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Selma Movie Review

Selma: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD combo pack cover art
Selma is now available on home video. Read our review of the Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD combo.

Selma (2014) movie poster Selma

Theatrical Release: December 25, 2014 / Running Time: 127 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Ava DuVernay/ Writer: Paul Webb

Cast: David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King Jr.), Tom Wilkinson (President Lyndon B. Johnson), Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King), Tim Roth (Governor George Wallace), Common (James Bevel), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Bayard Rustin), Lorraine Toussaint (Amelia Boynton), Oprah Winfrey (Annie Lee Cooper), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Fred Gray), Tessa Thompson (Diane Nash), Wendell Pierce (Rev. Hosea Williams), Giovanni Ribisi (Lee White), Dylan Baker (J. Edgar Hoover), Jeremy Strong (James Reeb), Nigel Thatch (Malcolm X), Colman Domingo (Ralph Abernathy), Keith Stanfield (Jimmie Lee Jackson), Andre Holland (Andrew Young), Trai Byers (James Forman), Stephan James (John Lewis), Kent Faulcon (Sullivan Jackson), John Lavelle (Roy Reed), Alessandro Nivola (John Doar), Niecy Nash (Richie Jean Jackson), David Dwyer (Chief Wilson Baker), Ledisi Young (Mahalia Jackson), Omar J. Dorsey (James Orange), Tara Ochs (Viola Liuzzo), Clay Chappell (Registrar), Martin Sheen (Frank Minis Johnson - uncredited)

Buy Selma from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD • DVD • Instant Video

Martin Luther King Jr. is much too important a figure for anyone to have wondered if he'd someday get movie treatment. The real questions were when, how, and how often would King's story been told on film. King has been portrayed in films and television over forty times,
but he's yet to get a big biopic like fellow black civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela. Selma marks King's first time being the lead of a major theatrical film, but as the title indicates, this is not exactly a biopic in the traditional sense. It is a film about one critical, specific chapter in King's too short life of activism and calls for racial equality.

David Oyelowo, a British actor spotted in many major American films over the past four years (including three 2014 awards contenders), plays Dr. King. He might not be the spitting image physically, but hair, make-up, and clothes help him to bear plenty of resemblance to the influential southerner. More importantly, Oyelowo channels King's inspiring presence and articulate manner of speaking. You know you're not watching the real King, but you somehow forget that as you get swept up in his infectious and unwavering courage, resolve, and spirit.

Clergy members join activists in a display of solidarity in "Selma."

Written by middle-aged newcomer Paul Webb, Selma details efforts to get African-Americans the right to vote. By 1963, when the movie opens, they technically have that already. But actually getting to vote is more complicated than that. A woman (played by a briefly-seen Oprah Winfrey) tries registering, only to be asked to recite the preamble of the United States Constitution. After she does that, she's asked to provide the number of judges in the county. Amazingly, she does, but is then told to name them, which is, naturally, one high hurdle too many to clear.

Dr. King brings the issue to President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who does not agree to make it a top priority for his administration. So King and his fellow civil rights leaders put their belief in nonviolent protest to use, scheduling a peaceful march in Selma, Alabama, a town that has recently seen four young black girls killed by a bomb set off in a Baptist church. King and company's march meets resistance. Under the leadership of the detestable J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), the FBI is monitoring the group's every move, a fact reiterated again and again with overlays of evidently official log entries. Marchers also face the wrath of aggressive local police officers and everyday racists. Even when advised not to, they persevere, determined to be heard.

Selma is the third feature film helmed by Ava DuVernay, a longtime publicist who made the leap to directing with the under-the-radar limited release dramas I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere. The stakes are higher and the stage much bigger on Selma, a $20 million Paramount Pictures production that strategically opened on Christmas Day and is now expanding in advance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend and Black History Month. Yes, Selma is obviously expected to compete for major awards, a task to which it is perfectly timed. But it is also meant to be seen by ordinary moviegoers who will see the value in this true drama sharing multiplexes with dwarves, princesses, and an always vengeful Liam Neeson.

David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a performance that could very well make him a first-time Oscar nominee. British actor Tom Wilkinson plays Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, who initially puts the issue of black voters' rights on the back burner.

The narrow approach befits the movie. Someday, some filmmaker will tell King's story from birth to death. DuVernay isn't interested in doing that, but instead presenting this historic period from different angles.
The chief focus and primary target of our sympathies is King, whom one important scene prevents from complete canonization. King is heroic and the film doesn't much bother with shades of gray. But Oyelowo gives him humanity that stops the characterization short of superherodom.

There are lots of characters in Selma, many of them played by veteran actors you'll recognize. Unlike the last Winfrey movie that doubled as a civil rights lesson, most of these depicted figures are not ones you'll immediately recognize or ones that require obvious make-up and hairstyling work. A viewer at my unusually vocal screening loudly asked "Is that Thurgood Marshall?" at one point. It wasn't, but you can't blame her for asking. Apart from a few (including a single-scene Malcolm X), these characters dramatized are not ones you'd know by name, appearance, or actions. That does make the movie a little harder to follow than you might like. At the same time, you're learning things.

Hopefully, these things are historically accurate. There has been a minor clamor over the past week or so in the industry of people discrediting the film for its depiction of President Johnson and his policies. It's become something of an annual tradition for historical films to be taken to task for inaccuracies. Such smear campaigns can be harmful; disputes over its depiction of torture did seem to sink Zero Dark Thirty right out of the 2012 Oscar race. For her part, DuVernay has taken to Twitter to defend Selma against negative accusations. Hers isn't the only contender currently being subjected to scrutiny and fact-checking. Such debates only seem to pave the path to glory for films that dabble in fiction, like Boyhood and Birdman.

In quality, Selma compares to those two fellow frontrunners and is preferable to the season's more traditional biopics The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game. It's a film whose content and approach seem to stand in the way of greatness. It's certainly polished, well-acted and moving enough. But there are too few flashes of candor and humanity, the most obvious one being a light scene where King and his entourage take comfort in a home-cooked meal.

Selma is a film that few will find obvious faults in. There are simplifications and generalizations, but the history holds up and is handled with the respect and professionalism it deserves.

Buy Selma from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD • DVD • Instant Video

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Related Reviews:
Selma • Boyhood • The Imitation Game • The Theory of Everything • Big Eyes • Into the Woods • Birdman • Gone Girl • Inherent Vice
David Oyelowo: Lee Daniels' The Butler • The Help • The Paperboy • Lincoln • Jack Reacher • Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom • Invictus • Perfect Harmony • Remember the Titans

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Reviewed January 9, 2015.

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