When I first heard about this movie, I remember thinking it was odd that no one had attempted to make a biopic about Martin Luther King, Jr. yet. Then I thought about the monumental nature of that task and I realized why no one had. Then I wondered about this movie and kind of doubted it could succeed. Well, it does succeed, but it’s really because it refuses to really attempt to be a biopic. It is really the story of the Selma voting rights campaign and it handles its large ensemble cast very well – King himself is really only part of that ensemble, though he is certainly the most central figure. The script is smart in the way it handles the legendary figures at its heart and the performances are equally great pretty well across the board. David Oyelowo is genuinely brilliant as King; he captures the cadence of his speaking voice without ever lapsing into a pure imitation and sometimes he looks astonishingly like King. The camera will catch him at a certain angle or in a certain light and it would kind of take my breath away just how much it looked like the real King. But it’s in the way Oyelowo humanizes King that the film works; we see the harried, often uncertain and uncomfortable man behind the speeches at some really wonderful moments. Perhaps the best scene in the film is the scene where Carmen Ejogo, wonderful as Coretta Scott King, confronts King about his infidelities. It’s admirable that the film didn’t dodge this issue or sweep it under the rug and the scene that references it is genuinely powerful and gripping in its quiet restraint. Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth join the cast as another couple of Brits playing American icons and they’re both great; Wilkinson is a frustrated, but canny, President Johnson and Roth is surprising in his restraint as racist Alabama governor George Wallace – the film is fascinating in the way that it refuses to even completely demonize such an easy target as Wallace; both Roth & the script find ways to make us see the human, not the monster, when it comes to Wallace. Kudos, by the way, to Nigel Thatch for my favorite single scene performance of the year so far as Malcolm X. The film is never less than engaging and fascinating in its portrait of the back room dealings, but when it takes to the streets, it’s just as good, as in a harrowingly violent & disturbing depiction of the first Selma march. Anyway, it’s a really wonderful movie that could very, very easily have been corny or staid or lionizing. But it’s none of those things; it’s a genuinely uplifting, fascinating and compellingly human look at a moment in history where human rights were at stake. Oh, great music too. I stayed for the credits even and walked out feeling genuinely uplifted. I bet you will too. Highly recommended. 4 stars.
tl;dr – portrait of Selma-centric battle for civil rights treats its historical figures as humans, not legends, and features a complex script that inspires without being cheesy or silly. 4 stars.