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How "Selma" gets Martin Luther King, Jr., right

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The first time the audience sees Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma, he appears head-on, in a traditional close-up. It's the way we're used to seeing historic figures in films like this — elevated to titans who dominate the frame and our attention.

But then, over the course of the film's two hours, director Ava DuVernay forces us to look at King in new ways. Some of that is in the film's screenplay, which shows us King in unguarded, private moments with his wife and friends. But much of it is simply in how DuVernay presents the man. She shoots him in profile, or isolates him in corners of the frame that seem to emphasize his powerlessness.

In so doing, she underscores something important to remember, in an era when King's successes seem preordained. Nothing here was certain. Everything could have fallen apart so easily. Life, even when it seems to follow the arc of a movie, is never a movie. It cannot be so easily predicted.

By the time we see King in full close-up again, near the film's end, he's come through the fire. He is stronger and wiser for what he has suffered, but success does not erase the suffering.

RELATED: Interviews with the director and the star of Selma

A long-awaited project

There have been rumors of movies about King for decades. His life and accomplishments fit so neatly into the Hollywood biopic format — and would seem such a natural fit for winning lots of Oscars — that it's a little surprising it's taken this long. This is the first movie to follow the man's life story.

But what's impressive about Selma is how little it borrows from the traditional biopic playbook. DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb (who wrote the film's original drafts but was eventually replaced by DuVernay, who wrote the script the film was made from) focus exclusively on the campaign King led in Selma, Alabama, which led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Like earlier biopics Capote and Lincoln, it focuses on a very narrow slice of its subject's life, to give us a better sense of that person as a human being instead of an icon. And like those films, it's as much about process as people, about how political change is sometimes best effected by understanding tactics and keeping one's nose to the grindstone.

King is played with a mesmerizing intensity by British actor David Oyelowo, who worked with DuVernay before on her terrific, low-budget indie Middle of Nowhere. Oyelowo beautifully captures two sides of King's personality: the one we've all seen that draws from the fiery rhetoric of Southern preachers, and the side that was warm and tender and even uncertain in private among friends. The aim is not to reduce King's accomplishments but, rather, to understand how history and destiny pushed him toward a kind of divine mission.

(Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films)

In so doing, it allows viewers to see the fight against injustice as an eternal struggle. The mistake too many biopics make is in suggesting that the evils their protagonists battled against went away after these historic heroes were successful. But injustice has a way of burying itself ever deeper in people's hearts, then coming out in unpredictable, even violent ways. King could crusade to eliminate prejudicial laws; he couldn't eliminate prejudice itself.

In that way and in its interest in how activists can affect the halls of Washington (President Lyndon B. Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson, is a major character), Selma plays almost as a stealth sequel to Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln might have ended slavery by forcing the 13th Amendment through Congress, but the its effects would still be very much in evidence for King to push back against. And then the song that plays over Selma's closing credits mentions the events in Ferguson, and the film's power is all the more evident. That which King struggled against is still present, just ever more deeply buried.

A more intimate focus

The thought of a movie about Martin Luther King, Jr., immediately brings to mind sweeping vistas and sing-alongs of "We Shall Overcome." But from everything I've described so far, it should be clear that DuVernay has far more interest in undercutting those preconceptions than anything else.

She almost had to undercut them. At just $20 million, Selma isn't blessed with the kind of budget that can allow for massive scope, and it fills its cast not with recognizable names (save producer Oprah Winfrey in a small supporting role) but, instead, with some of the world's best character actors.

Wilkinson's Johnson is a man struggling to overcome his own prejudices and largely succeeding, while Tim Roth turns George Wallace into a figure who would inspire comic relief if the things he believed weren't so loathsome. And as Hosea Williams and John Lewis, respectively, Wendell Pierce and Stephan James give King moments of pause and reflection he desperately needs.

DuVernay's intimate focus is best observed in the scenes set in King's marriage to his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo). The director's strongest work is often in these scenes, which subtly reveal how much this film is about relationships and the ways that they push and pull even the greatest people to ever have lived to be better than their best selves. The Kings' marriage is not an easy one, with Martin leaving home for long periods of time and proving unfaithful. But Ejogo finds in Coretta someone who loves her husband for the man he truly is, not just the man the rest of the world sees.

Restoring King's humanity

That intimacy is reflected throughout the film. Bradford Young's cinematography pulls out the tiniest of shifts in facial expressions as the characters think and ponder, always lighting Oyelowo perfectly so even when DuVernay is isolating him over in the frame's corner, we get a sense of King's power and influence. Composer Jason Moran's score opts for sweeping orchestral heft as rarely as possible, choosing, instead, to focus on simple pieces featuring only a handful of instruments. And Ruth E. Carter's costumes beautifully accentuate the characters' relationships to each other and the movement.

By far the best technical work in the film is courtesy of editor Spencer Averick and sound mixer Willie D. Burton, who both allow DuVernay's vision of King's life unfolding almost as a collage of visuals and sounds to take root. There are numerous sequences in this film that unfold less as traditional units of storytelling than as collections of experiences, grafted together in ways that restore something most Americans know primarily from history books to something primal and real.

And isn't that the ultimate mission of the biopic at its best? We tend to think of the genre as a lazy way to win awards and critical respectability, but the very best film biographies are ones that force us to look at famous people all over again, to try to understand what drove them to such greatness. Selma more than does that with King, pulling him away from a figurehead and back toward someone who actually lived and actually fought for the things he believed in.

But, then, in its rousing, riveting, moving conclusion Selma goes even one better than that. King isn't just a great man — though he is that. He's part of a continuum of great human beings who have battled and struggled and pushed for what was right, for a better, more just world. His work isn't done. His work can never be done, because the world is never its best self. Selma isn't a discrete story of one moment in time that we can observe safely from the sidelines. It is all around us, every day. Selma is each and every one of our lives, over and over again. To not fight against the injustices we see is to fail the messages this film conveys.

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