A rriving in the Alabama town that gives the movie "Selma" its name, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. seems uncertain whether he's picked the right place to launch a headline-grabbing campaign for black voting rights. Folks seem nice enough, until a white man steps out of the crowd and greets King with a hard right to the jaw.
"This place," King says, getting to his feet, "is perfect."
The great David Oyelowo plays King in "Selma," but the movie is less about the leader than the movement he created and his galvanizing voting-rights marches, from Selma to Montgomery, in 1965. Densely packed with information and brought to life by a score of fine performances, it's the rare historical drama that feels urgent and relevant. The movie reminds us, in a prescient scene, that the marches began after local police shot and killed an unarmed black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield).
"Selma" puts us right in the middle of King's inner circle, taking us with him everywhere he goes. We see him wrangling with President Lyndon Johnson (a terrific Tom Wilkinson), struggling to keep his marriage together (Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King) and trying to appease members of the like-minded but territorial Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Ava DuVernay directs with great attention to detail, especially during the standoffs with state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge; Paul Webb's economical script helps keeps the pace crisp.
Oyelowo's King can feel a little lugubrious. He is tired, and a cloud of doom hangs over him. Once he gets on a platform, though, look out. Oyelowo, theatrically trained with a background in Shakespeare, captures not just King's resonant voice but his passion and moral conviction. You'd follow this man anywhere.
Even the smallest roles in "Selma" are important, including activist Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), intransigent Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) and a steely J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), whose surveillance logs of King's activities frequently appear on screen. The film's yearbook ending, describing the fates of real people we hardly knew, speaks to the sacrifices made on behalf of an ideal.
"Selma" could well go down as one of the definitive dramas of the civil rights movement. It's a powerful reminder of what was accomplished, and what remains to be done.