Martin Luther King’s primary antagonist in life was institutional racism. For Selma its a pitched battle against slipping into hagiography. This is a film in which nearly every piece of dialog, whether from the mouth of presidents in the oval office or in the kitchen of a nameless family comes across as high minded oratory. Selma lists a screenwriter but he should be credited as a speechwriter.
The stilted, self-aware dialog misses the opportunity to humanize its chief protagonist. David Oyelowo does masterful work in the lead role, but he’s still handcuffed. King’s philandering, his most prominent sin, is revealed, but Selma never tries to explain why King would falter. His sins are not matched to his character. For all we know they happened before a “Road to Damascus” moment in King’s life. There are a few glimpses of a man that may be susceptible to the trappings of fame, but otherwise fleshing out that portion of the story will have to be taken up in further films. Equally frustrating is the forgiveness his wife offers painfully. Was it out of love and devotion, had she already surrendered her husband to the greater good of his work? Selma gives a fine monologue for her to recite but like everything else it sounds like something chiseled on a statue, not real words from a real person.
But this turns out to be a minor problem in the larger picture. The movie is named “Selma” after all, and isn’t meant as a biography of one man. Instead it plays as a summary of a pivotal moment within the struggle for civil rights, one that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The great strength of the feature is watching how the various organizations enmeshed with each other while in service of their larger goal. How their various philosophies and tactics interplayed.
Contrasting with the measured speeches in unrealistic the sense of danger around the events in Selma feel particularly realistic. The violence seems to follow its characters even as they try to flee the main plot. It undercuts the most realistic dialog, it betrays the calm moments, and sneaks up behind the set piece moments when most other features would pause to catch their breath and marvel at their accomplishment.
Martin Luther King remains a complex man, one who’s only been occasionally vetted in narrative film. Each account of the him seemingly stands in contrast with another. Taken together they form a portrait of a complex man, but in isolation fail to account for his full measure.