Selma, the stirring and powerful new historical drama about Martin Luther King Jr and his crusade for voting rights, opens with King (David Oyelowo) standing in a hotel room, looking wary and haunted as he stares directly into the camera and rehearses a speech. His heart clearly isn't in it. He runs through a handful of eloquent phrases, then suddenly breaks off and says, "This ain't right." It's 1964, and King, about to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, is worried that the ascot tie he has to wear will make it seem like he's living "high on the hog" to "the brothers back home". The film's point – and it's a sly one – isn't that King is embarrassed about dressing like a ‘swell’; it's that he's a leader who never, ever stops thinking about the politics of how things appear. And that, it turns out, is the theme of Selma. Directed with confidence by Ava DuVernay, it's a movie about how King changed America by having the canny political genius to show the country an image of itself that it could not bear.

Early on, King is ushered into a meeting with US president Lyndon B Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who greets him with down-home good cheer, only too happy to have a grass-roots partner in the Civil Rights struggle who is not (in Johnson's words) a "radical". But the warmth of the encounter is short-lived. King has come to demand early passage of a national voting rights act, and while Johnson agrees that such a bill is necessary, he says that it will have to wait; not enough time has passed since the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Johnson has too much else on his plate. This reticence, according to the film, is what pushes King to go to Selma, Alabama, to stage a series of protests that will reveal to the nation, via the news media, what really happens when blacks in the Deep South of the US attempt to register to vote – systematic disenfranchisement, though legally they already have the right.

When King and his team arrive in Selma, they try to check into a swank hotel. A manager comes bounding into the lobby with a deceptively friendly "Dr King!" and proceeds to punch King in the jaw. You can't help but recoil at this appalling act – but, in fact, it's exactly what King and his people are looking for. "This place is perfect!" one of them says. Hideous racist brutality isn't what they're seeking to avoid; it's what they're seeking to display.

Shifting perspective

Before long, King is standing before a government building, leading dozens of protesters, including Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), an elderly woman we have already seen being prevented from registering to vote. As the crowd surges toward the building, the police rise up like fortress guards, beating them with nightsticks, and even sweet old Annie Lee gets viciously clubbed to the ground. When a photograph of the incident appears the next morning on the front page of a newspaper delivered to President Johnson, he stammers in outrage, furious at King: the public explosion of bigotry and violence is now going to muck up his timing on the voting rights act. And that is exactly King's strategy. The entire film is framed as a battle of wills between the wily moral activist and the complacent, foot-dragging president.

But is that, in fact, how it happened? Selma is now the subject of a hot-button controversy pegged to objections – first stated by Joseph A Califano Jr, President Johnson's top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969 – that claim that the film's portrayal of Johnson is historically inaccurate. There is much evidence, including taped conversations between Johnson and King, that indicate that Johnson endorsed and, in fact, encouraged King's plan of manipulating racist violence for exposure in the press. The Johnson of Selma is hardly a villain, yet as Wilkinson portrays him – in imposing fashion, but missing the slow molasses drip of Johnson's drawl – he is perhaps too detached from King's mission.

Yet a strict reading of the historical record indicates that King and Johnson did, in fact, disagree on timing – that King insisted on the fierce urgency of now, and that his actions in Selma spurred Johnson forward. For that reason, the portrayal of Johnson in Selma is dramatically defensible as a kind of metaphor for the mountain that King was climbing. In just about every moment of King's revolutionary struggle, he was shoving a stone up a vertical rock-face. And it's the portrayal of King himself that makes Selma, nearly as much as Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, a biopic of transfixing severity, with a gratifyingly anguished sense of the human being pulsating beneath the saintly force of King’s words. This is the story of a man on a mission he knows is larger than he is, and his heroism lies in his willingness to be consumed by it.

Behind the icon

David Oyelowo, his almond eyes heavy with gravitas, shows us a King of many sides. There's a brief scene at breakfast, before King and his crew take off for Selma, that displays what a rudely joshing wiseguy he could be, but it's the only scene of its kind: he doesn't have the luxury for such things. In church, the high-mindedness of his speeches – splendidly evocative, given that the King family didn't allow the preacher’s actual words to be used in the film – is matched by their underlying militancy. One of the film's most audacious insights is that King, in his meticulous fight-the-power way, was every bit as insurrectionary an operator as Malcolm X (who shows up in Selma to work with his former rival, something that King isn't happy about). The fact that King insisted on results, on moving his entire society forward, hardly made him less of a radical.

He is also, at moments, touchingly tender with his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), yet their marriage always takes a back seat to the struggle. A scene where Coretta plays King an FBI tape of one of his adulterous dalliances, is quietly riveting – and poses the question of why a man this moral is willing to be amoral. Oyelowo answers it by portraying the pressures King is under with fierce conviction, as in a scene where King, locked in prison, wonders if he can go on.

Selma’s most potent dimension is the way that DuVernay laces the film with the spectre of bloodshed. In his words, King keeps connecting the different levels of society, and his point is that racist law isn't simply "unjust": it's a coded form of violence, an oppression that can only exist when it's backed by the threat of murder. 

The film chronicles the protesters' three separate attempts to march the 50 miles from Selma to Montgomery and at first, as the crowd is mowed down by clubs and tear gas and whips, it directly connects 1965 with slavery. The difference, of course, is that the images of oppression are now being broadcast on national television. And later, when federal marshals have been ordered onto the scene to guarantee the marchers' safety, the triumphant crowd includes as many white protesters as black ones. What Selma shows us isn't just a protest but the birth of a new America, one that transcends the very notion of black and white. That, the film says, was King's true legacy: not just winning the Civil Rights battle for "his people”, but the liberation of everyone.   


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