In a sea full of faceless, useless biopics, you know that Selma is going to be different from all the rest when it doesn’t start out with any title cards, or any montages of its subject’s childhood, or any “dramatic” speeches, but rather an anonymous voice over a black screen.
The source of this voice is revealed to be Martin Luther King Jr, not long before he took home his Nobel Peace Prize. His extremely famous “I Have A Dream” speech surprisingly isn’t shown in the film, nor is his shocking assassination (both are given a brief mention, but that’s about it), but Selma is still as well-rounded and memorable of a portrait of the man as we’re ever likely to get.
The film specifically focuses on King’s efforts to organize the famous “march to Montgomery” in the very segregated town of—you guessed it—Selma, Alabama, where he travels with his wife, Coretta Scott King, as well as fellow leaders like Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, James Orange, and Diane Nash. The horrific displays of violence and racism that they are met with, despite the PG-13 rating, aren’t sugarcoated in the slightest, but the script thankfully allows enough uplift and humor to prevent these jarring moments from feeling overwhelming or bleak.
Selma does get most of the actual facts of the matter right, but admittedly isn’t perfect when it comes to historical accuracy. King’s bumpy relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson is entirely falsified (in reality, the two were mutually respectful of each other), and the Jews who significantly contributed to that civil rights movement don’t get nearly as much screen time as they deserve.
I wish I could say that was the only real issue I had with the film. Unfortunately, despite the story’s gripping nature, it does occasionally fall into the trappings of overlength and tedium. I am not against longer or slower films (example: There Will Be Blood, a slow-burner that has not a single wasted second), but the subject matter at hand here probably would been equally powerful if the film was cut down just a little bit to be more focused, more concise.
As a whole, however, Selma is still a solidly searing, if formulaic, look at a truly painful part of American history, one filled with dusty Southern authenticity and top-notch performances. Carmen Ejogo (playing Coretta) was definitely a major highlight in that regard, but it’s David Oyelowo (playing King) that really steals the show.
He portrays this fiery, resilient, yet realistically flawed historical icon with a surprising amount of depth and personality, and this makes his journey all the more worth caring about. At the film’s closing scene, when he’s making speeches in Montgomery after finally making it there with his people, we all know that he would be tragically killed by a madman’s bullet in only a few years.
But that would come in due time. All there was at that moment was love, hope, and triumph, and that was all that mattered.