The eyes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stare out of white granite across the national mall in Washington, D.C.
The man is long gone but this memorial remains.
His story. His speeches. His legacy. We know them all.
But he was a man once - not a hero or a holiday.
That’s the triumph of the movie “Selma.” It resurrects the person history has obscured.
Ostensibly the film tells the story of the 1965 Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, including the “Bloody Sunday” police riot. But be warned, this is not a documentary. Careful observers will note a few changes in history, though the basic story remains.
The focus is Dr. King pushing President Johnson to enact the Voting Rights Act to ensure African Americans’ ability to have a say in the electoral process.
David Oyelowo inhabits the role of MLK like a man possessed.
For once, you get to see King with all his flaws, fears and doubts. Yes, you get the great orator and leader, but you also get intimate scenes of King taking out the garbage, tucking in his kids at night and his marital problems. You might think this would minimize our view of him, but it does just the opposite. For once, you're struck with how amazing his achievement really is.
How hard it must have been to adhere to the principal of non-violence! Oyelowo’s eyes flinch when protestors are beaten by the police. His face hangs haggard in late night conversations when he’s unsure he’s doing the right thing. And on the pulpit, his manic energy seems on the verge of going out of control.
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To see Dr. King this way makes the rest of the story so much more personal and moving.
Likewise, Carmen Ejogo is perfectly paired to Oyelowo as Corette Scott King. The estrangement between the two is heartbreaking. The love they have for each other is never in doubt, but they seem unable to actually make contact, kept separate by a knotwork web of circumstance, human frailty and the ever-present shadow of death.
Stephan James is another standout as John Lewis - the only one of the “Big 6” Civil Rights leaders still alive and - in fact - currently serving his 13th term as a U.S. Rep. from Georgia. But the character James portrays is a young man who puts his principals before his personal safety. One of the best scenes in the film is a late night ride between King and Lewis. When Oyelowo doubts the movement can continue to put people in harms way, James stares at him through recent bruises and reminds the great man of who he is, who he has to be.
There are plenty of other great cameos and bit parts - Tom Wilkinson as a blustery LBJ, Tim Roth as a sleazy Gov. George Wallace, Oprah Winfrey as an everywoman obstructed from voting, etc.
Almost as exemplary as the acting is the whip-sharp script by Paul Webb. From the opening private moment between the Kings - husband and wife - the script plays with your expectations asking you to figure out exactly where you are in the story you know so well. I also love a conversation between King and his team about where a voting rights law would even start - as they argue about which obstruction to voting was most egregious.
Director Ava DuVernay guides this endeavor with seamless conviction. It’s amazing that someone who made most of her career as a publicity consultant with a smattering of documentaries and shorts under her belt could direct such an ambitious project. It’s the work of a master, not a novice.
But perhaps most startling of all is what’s left unsaid. The film resolves with the passage of the Voting Rights Act - a law which was all but destroyed by a 2013 US Supreme Court decision.
No longer do states with a history of Civil Rights abuses have to get federal permission before changing their voting laws. As such, we face a second wave of obstructions to casting a ballot - especially in communities of color. Long lines, the need for photo ID, etc. confront America’s minorities.
It’s a fact not lost on most of the audience. The movie may be over, but the fight goes on.
When the lights returned and the credits rolled, I simply couldn't stop the tears. I felt like such a fool, but it really touched my heart. I've always admired King, but for a few hours I felt like I was there with him, felt like I got to walk a few steps with him on that hard journey. If there was a better movie made in 2014, I haven't seen it.
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