Since films based on fact are controversial, perhaps we should stop making them. “Selma,” an ambitious, deeply moving drama about the 1960s civil rights movement, has triggered a noisy quarrel, just as pseudo-true-story Oscar contenders “Zero Dark Thirty’ and “Argo” did a couple of years ago.
“Selma,” which has already received four Golden Globe nominations, opens with the Rev. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo, right) and his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), dressing formally to receive his Nobel Peace Prize. It shifts quickly to scenes of an ongoing war against black Americans.
We observe a horrific attack on a Birmingham church, then a racist registrar rejecting an application by a woman (Oprah Winfrey) whose right to vote he has repeatedly denied. Director Ava DuVernay makes every spoken scene and visual frame sharply composed. This is a film that will flesh out every facet.
“Selma” is a stunning surface-level exploration of King’s groundbreaking 1965 voting-rights march from Selma, Ala., across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, to the State Capitol in Montgomery. Oyelowo’s piercing eyes empower a lead performance of pure gravitas. What Daniel Day-Lewis did for Lincoln, Oyelowo does for King, mimicking his behavior and speech uncannily. He is both completely believable and someone we’ve never encountered before.
Oyelowo presents King at his highs: a respected minister, a controversial activist pulling political strings, a popular hero galvanizing Southern blacks into battalions seeking reform. And we see him at his lows, leading hundreds of Selma followers into riot-geared police squads that attack them as if they were pushing treason. Even when it shows King as a scapegoat, adulterer and martyr, “Selma” presents him with care that would have made its subject proud. A powerful scene in which he comforts a man who has just lost a grandson to police brutality is touching to the point of tears.
“Selma’s” missteps come only during a few brief, too-deep excursions into the Oval Office. Fans of Lyndon B. Johnson are angry that “Selma” shows the president, absorbed by the unwinnable Vietnam War, less focused than King on creating federal mandates to ban every factor denying the black population’s right to vote. Johnson is shown ordering the ongoing smear campaign by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, who secretly wiretapped King’s every move.
“Selma” plays fast and loose with those facts, which are, at most, 5 percent of its story. The authorization for King’s notorious surveillance came from Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1963. Johnson considered the Voting Rights Act of 1965, created in cordial cooperation with King, his greatest legislative achievement. The film does not present itself as a documentary. It is drama inspired by history, with all of a drama’s need for shorthand. Johnson never literally told King, “You’ve got one problem, I’ve got 101,” but the film’s use of it feels outrageous only if you haven’t seen the incendiary performances by Tom Wilkinson and Oyelowo.
What is unquestionably true is that “Selma’s” makers have created a work of art that speaks their conscience. While it embellishes, it also presents insightful honesty. If it’s not perfect, it’s far better than countless spurious films in which Hollywood has rewritten history. If we examine “Selma” as film using artistic license on its own terms, not as propaganda or journalism, it is outstandingly good. Brilliantly acted, beautifully shot, emotionally touching and filled with stunning action set pieces, its achievements are not to be scoffed at. It sees the world in colors richer than black and white.