Selma is a war movie, except only one of the two armies has all the guns. Ava DuVernay stages the two brutal mass assaults by the Alabama state troopers — at the night march in Marion, and on the first day at the Edmund Pettus Bridge — as horrifying military routs. But David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King Jr. is a master tactician, surrounding himself with brilliant generals but keeping his own counsel. Like any field marshal, he debates which of his (civilian) troops to sacrifice, rallies them for battle, and plots to capture territory — the bridge and beyond, to Montgomery — with the weapons at hand, particularly the media.
Oyelowo never lets King’s public mask slip, remaining enigmatic even in his private moments. But as my friend Peter Scholtes noted, any movie about King will hinge much less on how the man himself acts (a matter of historical record) than on the film’s ability to dramatize how others respond to his presence. And so the key scene here is King’s late night drive with Stephan James’s John Lewis (whose dogged earnestness is the heart of the movie). Lewis tells King how a previous speech sparked the younger man’s burgeoning activism, creating a feedback loop of inspiration that consoles and heartens King in a way Ralph Abernathy’s earlier jail-cell scripture-quoting couldn’t.
There are slip-ups here. Tom Wilkinson’s hangdog LBJ lacks the cajoling physical dominance that would make him a worthy foil to King – the shifty bluster of a more lifelike Lyndon would have defused any petty op/ed cavils about historical accuracy. And like all biopics, which highlight by their comparison to news footage how much clumsy artifice purely fictional movies can get away with, there are moments of bald exposition (it’s not DuVernay’s fault she has to teach your kids history), musical overkill (Jason Moran is smarter than this soundtrack), and easy emotional manipulation (even when Oprah isn’t onscreen). But if Martin Luther King deserves his big Hollywood Oscar biopic just as surely as he deserves a national holiday, Selma is as much as we could ask for and then some.