**** (out of five)
Like its lead character, Ava DuVernay’s Selma is a methodical, thoughtful, careful, patient, intelligent, and extremely well-spoken film about a major subject – the gaining of the black vote in the United States in the 1960s. Not a biopic of Dr. Martin Luther King, it is instead a focussed study of the birth of a piece of legislation – resembling Lincoln in this regard – and, like that film, contains a lot of politics, back-room dealing, decision-making and compromise. In other words, politics. It’s a film about Martin Luther King as a political animal, the theories and tenants of peaceful protest as he applied it to protests in 1965 – in particular the march from Selma to Montgomery – and his relationships with his allies and enemies, and in particular Lyndon B. Johnson, who could be both at the same time.
The film crackles with absolutely fantastic dialogue (screenwriter Paul Webb, his only film credit!) It is also full of crackerjack performances, led by David Oyelowo as King, but with excellent turns by Tom Wilkinson as Johnson, Wendell Pierce (Bunk!) as Reverend Hosea Williams, Tim Roth as a truly repellant Governor George Wallace, and Omar J. Dorsey as James Orange. But there are so many actors in this movie – Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover (how good is that for casting!), Giovanni Ribisi as Lee White, Oprah Winfrey, Common, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Stephen Root, Cuba Gooding Jr… all great, and contributing to a huge mosaic.
DuVernay has a lot to deal with, and if the film has a flaw it’s with the pacing; there are set-pieces, but much of the film is back-room politics, and some of these scenes, despite the dialogue always being fresh, are more successful that others. Any of the scenes with King and Johnson are good, and there is a spectacular scene between Wilkinson as Johnson and Roth as Wallace, all the more so because, well – both those guys are British, yo!
Oyelowo is spectacular as King, getting huge moments in the big speeches but also perfect in his quieter scenes, always trying for the best possible course of action, always trying to see the wood for the trees. Here is an actor you can see thinking. Again, he’s a Brit. You never notice. He gives a perfect performance, one of the best of the year. Carmen Ejogo is also excellent as Coretta Scott King, and their scenes together, which basically show that King was fallible, are powerful. But this is a movie where you come for the politics, stay for the politics, and then are moved to tears at the end. It’s amazing it’s been this long for this story to hit the Silver Screen. It’s hit it well.