Earnest and often inspiring, “Selma” is a handsomely mounted “Eyes on the Prize” account of the defining protests of the civil rights movement. Handsomely mounted and high-minded, its only sins are overreaching ambition and a tendency to rub the roughest edges off the principals.
It’s still a history lesson that’s both moving and informative, if not downright entertaining.
David Oyelowo (“The Butler”) is the Atlanta preacher Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man we meet on the night he receives the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. Oyelowo captures King’s cadences, if not the ringing, clarion-call voice that every American has grown up hearing. As this King strategizes with his Southern Christian Leadership Conference brain trust, Oyelowo gives us passion and pause.
Here was a man who saw segregated Selma, Ala., as a testing ground for the battle for voting rights. But like his colleagues, he was sober about this stage of the struggle. Selma is also “a decent place to die.”
The King shown here is married to a cause and to “Corrie,” Coretta Scott King, played by Carmen Ejogo, who is a lovely dead ringer for the real Mrs. King, and who gets across her quiet stoicism.
Veteran character actor Wendell Pierce (“Ray”) makes the most of the movement’s drill sergeant, the Rev. Hosea Williams. Common, Cuba Gooding Jr., Martin Sheen, Giovanni Ribisi and yes, producer Oprah Winfrey, have plum supporting parts. Winfrey is Annie Lee Cooper, the Rosa Parks of Selma’s push for voting rights.
Tom Wilkinson suggests a hint of President Lyndon Johnson’s cajoling, bullying nature. And Tim Roth makes a decent Gov. George Wallace, for those who don’t remember what the original super-segregationist looked or sounded like. Yes, they somehow managed to cast four Brits in the four main roles here.
First-time screenwriter Paul Webb saddled director Ava DuVernay (“I Will Follow,” “Middle of Nowhere”) with a script packed with characters – Andrew Young, J. Edgar Hoover, Mahalia Jackson and Malcolm X. Most have only a couple of scenes to make an impression as the history plunges onward, through police assaults with tear gas and truncheons, climaxing with murders.
But the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge police riot is re-created – rabid racists screeching at protest marches that baited the bigots, sent the state police and local sheriff’s deputies into a beating frenzy and made national news. It is as shocking in re-creation as it must have seemed in living rooms all over America, and DuVernay wisely makes this the emotional linchpin of her film.
Too much conflict is kept off camera, too much effort is put into highlighting the jagged edges of guys like Hoover and rubbing them off everyone else. And anyone who has heard tapes of the real King confronting LBJ will realize that the power dynamic depicted here just doesn’t ring true. King’s moral authority asserted itself, but nobody stood up to Johnson to his face. Nobody. You argued, got barked down, slipped off and did what you had to do in spite of him. Wilkinson simply isn’t forced to be as scary as the real president was.
Still, it’s a good film, well-performed and a fair and honest (inter-titles of dates and times from FBI surveillance logbooks verify this scene or that one) portrayal of a time when people had to literally endure beatings just for the right to vote.