History becomes breathtaking drama in “Selma”; there’s an urgent realism in the storytelling, as if we’re seeing this just in time. And indeed we are: The events of the film take place a half-century ago, and those who saw and heard and lived them won’t always be here to tell it. Directed with masterful confidence by Ava DuVernay (“Middle of Nowhere”), the film is not a biopic of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — though he’s at the center of it, played by David Oyelowo — but rather takes place over several months in the spring of 1965 in Alabama, where a group of courageous African-American activists decided they could no longer wait to demand the right to vote.
So much of “Selma” isn’t the big moments (you won’t hear “I have a dream” here), but the quieter ones: In a moving early scene, Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) waits in a courthouse hallway for her name to be called as she attempts to register to vote; something about her weary silence tells us that she’s been through this before and doesn’t have much hope this time. (Indeed, the clerk — demanding, quite unlawfully, that she answer impossibly difficult questions — takes glee in denying her application.) Elsewhere, we see strategy sessions around makeshift tables; a respectful but wary White House meeting, with MLK and Tom Wilkinson’s canny LBJ; a big Southern breakfast, meant to give sustenance to weary demonstrators; four little girls on a church staircase, giggling about their hair.
The film’s breathtaking centerpiece is “Bloody Sunday,” a late-winter day when a large group of peaceful marchers en route to Montgomery were attacked by armed officers and state troopers. DuVernay stages it with a deliberate sense of dread; you see these people walking toward hatred. Clouds of tear gas envelop them, pierced by screams — it’s devastating to watch. A later march gathers an ocean of people, finally allowed, at terrible cost, to proceed in peace.
Oyelowo (a British actor recently seen in “Interstellar,” “The Butler” and the upcoming “A Most Violent Year”) makes King a no-nonsense leader who seems to be pulling words out of heaven when he makes public speeches; he captures King’s musical cadence, his quiet magnetism. Wilkinson’s LBJ, a thoroughly political creature, is vivid in his few scenes. “I’ll be damned,” he snarls at segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace (an oily Tim Roth), “if I’m going to let history put me in the same place as the likes of you.”
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The film is both mesmerizing drama and timely history lesson; it stays with you long after the theater lights have been raised. Its final note is a stirring MLK speech, interspersed with captions that tell us the fates of many of those civil-rights heroes. We should know all of their names; thanks to “Selma,” now we do.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org