When Martin Luther King Day comes around, do you sometimes scratch your head and go, “Why’d he get his own holiday again, exactly?”
Sacha Baron Cohen once gave the Class Day speech at Harvard as his character Ali G: “Some of you has probably never even seen a black man before,” he said. “Like that great civil rights leader, Martin Luther Vandross…”
That’s funny. But it’s also not funny. Given the accelerated way things move in American culture, the 1960s are already ancient history. Some have forgotten, and some never learned, what Martin Luther King did for this country.
And yet here we are with similar news headlines regarding race in 2015, as the ones from 1965. Have we learned anything in 50 years?
The superb “Selma” is an excellent way to give your teenagers a powerful history lesson, and at the same time have yourself a cinematic experience that puts the “moving” back in movies.
“Selma” is not the type of lifespan-sweeping hagiography that dulls senses with overstuffing, but much like Steven Spielberg did with “Lincoln,” it puts the focus on one key passage of King’s journey.
That story is King’s campaign of civil disobedience, which lasted three months in 1965, culminating in a nonviolent protest march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, meant to facilitate and hurry the passage of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Voting Rights Act.
The film begins by noting the standard 1960s humiliations suffered by Southern “Negroes”; America’s deep-seated and lingering Jim Crow-era prejudice that for all intents and purposes rendered black people’s constitutional right to vote null and void.
Then, King (David Oyelowo) meets with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to discuss options and support for the planned march.
LBJ wants no part of the march. He’s caught between a rock and a hard place; he’s not stupid, he has foresight and knows King’s stance is the future, and he rather agrees with it. Yet as president, he’s also got to take meetings with the openly racist governor of Alabama, George Wallace (Brit actor Tim Roth in fine, arrogant, smarmy form), and his ilk. As LBJ says to MLK, “You’re an activist. I’m a politician.”
Some of King’s fellow activists are John Lewis (Stephan James), who is currently the only living member of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, along with James Bevel (Common) and Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo).
Oprah, eschewing Her Winfreyness, gives herself over to the role of nurse Annie Lee Cooper, lending an air of authenticity in serving the cause.
But British actor David Oyelowo is king of—as well as King in—this film, as well as possibly establishing the definitive on-screen portrayal of Martin Luther King to date. He shows us a man, and he shows us why that man is now a legend.
He shows us a man with self-doubt, a man who calls Mahalia Jackson in the middle of the night, seeking strength and inspiration from her singing. A conflicted man who loves his wife but wasn’t faithful. A man who sheds tears with the bereft, and a man who enjoys the jokes and friendship of his fellow leaders.
Oyelowo also put on the requisite weight and holds King’s facial gesture to the point of channeling. He’s got King’s speech patterns down, which in their uniqueness border on caricature, but he never crosses the line. The virtuoso speeches and sermons are explosions of virtue and inspiration. It’s a great feat of theater craft.
It’s always a challenge to bring life, let alone high tension, to political wheeling and dealing, but Ava DuVernay pulls it off.
“Selma” brings home vividly just how much the marchers were endangering their lives by demonstrating. It’s violent and visceral and none of it is gratuitous; it takes a page from “12 Years a Slave,” in that the brutal billy-club beatings, bullwhips, shootings, and face-kicking by police and Southern white locals carry more violence in the intensity of the inner hatred rather than in bloody visuals.
DuVernay couldn’t have known for sure that Americans would be demonstrating and rioting in the streets over similar issues in 2014, but in 2011, states across the country passed new laws restricting the right to vote. She must have known, for sure, that her film could make a difference by showing that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Ultimately, “Selma” doesn’t promote hate or assign blame. Rather, it shows how people can get together, cooperate, and change things. Transcendent and inspiring, it’s one of the most important films of the year—and if it helps promote social change, it’ll be one of the most important films of the last 50 years.
Director: Ava DuVernay
Starring: David Oyelowo, Oprah Winfrey, Carmen Ejogo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Giovanni Ribisi, Tim Roth, Tom Wilkinson
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Release date: Dec. 25
4 stars out of 5