A fascinating biopic of an episode in the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King (an excellent performance by David Oyelowo in a breakthrough role), the movie focuses on the period just after he receives the Nobel Peace Prize when his team of civil rights advocates in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference descend on Selma, Alabama to protest illegal restrictions on the registration of black voters. This is a great film driven by a great story with multiple layers of conflict. There’s the obvious bloody conflict between the protestors and the white police, bureaucrats and thugs who oppose them (including Tim Roth, wonderfully loathsome as Alabama governor George Wallace). There is interesting conflict between MLK and President Lyndon B. Johnson, who is portrayed as an obstructionist who had to be dragged via Dr. King’s savvy media tactics into implementing voting reforms.
The conflict within the movement is at least as interesting, with the bruised egos of the local activists as Dr. King’s team takes over, the tension to keep their actions non-violent in the face of the murderous response from whites, and the relationship tension between King and his wife Coretta.
The role of women in this very male-dominated story told by a female director (Ava DuVernay, the first black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe award) is interesting. Coretta King is the only prominently featured female character, and her main plot point is a classic stand-by-your-man dilemma. The most powerful black woman in show business, Oprah Winfrey, is cast in a near-silent cameo role. Is this a comment on women being sidelined in the civil rights movement? The film is curiously disinterested in positioning Dr. King and his methods in the larger social justice context of the twentieth century, referencing neither Mahatma Gandhi who inspired MLK’s non-violent methods, nor second-wave feminist protests which were inspired in turn by King’s strategies. Also completely absent are any LGBT characters, although one wonders about the two attractive young male local activists in snug knit tops who have passionate debates about politics but are seemingly girlfriend-less. Intersectional failings notwithstanding, a quite wonderful movie.