Ellen DeGeneres's best joke at the Academy Awards ceremony last year was to tell the assembled members that there were two possibilities that night: either 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture, or "you're all racists." It did win, of course, but the joke zeroed in on the role of politics in the Academy Awards. It does not seem likely that the same concerns will come into play this year with Selma, Ava DuVernay's feature about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life in the period surrounding the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. The King family has expressed its opposition to the film's portrayal of the civil rights leader, in a strong performance by David Oyelowo, and the screenplay by first-time writer Paul Webb therefore does not use any actual words spoken by King, out of fear of the family's unrelenting copyright control. The film has too many weaknesses to win Best Film, but it might win the only other award for which it was nominated, Best Original Song for Glory, by John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn, as consolation prize.
The story opens with King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and follows him through the struggle to convince President Lyndon Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act. Without a doubt, the film's most powerful moments are the crowd-scene dramatizations of the iconic struggles of that year, none more than the fight to be allowed to have a march walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma and take the road to Montgomery. DuVernay trades away some of that power in the inclusion of some big names in small cameo roles: Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper, trying to register to vote in Alabama and being turned away, only later to clock the local sheriff in the head; Tim Roth as the unbending, bigoted governor, George Wallace; Cuba Gooding, Jr., as the civil rights attorney Fred Gray. The runaway performance of the film is the towering, foul-mouthed Lyndon Johnson of Tom Wilkinson (The Debt), who manages to make the viewer understand and even sympathize with the concessions necessary in politics. Carmen Ejogo brings a certain dignity to the role of King's long-suffering wife, but without much to distinguish the performance.
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What the film and its star, David Oyelowo, do well is to bring King back down from the pedestal, the pharaonic leader depicted on his monument on the National Mall. We see him cracking jokes, smoking a cigarette, doubting himself and others, and there is no cover given to his own weaknesses, sexual and otherwise, that come close to destroying him. One of the more authentic touches is to narrate the film through the device of type-set notices from the FBI surveillance of King, all part of J. Edgar Hoover's preparation of a case that could be launched against King, whom he saw as a degenerate agitator, in the court of public opinion. So much was riding on an imperfect organization and on imperfect leaders, making the man's achievements all the more remarkable.