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Selma

We’ve got a long way to go — but look how far we’ve come

David Oyelowo plays the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., trying to gain the world’s attention and his people’s equality in the march to Selma. <<© Cloud Eight Films >>

By 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo: Interstellar) was a household name. His nonviolent protests had provoked the American government to strike down segregation laws. It would have been a victory for any other man, but even as King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, he knew there was more to do.
    While whites could no longer keep blacks out of their establishments, they were doing their best to keep them from the polls and off the ballots. Black men and women who attempted to register were asked demanding questions, forced to recite the preamble of the Constitution and usually dismissed. When brave souls managed to register, their names and addresses were printed in the newspaper, making it easy for the Ku Klux Klan and other violent groups to find them.
    President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson: The Grand Budapest Hotel) is sympathetic. But he is bombarded by Vietnam protests, and his attention is divided. He tells King that the Civil Rights Act is victory enough for now, and he’ll consider proposing new legislation about voter registration in the coming years.
    King isn’t satisfied. He needs a cause to gain publicity, win the sympathy and support of whites and put political pressure on lawmakers. With the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he plans a march from Selma to Montgomery in protest of Alabama’s voter registration policies. Selma’s brute sheriff and the state’s racist governor will surely earn them headlines by violent opposition to the march.
    King is monitored by the FBI, scrutinized by his own movement and watched from every outside angle. His family is threatened. Can he endure the pressure?
    Unlike many biopics of great men, Selma isn’t a canonization rite. Instead, director Ava DuVernay (Scandal) wisely chooses to show the human behind the saint. Her King is having marital problems, is frustrated with the slow progress of his movement and, in his darkest hours, worries that his methods are not worth blood and death. He clings to his purpose and his faith because he has become the spokesperson for a group that desperately needs a voice. He relies on his SCLC family to help him keep his eyes on the prize.
    Selma is a beautiful, humane look at one of the greats of American history.
    Oyelowo captures the power and vulnerability that made King so compelling. He mimics the cadence and drama that made Dr. King’s speeches so memorable; don’t be surprised if you get goose bumps listening to these sermons. But the actor is most effective during quiet moments, when King leads not by fiery oratory but by refusing to break under pressure.
    Before you decry the movie’s inaccuracies, consider this: All biopics create inaccuracies for the sake of drama. If they ­didn’t, they’d be called documentaries. Fellow Oscar contenders The Imitation Game, Foxcatcher, The Theory of Everything and American Sniper all stray from history, some quite a bit. Yet Selma is the only film criticized for it. What does that say?
    Selma shows many grim scenes of beatings and ugly racist interactions, but it is not a movie about hate or blame. It’s about the hope and determination to overcome. Buy a ticket and join the march.

Great Drama • R • 128 mins.