plays like a civics lesson for schoolkids. Director Ava DuVernay's Selma is not that picture. Instead it's a vital, complex look at the period in our country's history during which the civil rights movement broke down walls. Rather than a drab recitation of facts concerning Martin Luther King Jr.'s motives and accomplishments in Selma, Alabama, DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb created a movie that shows the ugly side of things, including all the political back-patting and dirty handshakes. More importantly, it presents a multidimensional portrayal of Dr. King, flaws and all, and it makes us wonder how far we've actually come today.
British actor David Oyelowo plays King with a tremendous combination of force and nuance. The film follows him through the trials and tactics of the historic civil rights protest march he led from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. The march was organized in response to the systematic marginalization of black voters in the South. It was legal for them to vote, but a thoroughly racist system obstructed their rights and kept many from even registering to vote.
There's an intensely effective scene featuring Oprah Winfrey as she turns in her voter registration card. Her paperwork is in order, but she is denied because she cannot name all 67 of the county judges. While voter suppression may be a bit more refined in 2014, it's still a problem in places where strict ID laws and proof of citizenship rules make it harder for some people to vote. Black voters today may not be facing billy clubs, but the racism that kept them away from the voting booths in 1965 still exists.
This look at the realities and horrors of politics in the South is honest and intelligent. Selma recounts how King had to begrudgingly meet with President Lyndon B. Johnson (a perfectly cast Tom Wilkinson) and attempt to charm the local Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which had been working the streets of Selma long before King and his gang showed up. While King and the committee should have been easy allies, at times clashing ideologies threatened to tear all their work down.
It would've been easy for Oyelowo to simply impersonate King – matching the quivering cadence of his speeches with his theatrical gestures – but instead, he enlivens the role, delivering a rich portrait of King as a human being full of self-doubt, ceaseless empathy and guilt. Oyelowo exhibits master acting skills, particularly in a scene between King and his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), in which she calls him out on his infidelities, leading to an aching interaction that humanizes King and reveals his deepest faults. It's an incredible bit of acting, not just because of the drama involved, but because it puts King's accomplishments and undying compassion in a whole new perspective.
It's impossible (for any rational human being, at least) to walk out of Selma and not think about what racial politics, police violence and the recent deaths of unarmed black citizens of Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City (and the whole damn country) means for our country today. Over the past four decades, how could we have evolved so goddamn little as a human race? Why do we still need to march against this primitive bullshit?
Selma shouldn't be relevant in 2014, but it is. DuVernay shot Selma in May, before the recent critical mass of headlines about unarmed black men being killed by police. Well, go figure. A true story about racism, injustice and police cowardice leading to the beatings of unarmed people of all races is still relevant. If anything, this beautiful, funny and terribly poignant film should reinforce that as a nation, we gotta work on some serious shit, even if it don't come easy.