The new movie Selma, about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's battle to bat down voting laws that disenfranchised black Americans, won't open until Christmas Day, and it will only open in handful of cities then. (It goes wide January 9, 2015, fittingly just one week before Martin Luther King, Jr., Day weekend.)
What's more, the version of the film I saw was a workprint, meaning director Ava DuVernay has yet to completely lock it. But what was there was riveting, moving, and surprisingly rousing for a story where viewers will already know the outcome. It's the sort of movie that will do very well at the Oscars, but for once, it will do so both because of its important subject matter (and it's hard to get more important than the struggle for civil rights) but also because it's a wonderfully made film.
Here are a handful of quick impressions. A full review will follow closer to the film's release date.
1) The film might be about Martin Luther King, Jr., but it's not a traditional biography of him
The closest recent analogue to this film might be Steven Spielberg's terrific 2012 release, Lincoln, which did its level best to demystify the process by which Abraham Lincoln got the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery through Congress. That film celebrated our 16th president by showing him at work. Selma does much the same for King.
Though its narrow focus on King's battle for voting rights can take a bit to adjust to, in the hands of DuVernay, it never feels claustrophobic. Instead, important figures of the time (Malcolm X, Lyndon B. Johnson, etc.) move in and out of the story as they intersect with Selma. King himself briefly leaves the narrative when he needs to go home to spend time with his family. That narrow focus proves all the more effective as the film enters its terrific third act.
2) This movie ends extraordinarily well — and in a way that will play well with Oscar voters
It feels churlish to boil any film down to just its Oscar prospects, but this is the kind of movie that invites those sorts of thoughts. If you want to know how this particular battle of King's turned out, you can always check Wikipedia. But the film's strength lies in how it viscerally depicts things you've heard about in school — like nonviolent resistance or King's tremendous speaking prowess — and makes them feel immediate.
And the film's ending does a great job of indicating that the fight King waged isn't so very far gone from us today, with a song playing over the closing credits that name checks the situation in Ferguson, as if anyone needed further convincing. The Oscars often love movies that talk about history but provide a nod to current issues. Selma fits that description perfectly.
3) David Oyelowo is superb
At a post-screening Q&A, Oyelowo (who plays King) mentioned that in his study of King, he found footage of the man when he was surprised by news cameras and we saw a glimpse of a private King that was much different from the public persona that made him famous.
Oyelowo said he tried to tap into some of that in the film, and it's fascinating to watch how he modulates between the man having quiet, frantic arguments with his wife — so as not to wake the children — and the man who strides into the public sphere and argues forcefully against a corrupt, inhuman system. At times, he seems to almost channel King, and it's occasionally eerie.
4) The film seems drawn from primary sources
As much as possible, the story seems directly taken from official sources. FBI logs of King's activity appear onscreen. President Johnson's conversations with visitors to the Oval Office are often drawn directly from official transcripts. And King's speeches, of course, are exactly as you'd find them online.
If the film struggles, it's in these moments, as the actors can't quite manage to fully inhabit, say, J. Edgar Hoover's veiled threats against King. But both they and viewers settle into the routine as the film leaves its first act, and by the end, they are long since forgotten.
5) DuVernay is making an epic story in close-up
DuVernay, the film's director, comes from the world of independent film and joined the project relatively late in the process. (Brad Pitt's Plan B production company has been trying to get the film made since last decade, and several other directors nearly came on board the project.) But her skills at telling intimate stories about normal people make for a movie where grand, sweeping events are held in the same sort of focus as King's quiet evenings with his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo).
DuVernay said she wanted to strip away what we think we know about King and get down to the man at the center of the legend. She pulls it off by always focusing on the humanity of the man at the center of the story.
6) Also, Lyndon B. Johnson is a major presence
This makes sense, since much of the struggle King undertook was to shame the president into finally introducing legislation to Congress that would normalize voting rights throughout the country. But it's still a little surprising to realize how often Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson with a shit-kicker grin) will enter the story. The scenes in the White House aren't always the film's best aspects (particularly in its first half), but that DuVernay is able to chart Johnson's journey as a parallel to King's is one of the film's sneakiest accomplishments.
7) This is, above all, a story about Martin Luther King, Jr.'s relationships
Selma tracks his relationship with his wife. It tracks his relationship with his friends. It tracks his relationship with the young John Lewis. It tracks his relationship with the president. It understands, above all else, that history is made by people, and that those people are influenced by other people, who attempt to tug them in certain directions. It's a movie about how political power is often won not in a vote or in a legislative chamber, but in two people talking together and finally coming to a kind of agreement.
So many films of this sort look at the big picture and attempt to find smaller moments in it. What makes Selma so unique — and so good — is how it looks at the smaller picture and attempts to find the big picture we already know is there.
Selma opens in select cities December 25. It will open everywhere January 9, 2015. A full review will follow closer to release.