It’s minutes before the 1964 Nobel Prize ceremony, and Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) is tired. You can see it all over him, from the way his shoulders droop to his mutterings at himself in the mirror as he struggles with his ascot. The Civil Rights Act of 1964’s been passed. You’d think the man could take a break.
There’s no break to be had. What to some looks like a monumental victory is only a step forward that’s slightly larger than the last.
Selma isn’t a big movie. There are no big-name stars amongst the key players, and that seems fitting, because it lets you focus on the story and not who’s coming on screen next. In 1965, King and the rest of the movement took their fight to Selma, Alabama. The Civil Rights Act had granted them the right to vote, but did nothing to remove the obstacles keeping them from voting. There were poll taxes. Vouchers. Ridiculous questions designed to trip up the applicant as she turns in her voter registration application. These people lived in a world of hate, yet each of them had more dignity than their neighbors combined.
But it’s a necessary movie. It’s hard to watch at times, when the bigotry spills over into violence and results in the senseless beating of a white priest. You wonder how it’s possible for someone to hate that much. There’s joy, too, just when you can’t take any more bleakness – King and the other leaders of the movement sitting around a kitchen eating grits, the outpouring of support when King issues his latest call to action on national TV.
It takes a big man to step into the charismatic shoes of Dr. King, and David Oyelowo does an admirable job. He brings a quiet grace and no-nonsense air to the man, and it’s not long before you start seeking him out in every scene, even the ones he’s not in. It’s a mark of how good he is that you can feel his presence through the whole film.
Dr. King was not a perfect man, and Selma doesn’t try to paint him as such. The FBI used the evidence of his affairs to try and drive a wedge between him and his wife. He used his funeral eulogy of a young man gunned down at the start of the Selma protests as a call to action. He was faced with difficult decision after difficult decision, and sometimes he didn’t make the right choice.
No, what Selma does is show us just one of those tiny, hard-fought steps in the progress for equal rights for African-Americans. And it proves, once again, just how great a blow this country was dealt when King was gunned down three years after the Selma marches.