One of the most vexing facts of cinematic life the past 50 years is that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement he led have not been given their rightful place in the feature-film canon. Often relegated to the shadows of ancillary plots, atmospheric background and blurry historical context, what were arguably the most pivotal events in American life during the 20th century never found their rightful place — front, center and spotlit — in the dominant narrative art form of that era.
And it was worth the wait.
With “Selma,” director Ava DuVernay has created a stirring, often thrilling, uncannily timely drama that works on several levels at once. Yes, it’s an impressive historic pageant, and one that will no doubt break the ice for similar-themed movies to come. But DuVernay, whose roots are in the indie world, having directed the films “I Will Follow” and “Middle of Nowhere,” has also rescued King from his role as a worshiped — and sentimentalized — secular saint. Here, she presents him as a dynamic figure of human-scale contradictions, flaws and supremely shrewd political skills.
Indeed, the most riveting passages of “Selma,” which chronicles three marches King planned and finally led from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965, aren’t the speeches and ground-level skirmishes that led up to the marches. Rather, the most pulse-quickening material can be found in the meetings between King (David Oyelowo) and President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) as they argued the issue of voting rights. Early in “Selma,” King travels to the White House to implore the president to pass a voting rights bill, while a weary LBJ — who had signed the Civil Rights Act just a year before — asks King to be patient, and support his War on Poverty in the meantime. Watching these redoubtable figures spar, cajole, strong-arm and size each other up winds up being enormously entertaining. Much like the backroom machinations that propelled Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” King’s push-me-pull-you pas de deux with Johnson reveals talents as a political operator that were every bit as spectacular as his soaring oratory.
Anyone who is familiar with those speeches will realize that they’re not reproduced note-for-note in “Selma,” which was written by Paul Webb. The filmmakers didn’t have access to the rights to King’s speeches, so in a brilliant work-around, DuVernay approximates his words, allowing viewers to focus on their meaning rather than on how literally Oyelowo reproduces them. For his part, Oyelowo doesn’t mimic King so much as channel him: His voice, devoid of King’s familiar church-bell timbre, is his own, and he has used it to create a bona fide character rather than a superficial impersonation.
Exquisitely shot by cinematographer Bradford Young, “Selma” plunges the audience into 1960s Alabama, where we see Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, who also helped produce) try once again to register to vote. She’s prepared when the registrar demands that she recite the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, and she even knows how many county judges reside in Alabama. Asked to name them, however, she falters.
Later, Cooper would figure prominently in King’s strategy of drawing attention to the fight he led against injustice and racism; among the many things “Selma” does brilliantly is giving the lie to nonviolence as a merely passive, benign form of protest. Instead, we see King using it not just as a moral force, but also as a battle of images, in which searing footage and photographs of protesters being brutalized by local terrorists and law enforcement officials would, with luck, electrify the nation in support of his cause.
Like any historical drama, “Selma” contains its share of compressions and the stiff, declarative rhythms of “important” billboard scenes. But for the most part, DuVernay makes sweeping, smooth work of a challenging collection of events, which spanned the murder of a young marcher named Jimmie Lee Jackson; White House huddles with King and Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth); the savage beatings of Annie Lee Cooper and a Boston clergyman named James Reeb; King’s imprisonment with fellow civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy; the arrival on the scene of Malcolm X; a tense conversation between King and his wife, Coretta (beautifully played by Carmen Ejogo); arguments between King, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; a court case countermanding Wallace’s order to stop the march; and, finally, the three demonstrations that culminated in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
DuVernay stages all of this with economy, grace and skillful, authoritative aplomb. “Selma” carries viewers along on a tide of breathtaking events so assuredly that they never drown in the details or the despair, but instead are left buoyed: The civil rights movement and its heroes aren’t artifacts from the distant past, but messengers sent on an urgent mission for today. There are several reasons to see “Selma” — for its virtuosity and scale, scope and sheer beauty. But then there are its lessons, which have to do with history, but also today: “Selma” invites viewers to heed its story, meditate on its implications and allow those images once again to change our hearts and minds.
★ ★ ★ ★
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment and brief strong profanity. 127 minutes.