‘Selma’ Gives Us a King, and It’s a Royally Good Movie

It’s amazing to think that Hollywood has brought us movies about—among many others—Jim Morrison, Mark Zuckerberg, Liberace, Bob Crane, Kim Jong-un, Andy Kaufman, and Seabiscuit, but there hasn’t been one feature film made about Martin Luther King, Jr. I guess it’s because he must have lived a boring life … there can’t be any other reason, surely.

Oh wait.

Anyway, that egregious omission is finally being rectified with the release of Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay from a script by Paul Webb. And while I don’t mean to imply the wait was worth it, I will say that this stunning film mitigates some of those years of cinematic neglect.

The History, the Man, the Movie

With a life as huge and world-shattering as King’s, the filmmakers have wisely limited the movie’s focus to cover just one month in 1965 when King, with a coterie of local and national activists, went to Alabama and worked on the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march. It was their goal to bring voting rights to the blacks of that state who had been, by implicit and explicit proscription, unable to vote. Of the 15,000 African Americans eligible in Dallas County (where Selma is), only 130 had been permitted to register.

By 1965, King was already a public figure, world-known for his "I Have a Dream" speech and other work—but none of that helped when he got to Selma. (Photo: New York World-Telegram & Sun, 1964)

By 1965, King was already famous, known for his “I Have a Dream” speech and other work—but Selma would be a severe test. (Photo: New York World-Telegram & Sun, 1964)

There were actually three marches. On March 7, about 600 people set off from Selma only to be beaten and battered by state and local police. The televised images from that attack (known as “Bloody Sunday”) shocked the world. Two days later 2,500 people headed to Montgomery, this time led by King.  But with a restraining order forbidding the protest, not enough supplies for the nearly 50-mile walk to the state capital, and the federal government unwilling to guarantee safety, King and the group turned around and disbanded.

On March 21 about 8,000 protestors started out again, this time making it to Montgomery, joining up with an additional 17,000 people from all over the world.

What’s most amazing about Selma is that even though the movie is set during this incredibly tumultuous time—I haven’t mentioned the people who were murdered because of the marches—the film is still rigidly, and rightfully, focused on King. Thanks to DuVernay (who, by the way, is one of the first African American women to direct a major Hollywood film), Webb’s script, and Bradford Young’s extraordinary cinematography, Selma is an impeccable retelling of one man’s life. The Martin Luther King, Jr. of this movie is not a sanitized saint but a full-bodied human being filled with fears and doubts and flaws of his own. But DuVernay also gives witness to King’s courage and vision, and his unshakeable belief in justice (as well as a fierce intelligence and political savvy.)

Of course, none of that would mean anything if DuVernay hadn’t found someone to fill the man’s oversized shoes. How miraculous, then, was it that she was able to get David Oyelowo for the part? Before I saw Selma, I was convinced that the contest for Best Actor Academy Award this year would be a cage match between Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game. But now all bets are off. I can’t think of the last time I have seen an actor so completely inhabit a role. Oyelowo’s work is even more astonishing because we all go into the theater having seen King’s speeches replayed on video, and have preconceived ideas about how he should act and sound. Oyelowo doesn’t attempt to mimic him, but by creating a fully realized character grounded in the realities of King’s life and times, manages to summon him up right in front of us.

While everyone involved should probably at least be thinking about their Oscar speeches, Tom Wilkinson ought to be working very hard on his. He gives a masterly performance as Lyndon B. Johnson, the counterweight to King. Every second he’s on the screen you are absolutely riveted by his performance as a lumbering sort of apparent hick hiding a lethal sense of realpolitik. While he’s far from the villain of the piece—that spot is reserved for Tim Roth’s magnificently vile turn as George Wallace—the LBJ of Selma doesn’t quite match up with our received notion of him as a hero, either.

The LBJ Issue, Blacks and Whites, the British Invasion

Which, after all my praise, brings up a sore subject: The Selma Backlash. Some people, specifically some associated with keeping Johnson’s legacy alive, have complained that the film’s depiction of LBJ is historically inaccurate—even going so far as to say that the Selma march was Johnson’s idea. (A claim which DuVernay called “jaw-dropping and offensive.”)

Being not quite as old as rumor would have it, I don’t have a personal recollection of the movie’s events. I will say, however, that over the last 15 years I have noticed that Johnson’s rep as a civil-rights visionary has bloomed. Selma doesn’t deny that Johnson worked for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but the film makes the point that it was King, along with other activists, who kept the pressure on him to do so.

My own suspicion—perhaps unfounded, perhaps not—is that the movie-going public has been conditioned by years of Hollywood films which, while exploring the evils of racism, somehow managed to star white actors (Glory, Crash, The Help, Ghosts of Mississippi, etc.) I guess some folks just can’t process an African American story that isn’t about how courageous white people are.

The other, and far sillier, complaint I’m hearing is that all the leads are British actors. Oyelowo, Wilkinson, Roth, and Carmen Ejogo in a moving performance as Coretta Scott King all hail from across the pond. How dare those Brits play people from other countries!

I hope nobody takes this complaint seriously, or else Meryl Streep’s gonna have to turn in a couple of Oscars.

Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based writer and critic.