The timing for "Selma" is both perfect and dreadful. On one hand, this is a film that adds context to recent events in New York City and Ferguson at a time when it sorely needed. On the other, being released a year after "12 Years a Slave" probably indicates an Oscar loss no matter how good it is, and it's good enough that the Best Picture nomination is a foregone conclusion.
The Selma in question is Selma, Alabama. In the 1960s, it was a flashpoint for the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo). There were many others, of course, from the shooting of Medgar Evers to the march on Washington to King's own assassination in 1968, but Selma was and is a pivot point, both in public consciousness of race relations and for its impact on the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Early in that year, King spoke at Brown Chapel, defying an earlier local ruling that banned gatherings of more than three people sponsored by civil rights groups or activists. Nonviolent, large group protests were something of a calling card for King, who astutely knew the power of television in an era when most people hadn't figured it out. Things reached a boiling point when King led hundreds of marchers to Edmund Pettis Bridge, the starting line for a trek to Montgomery, a symbolic protest of Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) and his policies. They never made it across, knocked back by police clubs and all captured for the nightly news.
That aborted effort—"Black Sunday"—began to spur popular opinion even more strongly in King's favor, forcing President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to stop playing politics with the reverend and push legislation forward.
The performances by Roth and Wilkinson might take some warming up to. They're not bad per se but neither are they precisely what you'd expect out of Wallace and LBJ. The only reason it really stands out is the strength of David Oyelowo's Martin Luther King. It's as if that performance had to be note-perfect—in tone, in appearance, in voice—while the chief supporting players are allowed to be more caricatured. They don't fit as seamlessly as perhaps they should.
But given the story and how quickly attempts to recreate history like this tend to bog down with platitudes, it's about the only criticism that can be found here. Enough attention is paid to the fact that King wasn't a saint to acknowledge his complexity without derailing the larger story. Perhaps there should be more moments involving federal judge Frank Johnson (Martin Sheen), whose verdicts favored Rosa Parks and the marchers on Edmund Pettis Bridge and without whom the cause of civil rights reform would have been delayed even further.
On the Oscar point, there were "white guilt" whispers when "12 Years a Slave" took Best Picture instead of "Gravity," a film that won seven of 10 nominations compared to three wins out of nine nominations for "Slave." So, 12 months later, it's doubtful the voters will push "Selma" to the top of their ballots with heavy favorites "Boyhood" and "Birdman" both more worthy and original films.
Still, this is an excellent introduction to a turning point in American history. It doesn't delve too deeply into the details and devotes most of its attention on the emotional swell of the story. And on those terms, this one is bona fide, with a powerful central performance and the assured work of Ava DuVernay, a relatively unknown director for whom great things are sure to follow.
Movies like this can shoot for the stars and fall short, never realizing the power of the moment they're endeavoring to capture or deifying its subjects more than recognizing the crosses they bear. "Selma" begins steady, slowly builds tension and momentum, and reaches its emotional peak right when it's supposed to.