‘Selma’: History lesson moves gracefully from brutality to tenderness

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All she wants to do is register to vote. She is an American citizen, and it is her right.

The woman is Annie Lee Cooper, black. The registrar is white.

The place is Selma, Alabama, in the mid-1960s.

It’s clear this isn’t the first time the woman has tried this. The registrar practically snarls at her and begins asking her questions.

“How many county judges in Alabama?”

“Sixty-seven,” Ms. Cooper answers.

“Name them,” says the registrar.

This is one of the early scenes in Ava DuVernay’s “Selma.” Annie Lee Cooper is played by Oprah Winfrey (it’s a strong performance), and there is something excellent and beautiful in seeing arguably the most popular and certainly one of the most powerful women in the world reminding us of how far we’ve come in the last half-century.

And yet the marches and protests from Ferguson to Chicago to New York tell us how far we still have to go. The making of “Selma” couldn’t have been more prescient.

Related: David Oyelowo on the challenges of channeling Dr. King

The civil rights movement of the 1960s has been the setting for dozens of films, but rarely has a movie so perfectly captured a specific, historic and crucial stretch of time.

Working from a script by Paul Webb and aided by stark, beautiful, sometimes startlingly realistic cinematography by Bradford Young, DuVernay has delivered a powerful and moving portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. as he fights to get President Lyndon Baines Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act.

The British actor David Oyelowo, who bears a passing physical resemblance to King, does a magnificent job of inhabiting the character without it ever devolving into impersonation. Oyelowo’s King is deeply spiritual and highly motivated, but he’s no saint. “Selma” doesn’t gloss over King’s many infidelities; in fact, his indiscretions become a major plot point in the film, with Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) telling her husband he needs to get his house in order, and if that means taking a break from changing the world, so be it.

Tom Wilkinson is a great actor, but he’s not the first person who comes to mind to portray Lyndon Baines Johnson. It’s an interesting performance, but Wilkinson never quite captures LBJ’s oversized swagger. Still, when LBJ and Dr. King argue in the Oval Office, with tempers escalating and voices rising, it’s a thing to watch.

(The British actor Tim Roth plays Alabama governor George Wallace. So both Kings, the president of the United States and the governor of Alabama are played by Brits.)

Even though the events of “Selma” take place over only about 90 days, DuVernay touches myriad bases and does it with a fine sense of pacing. In addition to the battles in the White House, King has to preside over disagreements within the movement, especially among younger activists who don’t have his patience and his absolute belief in non-violence. A scene in which Mrs. King meets with Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch, brilliant in a five-minute role) yields surprising results.

Even something as simple as a montage of Americans — black and white — watching the horrors in Selma, as marchers are brutally beaten by law enforcement officers is rendered so perfectly, it will no doubt move some viewers to tears.

Some of those protest marches are painful to watch. To see men and women of all ages brutally pummeled because they are walking in unison to be allowed to vote is gruesome business. Their right to vote was the law. And yet those who were sworn to uphold the law committed criminal acts of extreme violence because of the hatred and ignorance in their hearts.

Tim Roth captures George Wallace’s oily, snake-like persona. Dylan Baker’s J. Edgar Hoover is an underhanded schemer. Carmen Ejogo’s Coretta Scott King is a beautiful, supportive but also independent woman who is as dedicated to her family as her husband is to his cause. Familiar faces such as Cuba Gooding Jr., Martin Sheen, Common and Wendell Pierce have memorable cameos playing real-life players in this 1965 drama.

David Oyelowo deserves Oscar consideration for his layered performance as a great man with very human failings. Whether he’s delivering a fiery sermon, rallying his forces, acknowledging his sins to his wife or staying the course of non-violence, Oyelowo’s Dr. King feels authentic. It’s not a tribute. It’s a fully realized performance.

Ava DuVernay should also receive awards consideration for the versatility of her storytelling. She moves gracefully and powerfully from the White House to Selma, from kitchens to the Edmund Pettus Bridge from scenes of great tenderness to scenes of unimaginable brutality.

“Selma” is an important history lesson that never feels like a lecture. Once school is back in session, every junior high school class in America should take a field trip to see this movie.

[s3r star=4/4]

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb. Running time: 127 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment and brief strong language). Opens Thursday at AMC River East 21 and Kerasotes Showplace Icon.

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