Selma passes its true-life tests as a well-crafted tale

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      Starring David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo. Rated PG. 

      Given the vividness of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, voice, and legacy, it was hard to imagine anyone capturing a fraction of that presence on-screen. Surprisingly, Selma manages to ace its tricky true-life tests and operate as a thoughtful, well-crafted entertainment in its own right.

      The film’s most obvious plus is in having England’s round-faced David Oyelowo as the key figure of the U.S. civil-rights struggle. But more was needed than verisimilitude, and fortunately the film—which had slipped through the hands of directors like Steven Spielberg and Spike Lee—ended up with Ava DuVernay, a veteran publicist with minimal feature-making experience but maximal commitment to the integrity of a far too easily compromised project.

      Credited to Paul Webb but heavily rewritten by DuVernay, the script concentrates on a key moment in the struggle, galvanized by King’s 1963 march on Washington, then dampened by the premonitory murder of JFK that fall, which came soon after the church bombing that killed four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama. This part of the sadly ongoing tale begins a year later, with King and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference pondering where to make a stand for the voting rights of poor black folks, widely denied access to the polls throughout the segregated South.

      Finally, it was decided to march, in early ’65, from tiny Selma to nearby Montgomery, where peaceful protesters were met by dogs, water cannons, tear gas, clubs, fists, and guns—as widely seen on national television. Much of the quietly crafted film, however, is devoted to behind-the-scenes discussions between King and others. These include his wife (fellow Brit Carmen Ejogo is only slightly more glamorous than the real Coretta Scott King), to whom he wasn’t exactly a perfect husband—something cruelly exploited by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (played, in a poor fit, by tall, skinny Dylan Baker).

      The other odd casting choice is Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon Baines Johnson; the veteran character actor offers a weak approximation of LBJ’s famously foul-mouthed Texas drawl and ends up undercutting his dominating personality in the many scenes negotiating with King. Tim Roth, however, does an effective turn as Alabama’s reptilian governor George Wallace. And Nigel Thatch has one potent scene as Malcolm X, who put aside earlier differences to support the nonviolent King.

      The generally sharp screenplay also overstates the Vietnam-mired president’s reluctance to push forth his landmark Voting Rights Act, which arrived soon after the third march to Montgomery—and was unceremoniously gutted last year by the Supreme Court, pouring more poison on a land that, 50 years later, can add “Ferguson” to the name Selma, without anything resembling pride.