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With: With David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alessandro Nivola, Giovanni Ribisi, Common, Carmen Ejogo, Lorraine Toussaint, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey, Stephan James, Andre Holland, Tessa Thompson, Omar Dorsey, Colman Domingo, Wendell Pierce, Corey Reynolds, E. Roger-Mitchell, Ruben Staniago-Hudson, Trai Byers, Lakeith Stanfield, Henry G. Sanders, Charity Jordan, John Lavelle, Stan Houston, David Dwyer, Kent Falcoun, Niecy Nash, Stephen Root, Martin Sheen, Nigel Thatch, Dylan Baker
Written by: Paul Webb
Directed by: Ava DuVernay
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language
Running Time: 127
Date: 12/25/2014

Selma (2014)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The Return of King

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

As an Oprah-endorsed awards-season biopic of an Important Person, Selma sounds like a dud. But don't be fooled. Despite all the great things you're going to hear about this movie, it actually is very good. Credit goes to director Ava DuVernay, who began as a publicist and turned filmmaker in 2008. I haven't seen any of her earlier films, but it's clear she has talent.

Unlike many biopics of Important People, DuVernay starts by simply leaving out the "important" part. This Dr. Martin Luther King (a commanding David Oyelowo) is an imperfect man, dealing the best he can with a difficult situation. The film opens with the bombing of the church in Birmingham that killed those four little girls (Spike Lee's documentary 4 Little Girls tells the story). After winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King sets to work correcting voter discrimination in the South. The Civil Rights Act has passed, but white registrars prevent blacks from registering to vote with ridiculous made-up rules. Oprah Winfrey appears in one such scene; she's required to recite the preamble and know the number of judges in the state of Alabama. She does, but then she's asked to name the judges. Request denied.

The rest of the film deals with Dr. King attempting to sway President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass another law, Voting Rights Act of 1965, that will rescind silly rules and actually protect the rights of blacks to vote. Johnson doesn't think the time is right, politically, so Dr. King and his followers head to Selma, Alabama and prepare to march to Montgomery, to the state capitol. Dr. King is as aware of timing and presentation as the president. He aborts one march attempt by kneeling, praying, and then turning around, as if asking permission from God and not receiving it.

Even Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), who appears in a key scene with Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), also seems to be aware of the showmanship behind this business of changing people's beliefs. This concept is lost on Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth); he comes across as a villain who simply believes that King is a nuisance and will be crushed. (It's interesting to note that two Englishmen play the two Southern politicians; even Oyelowo is English-born.)

By focusing on the march, director DuVernay and writer Paul Webb keep the movie feeling intimate and small. It suggests a slight rift in the relationship between Dr. King and Coretta (he's a powerful man that no doubt attracted the attention of many lovely ladies during his travels). He's not an untouchable figure on a pedestal. He makes hard decisions and lives with the fallout. One mistake biopics generally make is that they include a "moment of discovery," in which the protagonist has one miraculous turning point that defines their future. It comes across like destiny, like this person was fated for greatness, and it's never as interesting as story of an ordinary guy.

DuVernay goes further with her choice of camera angles. Rather than looking up at Dr. King and shining bright lights on him, she chooses off-kilter, off-balance angles, with characters occupying a corner of the frame, and often looking the wrong way. (Usually if a character is, say, in the left side of the frame, he is shown looking right, toward the empty space. In this case, the character is positioned with the empty space behind him, leaving an unsettling effect.) One can only assume that in her years of promoting films, DuVernay really learned how to watch them as well.

DuVernay appears in the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself; he was kind enough to review one of her early films before anyone else had heard of her. Now she's the first African-American female to be nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Director; an Oscar nomination might not be far behind. That would be amazing, but, again, it might take away from just how very good this movie is. Rather than learning lessons about Dr. King you will come away with an idea of who he was.

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