Perhaps it's best to start where "Selma" ends, with the song "Glory," in which hip-hop artist Common raps, "Resistance is us./That's why Rosa sat on the bus./That's why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up." Given that the film premiered November 11, just two weeks before a grand jury announced its decision not to indict the police officer who shot and killed black teenager Michael Brown, "Selma" strikes a timely chord in the ongoing struggle for African-American civil rights.
"Selma" isn't a Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic, something that has still eluded Hollywood (and thank King's heirs for that). But it is the first feature film to put King front and center as protagonist, and it stands an excellent chance of educating a generation about the hard work and imagination required for political change. Paul Webb's screenplay and Ava DuVernay's film begin as King (British actor David Oyelowo) readies, in Oslo, to accept the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. King frets about the pomp and wishes he were doing something more active about the climate that allows hate crimes (the Birmingham bombing, searingly revived in flashback) and voter discrimination (illustrated by Oprah Winfrey's Annie Lee Cooper being denied yet another voter registration application).
The stage set, "Selma" sets out to tell the tale of how King was the calm center of the stormy three-month period in 1965 that built to three Selma-to-Montgomery protest marches and culminated in President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act. Oyelowo commendably wears King's public face (the actor's weight gain for the role contributes to a startling change of appearance), though King feels more enshrined than full-blooded in "Selma"'s treatment.
When "Selma" is on the ground, cataloging the strategizing of (and tensions between) the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, it's at its most useful: John Lewis (Stephan James), James Bevel (Common), and Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) appear as key figures in a movement that wasn't King's alone. We also follow the civil rights leader to significantly high and low destinations: the Oval Office (for Mexican standoffs with Tom Wilkinson's sympathetic but hesitant and irritable LBJ) and a jail cell (where Nigel Thatch's Malcolm X visits and offers to be the scary alternative to answering King's demands).
It says something, though, that I sat down with a steady stream of coffee to watch "Selma" and still found it sleepy. At times, DuVernay's film plays like a talking textbook, with a slow cadence at that. The dialogue is speechy even when King isn't behind a podium (don't get me started on the dramatically D.O.A. scene about King's infidelity), and the characters' frustrations feel less like functions of humanity than illustrations of a thesis. Perhaps that's for the best -- there's a certain rigor to it, and DuVernay's general sense of stylistic restraint befits King, just as Spike Lee's fire complemented his "Malcolm X" -- but a story like "Selma" would've benefited from more passion or energy in its writing if not its filmmaking.
All in all, though, "Selma" is wet paint Americans (especially young ones) had probably best watch dry, as we remember the past and contemplate where the country goes from here.
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language. Two hours, 7 minutes.