Selma (2014) (PG-13)

We hear him breathe.
"Selma" is a movie that could have been overblown so many times. It's about a radical moment in history, it's about people fighting for what they belief, it's about a man whose ideals are sometimes too perfect for his own life, and it's about political struggle.
The film comes from Ava DuVernay who in the past has only made small budget indie movies; but here she proves her worth with an interesting and uncompromising look at a slice of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo).
The movie begins as King is looking for a place to start a revolution. His quiet demeanor in everyday life moves aside when he begins to speak and here the film makes it certain that we know that King was also a preacher. From the pulpit, he shouts and rails on the injustices of the time and the audience responds, both in the film and in the theater. Still never in these scenes does it feel stiff or fake, and that's mostly to do with Oyelowo's performance. As Martin Luther King, he speaks softly and keeps his justified rage bottled up until it can no longer be contained.
Proponents of non-violent revolution, the movement in Alabama is not opposed heavily at first because Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) realizes that without King at the head of the "riots", the fight might turn bloody.
But people in this part of the south are bigots and DuVernay makes no qualms in showing this, to the point where it's beyond sad that this is where part of American history stemmed from, it's revolting. When scouting for a place to hold a protest, to demand that legislation be written about voting regulations, the first person to greet King in Selma punches him in the face. After that, the decision has been made. Selma is perfect.
Martin's wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) is one of the more unexplained figures of the movie. She's loyal, jealous, betrayed, and at the same time the amount of screen time that we see her in doesn't add up to the weight that she holds over her husband. It's clear that their marriage is a rocky one, the film taking the time to let us see that Martin Luther King was no saint; but it is an institution that both of them belong to and for that, they cannot shake it.
One story that gets forgotten in the middle of the movie is that of Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey). This is the first person we see try to register to vote, she is denied. Although originally Cooper stands as an embodiment of the injustice served, she eventually gets forgotten throughout the story, randomly popping back up for little moments. Strangely, this works for the film and it proves that even though the star power is present, it never steals the lime light.
As the protests start to heat up in Selma and the native Alabamians start to voice their objections in more physical ways, King is called up to the White House a few times for talks with Johnson. The president is furious that King is trying to force his hand with legislation. He and advisee Lee White (Giovanni Ribsi) are trying to get the movement to stall out so that they can all get re-elected.
King and his followers are met with a strong opposition from the local sheriff, Jim Clark (Stan Houston) who is getting scrambled orders from the powers that be. The governor of Alabama George Wallace (Tim Roth) is both slightly sympathetic with the movement and also deeply apathetic. He's mostly concerned with his reputation as a public figure and a politician.
With all this going on in "Selma", we are also introduced to J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) who is assigned to study King and try to find any dirt on him that can be found. The FBI starts to tap the leaders' phones and scene transitions are often paired with transcripts of reports filed by the FBI.
It gives the uncanny sense of being stuck in a pressure cooker.
"Selma" is an explosive movie, sometimes literally. Although very violent at times, the camera never shies away from showing the brutality, not to the point of senseless action. Every time there is violence on the screen, it is for a purpose. DuVernay constructs her more high-action moments with such ease that you would have thought she had been doing this for years.
Everything looks wonderfully period, and Oyelowo gives a performance that will be remembered for years to come.
At times, "Selma" reminds us that it is a representation of one of the major turning points in the civil rights movement and it had to occur on the face of so much death and violence. It shows us the fiery determination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and how passionate he was about this cause.
But at other times, the film is blisteringly intimate, and it's those deep refrained pauses that we hear him breathe.

Score: ★★★½

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