It's shocking that, despite Martin Luther King Jr.'s immense stature, he hadn't anchored his own theatrical feature until 2014. Thankfully, as the first proper MLK biopic, Selma doesn't drop the ball. In fact, it's a pretty great movie.
Following the pattern of The Queen and Lincoln, Selma is not a hoary cradle-to-grave biopic, but instead locates the essence of its subject by narrowing in on one defining moment: in this case, King's 1965 Voting Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
More to the point, Selma is a behind-the-scenes study of the maneuvers and mistakes leading up to the historic march. Its canvas stretches from dangerous small-town streets to the Oval Office; its cast of characters ranges from ordinary black folks to President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Such was the unique reach of Martin Luther King, and the film's scope - epic as well as intimate - is perhaps its finest tribute to the man.
Director DuVernay is a revelation. A long-term film publicist (whose background is evident in her depictions of King's strategizing sessions), she made her first of three features in 2011, yet her work on Selma feels like that of a veteran. The film is smartly cast (albeit with a few too many celebrity cameos), and the actors all perform at the top of their game, in particular British actor David Oyelowo. He has mighty big shoes to fill as MLK, yet he does so with confidence and charisma. But he didn't get there on his own: it takes a good director to get solid performances across the board, and what's doubly remarkable is DuVernay's strong visual sense. She knows how to set up a shot.
The film has received some criticism for its depiction of LBJ (Tom Wilkinson, another Brit - in fact, this quintessential American drama has English actors in most major roles, such is moviemaking these days). Selma has the President consistently refusing to give in to King's demands for voter reform, yet historians insist that LBJ and King were closely allied on the issue. I can't speak to that, though I admit that one moment in the film, where Johnson privately sics J. Edgar Hoover and his boys on King's family, is hard to swallow. From a dramatic standpoint, however, any exaggeration of Johnson's reluctance is forgivable. It serves the story, and the President's reputation isn't really tarnished.
As I write this, on January 2, 2015, Selma and Oyelowo have both been ignored by most Oscar predictors and guild awards. After seeing the film and gauging its audience's reaction, however, I'd now consider it a frontrunner for Best Picture (even if pundits still name Boyhood the odds-on favorite), with Oyelowo an almost certain Best Actor nominee.
Long after the awards buzz dies down, though, this moving, refreshingly unsentimental film will remain a stirring reenactment of a key moment in American history. Right now, of course, it carries extra relevance in light of recent events in Ferguson and New York. Selma's release couldn't be timelier, and its unintended takeaway is that, in the fight for racial equality, King may have won a few key battles, but is still losing the war.