In the opening scene of “Selma,” Ava DuVernay’s stately, stirring, occasionally over-deliberate civil rights drama, Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) faces the camera and speaks. “I accept this honor for our lost ones,” he says before interrupting himself with an impatient “That’s not right.” He’s talking about the ascot he’s uncomfortably trying to wind around his neck in preparation for the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies, and the moment encapsulates the aim of Paul Webb’s screenplay and DuVernay’s film: to breathe life back into the statue this man has become.
“Selma” covers the events of early 1965, when King and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led a 54-mile march from Selma, Ala., to the state capitol, in Montgomery, to protest black disenfranchisement at the polls and to push for voter-registration reform. There were Southern counties whose entire African-American majority was forcibly excluded from registering to vote; the film dramatizes this in a scene of the weary old Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, who co-produced) submitting to a litany of civic trivia questions from a contemptuous clerk (Clay Chappell). Recite the preamble of the US Constitution? Done. Name all 67 Alabama county judges? Not so easy.
The movie belongs squarely in the genre of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” humanizing history by showing us the horse-trading, the strategizing, the mistakes and breakthroughs, the many, many personalities involved, and the moments of soaring oratory — all of them needed to force the door of promised equality open a crack further. “Selma” is at its very best when it gets into the nitty-gritty of the SCLC’s arrival in Selma amid colliding factions and forces. King’s men include well-known names, such as his closest confidant Ralph Abernathy (a canny Colman Domingo), Andrew Young (André Holland), and Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), but DuVernay also takes pains to introduce us to local lesser-known organizers like James Bevel (rapper Common) and women activists like Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson of “Dear White People”) and Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint, who breaks your heart just standing there).
The film also gives a goodly amount of screen time to Coretta Scott King, played by Carmen Ejogo, a ringer for the actual woman. In one wrenching scene, Coretta speaks of the “fog of death” that surrounds her husband and her life, of how it exhausts her every minute of every day. In perhaps the film’s most surprising gamble, she confronts King with her knowledge of his adulteries after being sent a damning FBI audiotape. That’s as far as “Selma” goes in that direction and it arguably could have gone further, yet Oyelowo’s long pause before King says the one word that confirms her fears is startling in its tension and finality.
Back in Selma, there’s friction with the young firebrands of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), already established in the city and bristling at the interlopers; in one scene, King masterfully underscores why he’s there — drama, media coverage, white eyeballs — and pulls the youthful future US Representative John Lewis (Stephan James) into his orbit. Even Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), on the outs with the Nation of Islam and not long for this world, turns up to help, mostly by offering a scarier alternative to King’s passive resistance.
This is not DuVernay’s first movie — she has made three previous features, including “Middle of Nowhere” (2012) — but it’s her first big one, and she handles it with confidence and an awareness of the occasion that every so often muffles the drama. There are scenes of terrific power in “Selma,” no more so than when the marchers first try to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge out of the city and are assaulted by mounted state troopers wielding whips, bats, billy clubs wrapped with barbed wire. DuVernay wraps the sequence in white mists of tear gas and cues it to a gospel score, and the beat-downs acquire a vicious historical force that looks back to the Klan and ahead to Ferguson. The movie doesn’t push this, but it’s very aware of the time in which it’s coming out.
“Selma” still struggles in places, particularly in the stunt-casting of well-known character actors as white politicians. (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” tried a similar tack and succeeded — occasionally — on sheer effrontery.) Others may differ, but I couldn’t wrap my head around Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Baines Johnson — where’s the salt, the vulgarity? Wilkinson’s LBJ cusses, but it looks like it hurts — and Tim Roth never captures the junkyard-dog snarl of Alabama Governor George Wallace. The less said about Dylan Baker’s J. Edgar Hoover, the better. (Debate, if you want, whether this movie is “fair” to LBJ; to me, “Selma” paints him as a political in-fighter who understands King is on the right side of history but who at least once stoops damnably low to bring him under control.)
There are moments, too, when “Selma” feels weighed down with the importance of its missions: to breathe life back into a fallen saint, to give impact to a pivotal time in our history — Johnson ended up signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 four months after the march — and to make a civil rights drama in which there are plenty of white supporters (including Boston clergyman James Reeb, murdered by white segregationalists during the march and played in the film by Jeremy Strong) but no white saviors. The march is the work of King, his men and women, and everyone, of every color, who stepped in line behind him.
So there are times when the energy flags and a cautious Great Man familiarity takes over. More often than not, though, “Selma” focuses on the one thing we don’t expect in a movie about Martin Luther King Jr. — his doubts — and Oyelowo comes through with a deeply felt and quite brilliant performance. There’s a scene in which King delivers the funeral oration for a marcher (an affecting Keith Stanfield) shot point blank by the police, and you can see him rise to the theater of the moment. He’s feeling the words but he’s also acting them, and that tension, that self-awareness, is the motor that moves him forward. Sometimes in wrong directions, often with uncertainty, but always forward.
Which is why the movie’s most haunting and unresolved sequence may be the one in which the marchers ascend the Pettus bridge once more, on March 6, 1965, the troopers clear the way to proceed — and King blinks. With the national media watching and with the ranks of black protesters newly swelled by whites from around the country, he turns and leads the protest back to its starting point. He may have been obeying a court order not to march; he may have feared an ambush and further bloodshed. “Selma” focuses purely on his doubt, and in that moment you start to realize how much of history is made up on the fly, even by its great men — how close to ordinary a great man can be and thus how close to greatness ordinary people always are. “Selma” knows we want the story of the icon, but it’s the crowd, and King’s place in it, that surges history forward and gives this movie its lasting power.