A lot of the same faces from last year's Lee Daniels' The Butler show up in this film. Yet, the two are not the same. The Butler holds your hand through much of the narrative. Here, director Ava DuVernay doesn't really coddle her audience. She expects that the movie-goers have already gotten their history lessons elsewhere. For example, the bombing in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four little black girls, is something DuVernay expects her audience to know. Therefore, this film isn't necessarily an education, so perhaps the controversy surrounding the film should be put aside because it's not a documentary.
The focus is on the efforts of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965, which led President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Yet, it's about conveying the struggle and the feelings around it rather than doling out specific details. The film makes clear why the right to vote is so important and why for black people it was so difficult. Annie Lee Cooper, played by Oprah Winfrey, tries to register to vote and hits a brick wall. The only other depiction of this situation that was just as if not more effective to me was in the TV series Quantum Leap and the fourth season episode "Justice," but that was back in 1991.
There are comparisons to be made to Gus Van Sant's Milk. Even though that Oscar-winning film is titled after a political man, the film is less about the man and more about the movement he started or involved himself, regarding gay rights. Selma has a central performance by David Oyelowo who plays Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., but the film is more appropriately titled in that the movie too is less about the man and more about the movement he led, regarding civil rights for blacks.
While Milk took place in the 1970's, its depiction of that historical struggle is still applicable today, and while some wish it weren't, DuVernay's depiction of the historical struggle in Selma, 1965 is even more applicable and even more relevant to today. It's applicable and relevant on two fronts, two powerful fronts. The first front is the political front. Recently, the Supreme Court shot down the Voting Rights Act, but the ramifications of that are too lengthy to go into here.
The second front is the race relations front, especially in regard to the relationship between black people and white police officers. In 2014, the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed young black man, by Darren Wilson, a white cop in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked a series of protests and highlighted more cases of white cops shooting or otherwise killing unarmed black men. The protests in Ferguson and New York City and elsewhere also highlight the tension between blacks and cops that perhaps go back to Jim Crow laws and even earlier. The echoes of that tension and the noise started in Ferguson are heard and felt almost immediately in this film.
There are visual imagery and narrative incidents in Selma that echo all of this. There's also a very powerful speech toward the end that echoes this as well. Martin Luther King is of course known for giving great speeches. DuVernay does her best to show the man in the space before or in between those speeches as he works or even struggles to craft these speeches, but King's speech at the end about Jimmy Lee Jackson, played by Keith Stanfield (Short Term 12 and The Purge: Anarchy), could almost be about Michael Brown or Eric Garner, the unarmed black man killed by cops in NYC.
One film that will most likely be nominated for an Academy Award and probably will win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature is Citizenfour. It's the story of Edward Snowden leaking information to journalist Glenn Greenwald about the NSA and its advanced techniques to spy on Americans. Clint Eastwood touched upon this in his film J. Edgar (2011) with regard to what the former director of the FBI did, but the way DuVernay handles the same material, it all echoes the worst fears spoken in Citizenfour.
Like a recent TV movie about Coretta Scott King, starring Angela Bassett, this movie also doesn't shy away from the imperfections of Martin Luther King or MLK. DuVernay balances the responses between MLK and Coretta, played wonderfully here by Carmen Ejogo (Sparkle and The Purge: Anarchy).
DuVernay also balances other elements and other characters with such aplomb. Just as the Angela Bassett movie included Malcolm X, so does this one. It's brief, more brief, but yet it's effective. DuVernay also includes the internal arguments with SNCC and how its representatives, including James Forman, played by Trai Byers, and John Lewis, played by Stephan James, debated on how best to proceed with the protests in Selma.
Like with The Butler, this film has a huge cast and taking time to recognize them is important. Oscar-nominee Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom and Michael Clayton) plays Lyndon B. Johnson. Grammy-winner Common (American Gangster and Wanted) plays James Bevel, a director with the SCLC, the organization that MLK started. Tessa Thompson (For Colored Girls and Dear White People) plays Diane Nash, the co-founder of the SNCC and future wife of James Bevel. Colman Domingo (Lincoln and The Butler) plays Ralph Abernathy, a leader in the SCLC. Lorraine Toussaint (Any Day Now and Orange is the New Black) plays Amelia Boynton Robinson, an activist and key figure in the "Bloody Sunday" incident. Oscar-nominee Tim Roth (Rob Roy and Reservoir Dogs) plays George Wallace, Governor of Alabama. Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Lackawanna Blues and American Gangster) plays Bayard Rustin, a gay activist and SCLC organizer.
Some smaller roles of note include Jeremy Strong (Lincoln and The Judge) who plays James Reeb, a pastor who joins in on the planned march to Montgomery. Dylan Baker plays J. Edgar Hoover and Martin Sheen plays Judge Frank Johnson, the federal justice who made great strides for the Civil Rights Movement.
DuVernay also handles her big action set piece when the police clashed with protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge with such vibrancy and grittiness as well. There's fear. There's violence. There's heartbreak but also compassion and empathy. This film soars in those regards, and for all of that, it is the best film of the year.
Five Stars out of Five. Rated PG-13 for violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language. Running Time: 2 hrs. and 8 mins.