There are times when watching David Oyelowo in “Selma” that it’s really easy to believe you’re looking at Martin Luther King Jr. Aside from the accidents of age, size and appearance, Oyelowo has studied King’s gestures, not only his public manner – his dramatic use of his arms and hands – but his more private side, the weary yet determined quality he had in one-on-one interviews.
In the movie’s more private moments, Oyelowo even sounds like King. What he can’t match – probably no one could – is King’s powerful oratorical voice. Still, this is a remarkable performance, remarkable not only in its force but in its strength and precision. Oyelowo is reason alone to see “Selma,” and if you need another reason, there’s Carmen Ejogo as a lovely, strong and haunted Coretta Scott King.
No, “Selma” is not a great movie. But it’s a very good movie on a great subject: the events leading up to King’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery and to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. In the best sense, it’s a movie about politics, specifically about how things get done, and much of the drama involves the maneuvering between King and President Lyndon Johnson, who has his own agenda and timetable and won’t move unless pushed. And Johnson was not an easy man to push.
To make “Selma” not just function but soar, this movie needed a Johnson as compelling as its King. But Tom Wilkinson as Johnson is all wrong, even aside from the fact that he’s 10 years too old and looks like Richard Nixon. Wilkinson flails in the role. Sometimes he has a Texas accent. Sometimes he doesn’t.
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You can single out the actor, but when some of the best scenes in a movie don’t land with the right force, the director must get some of the blame. Director Ava DuVernay handles the two-person scenes between King and Coretta impeccably, with a real feeling for the unstated communication between couples. But a climactic scene, such as Johnson’s “We shall overcome” speech before a joint session of Congress, is tossed away.
Still, DuVernay gets most of the big things right, including the most important thing: all the activism scenes. The marches and street demonstrations are conveyed with a respect for historical accuracy and a you-are-there sense of the dangers faced. To see this is to remember that King’s success was by no means assured. People could have been beaten up and killed without anything being changed.
History has a way of seeming inevitable, but only after it happens. The value of “Selma” shows how things could have gone another way. It’s a testament to King’s vision and to the courage it took to pursue that vision. But it does something else, too. It shows the awfulness of being in possession of that vision, the terrible responsibility of it.
Oyelowo captures two looks that King sometimes had. One was of seeing into the absolute abyss of the human soul and history. And the other was of seeing something better in the distance he wasn’t going to get to. To see “Selma” is to feel and appreciate the burden of greatness.
Rated: PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment and brief strong language
Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson
Directed by: Ava DuVernay