Ava DuVernay's quietly remarkable Selma, in addition to being a meticulously detailed historical drama, is the right movie for the moment: In telling the story of the three marches — from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama — led by Martin Luther King in 1965 as a protest against restrictions that prevented African Americans from registering to vote, DuVernay has also opened a window of hope on the present. If change was painful then, we shouldn’t expect it to be easy now.
DuVernay has pulled off a tricky feat, a movie based on historical events that never feels dull, worthy, or lifeless; it hangs together as a story and not just part of a lesson plan. The movie is at once intimate and grand in scope: An early scene shows Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey), who would become a voting rights activist, trying to register in her home county and being turned away, stymied by a blockade of absurd regulations. Another shows Martin Luther King in the Oval Office conferring with Lyndon B. Johnson (a superb Tom Wilkinson), urging the president to push forward with the Voting Rights Act.
Selma lays out the challenges faced by organizers and regular citizens alike in planning and executing the marches. On their first attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they’re run down and clubbed by Sheriff Jim Clark and a phalanx of policemen on horseback; the cops descend upon the peaceful marchers, many of them elderly, kicking and beating them with batons. DuVernay proves both discreet and vigorous in her orchestration of violence, emphasizing its horror without beating the audience up.