Selma is about a later chapter in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyewolo). The film opens with Dr. King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Stockholm for his work in ending segregation. But the work of civil rights is not finished.
As he later puts it to LBJ (Tom Wilkinson), nothing will change in the racist communities without self-determination. He and his sometimes fractious coalition will make their stand in Ferguson, Alabama — not because it is particularly worse for black voters there than other places in the South. They will do it there because they can count on the violent local sheriff and the racist governor to make it into a scene.
With the events of Ferguson, Missouri and the failure to indite the police officers who strangled Eric Garner in the news it’s hard to imagine a historical film that feels more relevant to today. But of course, most relevant is the 1964 Voting Rights Act that the Selma marches galvanized. It was just repealed by the Supreme Court.
Director Ava DuVernay, apparently working from her own script instead of credited British writer Paul Webb’s, delivers the goods. Historical moments come to life with emotion and power, and the Kings — Martin and Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) — both come to life as complicated, conflicted figures, not to mention the other names from history that live and breathe on screen: Joe Lewis, Malcolm X, Mahalia Jackson, Jimmy Lee Jackson, and so many more.
As for the controversy over not getting a Best Director nomination… totally justified. This was one of the best-directed films I saw all year. While there are a few moments where the camera angles don’t edit together smoothly, the direction was otherwise first class. DuVernay got 10,000 times better performances and more emotional impact than Bennett Miller did with Foxcatcher. (Sorry, Bennett. I still love Moneyball.) The movie is truly epic. Scenes with hundreds of extras play just as well as two-person chamber scenes. You feel the righteous power of the Selma marches. You feel the swift brutality of the violence. You feel the weight of history. And yet the characters don’t feel stuffy and arch. It’s incredibly well directed.
DuVernay’s boosters (of which I am now one) can console themselves with the thought that she is only three films into what looks to be a long and promising career. I look forward to the work, whether the stuffy old Academy Awards voters recognize it or not.