Despite all the great things you'll hear about “Selma” – an important, Oprah-endorsed awards-season biopic – it actually is great.
Unlike many biopics of Important People, this one – cleverly directed by Ava DuVernay – simply leaves out the “important” part. This Dr. Martin Luther King (an extraordinary David Oyelowo) is an imperfect man, dealing with a difficult situation.
The film opens with the bombing of the church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed those four little girls (Spike Lee's documentary “4 Little Girls” tells the story).
After winning the Nobel Peace Prize, King sets to work correcting voter discrimination in the South. The Civil Rights Act has passed, but blacks are prevented 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 King attempting to sway President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass another law, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that will 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, Ala. and prepare to march to Montgomery, to the state capitol.
King is as aware of timing, and presentation, as the president. There's a showmanship behind this business of changing people's beliefs. He aborts one march attempt by kneeling, praying, and then turning around, as if asking permission from God and not receiving it. “Selma” avoids most biopic cliches, like the moment of discovery in which the protagonist has one miraculous turning point that defines his future. In this movie, King takes each moment as it comes.
By focusing on the march, DuVernay and writer Paul Webb keep the movie feeling intimate and immediate, rather than historical and untouchable. It even suggests a slight rift in the relationship between King and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo).
DuVernay goes further with her choice of camera angles. Rather than looking up at King and shining bright lights on him, she chooses off-balance angles, with characters occupying the edges of the frame.
A former publicist, DuVernay is 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 detract from just how very good this movie is. Rather than teaching lessons about Dr. King, “Selma” focuses on who he was.
Three and a half stars
Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth
Written by: Paul Webb
Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes