“Selma,” Reviewed: He Had a Dream.

David Oyelowo in 'Selma.' (Paramount Pictures)

David Oyelowo in ‘Selma.’ (Paramount Pictures)

Early in The Untouchables (1987), director Brian DePalma constructs a quaintly banal Depression-era scene in which a young girl enters a corner market, carries on an innocent exchange with the shopkeeper – and is horrifyingly struck down with a sudden act of violence. That sequence could be dropped whole into a filmmaker’s textbook, both for its narrative skills at establishing the vital stakes for the story that will follow and for its cinematic canniness at riveting our focus to the screen. Pay attention, it tells us, because this is the casually brutal world in which these characters live.

If such a textbook exists, director Ava DuVernay has absorbed every page. Her third feature, Selma (rated PG-13), is a stirring account of a crucial few months in the civil rights battles of the 1960s, imbued with all the respectful dignity that such a subject demands. It’s a riveting biopic of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the undisputed leader of that historic movement, embodied here by the British actor David Oyelowo without prosthetic makeup or even King’s own legendary speeches to lean on. The rights to rhetorical masterpieces like King’s “I Have a Dream” speech are now in the hands of Steven Spielberg for an MLK film to be named later, and yet Oyelowo rises to the occasion with a performance of gravitas and mortality – a grand turn, working without a net.

More than anything, though, Selma is just a great film, constructed with sincerity and the knowing perspective of an auteur who’s fluent in the craft of cinematic storytelling. Understanding that traditional film histories can be boring, she deftly sidesteps that pitfall by bringing us into the middle of the story: The film opens with King accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, circa 1964, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. (In movie terms, Selma is the Empire Strikes Back of the civil rights movement.)

Of course, King’s work was far from over. The ink is still wet on his passport when he arrives back at the White House to grapple with Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) on next-step legislation that will force southern states to simply register Black voters instead of concocting barriers to their equal rights. Passage of that bill becomes the film’s narrative objective and the motivation behind its dramatic centerpiece, a series of attempts to stage a protest march across 50 virulently racist miles between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama.

As with Spielberg’s not-quite-biopic Lincoln, Selma explores the life of its human subject mostly through the lens of a specific historical event; this shows us the man in action rather than forcing us to kill time watching him spend his early days preparing for a life of greatness. It has the added benefit of providing exposition through conversations – between King and his trusted advisors, many of whom weren’t afraid to tell a great man when he wasn’t being so great; between King and LBJ, with POTUS evincing a politician’s utterly credible unwillingness to cede his executive authority to a civilian*; and between Johnson and his fellow politicos, including a menacing J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) and the positively reptilian Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth).

(*Historians have mounted a protest of their own against this depiction of LBJ, saying DuVernay and co-screenwriter Paul Webb took liberties. I’ll leave the question of a film’s obligations to absolute historical accuracy for another day; in this case, it doesn’t affect Selma’s overall power.)

These scenes of political gamesmanship serve as the huddles before the action takes to the field – whether with King at a church or on a dais, his powers of oratory turned up to their legendary 11; or on the streets of Selma, where DuVernay portrays violent expressions of southern racism with blistering intensity. A scene early on echoes DePalma’s Untouchables moment in its out-of-nowhere horror; in another sequence, the retaliation of white Alabama troopers against King’s marchers during the first attempted Selma-Montgomery march is filmed as a kind of obscenely violent poetry that recalls the classic Odessa Steps scene in Battleship Potemkin (1925) for its portrayal of human suffering as a civic act.

Above all, Selma articulates the humanity of the figures who are now so much larger than life – none more than King himself, played by Oyelowo as a flawed man who loved his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) but let her down all the same, and who viewed his life’s work as a privilege and a wearying responsibility. It’s hard to believe that it’s taken Hollywood 50 years to craft a full-on cinematic tribute to this man’s life – but DuVernay’s sturdy masterwork is almost enough to make us feel it’s been worth the wait.