Biopics are quite tricky to pull off. It’s nearly impossible to distill one person’s life neatly into two hours, and the end result is often cliché-ridden and full of glaring omissions. Director Ava Duvernay doesn’t fall into those traps, here. She tells one story in Dr. Martin Luther King’s life, and we’re expected to know enough about the man and his prior accomplishments to not be lost. And of course, we do. King is one of the most famous people in modern history, as well as one of the most lauded. Selma serves him well here, showing King at the height of powers, but also refusing to canonize him. His affairs are not omitted, but neither are they focused on.
The movie also takes a page from Lincoln, becoming a procedural on how shit gets done in Washington. King faces resistance from not only the local hayseed sheriff, and moustache –twirling villain Governor George Wallace, but also from reluctant ally President Lyndon Johnson who agrees with King that voting rights are important, but hey, the Civil Rights Act was just passed less than a year ago and ya gotta pick your battles, amiright? There’s been some pushback from Johnson supporters who claim that this portrayal is inaccurate, and I’m no historian so I don’t feel comfortable weighing in. But from a storytelling standpoint, it’s damn nice to see a movie about minorities fighting for their rights without needing to be saved by the majority.
What’s most fascinating is seeing the various black leaders of the day argue about strategy and who’s right and who’s wrong and who should lead. We watch comfortably from the future and it’s easy to forget that for all these people knew, it could’ve blown up in their faces. There are some tense scenes here that feature just a dozen or so men and women in a room, arguing policy. Malcom X makes a quick appearance in a scene with Coretta Scott King, where he announces his intentions to align with King, despite years of animosity between them, and she doesn’t know what to believe. All of that is the best stuff in the film, and the most illuminating.
And of course, unfortunately, the movie is quite timely as well. Not only has it only been a year since the Supreme Court dismantled the Voting Rights Act, but the incidents in New York, Ferguson, and other places lets us know that the issue of police brutality is even still not behind us. But it’s for you to connect those dots. Unlike the treacly The Imitation Game, which suddenly becomes a gay rights PSA in the third act, Selma resolutely refuses to be maudlin. Which gives it its power.