Martin Luther King is one of those historical figures that seem to transcend their own humanity, in that it is hard to think of him as a human being with frailties and faults. We are so used to revering him as an icon on the same level as Lincoln or Washington that we ignore his faults. I think this makes his story harder to understand.
It must be very difficult to play such a figure in a movie but that is the task that confronts David Oyelowo. He plays Dr. King in the summer of 1965 as he is planning a march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama to draw attention and support for the Voting Rights Act. This is necessary because President Lyndon Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson, is reluctant to support it, having just passed an anti-segregation act and wanting to launch his war on poverty. King is determined to force the President’s hand. By the way there is some controversy about that plot point. But for the purposes of reviewing the movie we’ll let it pass.
The performances are all rock solid. Oyelowo captures the essence of Dr. King rather than giving us an exact impersonation. He depicts a man with an acute awareness of his place in history and a growing realization of the price he is about to pay. King feels the weight of the expectations of his people and he shoulders the load willingly but not without regret. He is also a very smart man who knows how to use the media to advance his cause and makes no apologies for employing those tactics. It is a nuanced and very fine performance.
Dr. King’s is the only fully fleshed character in the film. Tom Wilkinson gives us only a sketch of Johnson. Likewise Tim Roth’s George Wallace is a somewhat one dimensional depiction of a complicated villain. There are numerous smaller roles of historical people who attended the march, who I would probably know if I were more familiar with the story. These range from Stephen James’ depiction of John Lewis to any number of historical cameos. The only other role that provides some complexity is King’s wife, Coretta, played by Carmen Ejogo. She offers support for the cause, but is angry about what her husband’s passion for it is doing to their marriage. She is also fearful of the risks he is taking.
The tone of the film is varied. There is the personal struggle of Dr. King as he tries to keep his marriage and life together. Then there is the process of putting together the march. King is playing a multiplayer game with himself, Johnson, Wallace and the media, trying to put together this historical event. Both facets of the film are riveting but there are places where they don’t quite fit together seamlessly.
Overall though, Selma is a compelling film about a great and important subject. The most important thing it does is give us an idea of Dr. King as a man, not as the icon we generally see him as. Because to deny that these things were done by a person with the impediments of human frailty, doubt, and fear is to diminish the accomplishment.


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