Selma review - 'David Oyelowo catches perfectly the essence of a flawed but noble man poised on the verge of greatness'
So much lore and emotion has built up around the memory of Dr Martin Luther King Jr over the last 50 years or so that it's almost impossible to separate the man from the myth. This remarkably focused and clear-headed biopic from Ava DuVernay sets out to do just that by honing in on perhaps the most seminal moment in Dr. King's short, but momentous life.
In January of 1965, King (David Oyelowo) and his closest advisors travelled to Alabama, where racial tensions had been simmering for many months.
In 1963, four young black girls aged between 11 and 14 had been murdered in a Ku Klux Klan bomb attack on a Birmingham Baptist church, an event memorably dramatised in Ms. DuVernay's film. The same year, a woman called Annie Lee Cooper (played here by Oprah Winfrey) was fired from her nursing job in Selma for attempting to register to vote. This was an issue particularly close to Dr King's heart, and it's to Selma he headed to stage what would turn out to be the most decisive battle in the struggle for civil rights.
Although African-Americans had been given the right to vote as long ago as 1870, many southern states still prevented them from doing so by making registration next to impossible. After trying and failing to persuade President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass federal legislation allowing blacks to register to vote without interference, King loses his patience and decides to take matters into his own hands.
Alabama was the most entrenched corner of the racist South, and Selma a deeply divided town run by a trigger-happy sheriff. So when King and his associates begin staging marches and sit-ins for voting rights, they know well they're lighting a fuse.
First, a peaceful sit-in for voting rights outside the courthouse is attacked by police, and King and his allies end up in jail. Then, during a peaceful night march in nearby Marion, Alabama State Troopers launched a coordinated strike, turning off the street lights and attacking and beating the protesters, one of whom ends up shot to death.
As President Johnson watches nervously in Washington, and less peaceful agitators such as Malcolm X prepare to take a more robust approach, King orders another march, from Selma to Montgomery, through countryside where barely a single black person has ever voted. It too will be attacked, by men who do not realise they're on the wrong side of history.
The ease with which Ava DuVernay's film handles this complex and highly charged socio-political story is breathtaking, and in her hands history is given the urgency of a rolling news report. She neatly juggles a vast array of characters, too, from key King associates like Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy, to J. Edgar Hoover, Mahalia Jackson, Malcolm X and Alabama's wily and colourful governor, George Wallace (played here with gusto by yet another Brit, Tim Roth).
An English actor also plays perhaps the most significant person in King's life, his wife Coretta. Carmen Ejogo portrays her with appropriate dignity and restraint: King consults her often, and she's the only member of his intimate circle who doesn't seem over-awed by his greatness. Like his old ally John F. Kennedy, Dr. King was apparently fond of the ladies, and in one of Selma's most moving scenes, Coretta Scott King lets him know that she's well aware of his failings.
He's not a saint, and nor does he always divinely know which is the right course of action: his belief in non-violent protest is absolute, and at one point he angers his supporters by retreating from the police barricades. But his political instincts are unerring, as is his faith in the irrefutable justness of his cause.
And David Oyelowo catches perfectly, in manner and nuance, the essence of a flawed but noble man poised on the verge of greatness.