The tendrils reach us today

Okay, seriously: how has Martin Luther King Jr. never been the focus of a major film before? Selma is a biopic whose time is long overdue, and fortunately for us, it’s worth the wait. Director Ava DuVernay paints the story behind the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with broad, unflinching strokes. Don’t know much about civil rights history? DuVernay’s going to do more than teach you—she’s going to put your heart right there on the street.

Selma brings the stakes of being black in the American South to life with horrific clarity.

The film focuses on the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965, held to protest the Jim Crow laws keeping black Americans from being able to register to vote. As Martin Luther King Jr. David Oyelowo does not resemble King so much as he embodies him. Everything from the way he modulates his voice to the shape of his lips when deep in thought adds to his convincing portrayal. The film shows King as a man exhausted by years of living under the shadow of death. He doubts and second-guesses his own decisions, but never wavers from his deepest conviction: that their cause is just and his role in it is clear.

Carmen Ejogo shines as Coretta Scott King, who has her own doubts and struggles. It isn’t easy raising four children at home by yourself while your husband travels the country and fights the world. Corrie walks a careful balance—she supports the movement, but the welfare of her children and her husband comes first, which does not always make for a harmonious marriage.

It’s easy to think of the non-violent civil rights movement as a single force led by Dr. King, with a few dissenting voices like Malcolm X arguing for more aggressive action. Selma shatters that assumption, illuminating the uncertainties, the competing organizations, egos, and tragedies that threatened to derail progress and ultimately makes the movement’s accomplishments all the more remarkable.

As for the film’s powerful speeches, they sound so much like King it may come as a surprise to learn they are paraphrased versions of the originals, rewritten to avoid violating copyright protection. (The King estate granted the film rights to his speeches to a different film company in 2010 for a movie that was never made.) It’s a shame petty legalities stood in the way of audiences hearing King’s real words, but also an immense credit to DuVernay, who wrote the speeches herself after hours of studying King’s speech patterns and tendencies.

A stellar supporting cast features actors like Tom Wilkinson (Lyndon Johnson), Tim Roth, and producer Oprah Winfrey, who is nearly unrecognizable in her role as lesser-known activist Annie Lee Cooper. Some actors, like Cuba Gooding Jr. and Martin Sheen, appear in roles so small they make the film feel bigger in comparison.

Selma has been criticized for portraying former President Johnson as obstructionist, when many Johnson historians describe him as King’s staunch partner in the civil rights movement. As with so many things, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Johnson may have been dead certain about his position on the issue, but he was also president, with demands coming at him from all directions.

Regardless of how accurate the Oval Office scenes are, the rest of Selma brings the stakes of being black in the American South to life with horrific clarity. These are not sentences in a text book. They are not even grainy news images from a bygone era. The atrocities portrayed in Selma bring modern-day audiences as close as they can get to the oppressive humiliation and fear that hounded black Americans on a daily basis—an important reality to understand when the tendrils of that fear and distrust still reach into today.

Selma is rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language.