*** out of ****
It’s easy when portraying a historical icon to slip into hagiography, to make it seem like he can do no wrong. Thankfully, Ava DuVernay’s Selma sidesteps these traps in its portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Working from Paul Webb’s script, DuVernay’s film tells the story of King’s (David Oyelowo) efforts to secure voting rights for African-Americans via a protest march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. King must contend with President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who wants to wait until pressing the issue, squabbling amongst members of various civil rights organizations, and, most dangerous of all, the violent local racists and a thuggish sheriff.
Selma works best as a nuts-and-bolts portrayal of the grunt work needed to accomplish lasting change and the sacrifices that need to be made along the way. It’s a somber film, but one that thankfully avoids the suffocating sense of self-importance that sometimes plagued Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
The issues about voting restrictions are still relevant today, although the historical liberties the film takes with LBJ’s character (White House recordings at the time and King’s own writings prove he was nowhere near the antagonist the film makes him out to be) are troubling. Like a lot of Hollywood historical films, it’s solid entertainment that should be taken with several grains of salt in terms of accuracy.