About Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) and the civil rights struggles in 1965 in Selma Alabama. King organizes a march for the right to vote. About the persecution of black people by southern whites led by George Wallace (Tim Roth). Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom wilkinson) tries to put off civil rights to a later date. FBI chief Hoover (Dylan Baker) tries to slander King. Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) is the scarier alternative to King’s non violence. Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King.
Selma commendably avoids the sentimental trap of epiphanous moments on the self congratulatory road to liberal democratic heaven. There is no ambushing of the film by a white film star (as there might have been until recently). David Oyelowo avoids the sort of statuesque dignity which would turn King into a black Lincoln. He has affairs and is humanly flawed yet is a powerful presence. His funeral and political ovations are musical and stirring. His decision to ‘retreat’ after the second march on the Edmond Pettus bridge is all the more impressive for its subtle selflessness. The focal scene in Selma is the march on the bridge, its role as a symbol is obvious. In numerous films bridges have been critical meeting points and the reality of that is bloodily illustrated in Selma. Malcolm X is there to act as a reminder that radical opinion might view non violence as an Uncle Tom tactic, that martyrdom was a useless gesture in the face of white power, speaking of which, Lyndon Johnston does look as cynically self serving as any politician condescendingly acknowledging that civil rights is morally fine but not an immediate priority. J Edgar Hoover looks like a well groomed rat and behaves like one. Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King also avoids the stereotype of purse lipped dignity foisted on so many black actors in these sort of films. The Kings have to deal with the simplified image of the good man of poetic rheetoric and the reality of a middle class couple caught up in the terrors of civil rights and the emotional torments of marital infidelity. There is a memorable scene at the beginning of Selma in which Oprah Winfrey is asked to prove her eligibility in registering for the vote. She’s undone by the simple malice of institutionalised injustice. A triumphant film.