One thing Selma handled masterfully is violence, the foreboding of violence, the insinuation of violence held back. In the aftermath of the first confrontation on Edmund Pettus Bridge, a young lady evades the blows of a state trooper's billy club (which, because he's a government employee, is not studded with nails) by fleeing through the fog of canned smoke that envelops the marchers. It does not stop the police from hitting their targets, again, and again, and again. The fog is not thick enough to create the mystical effect of white terror materializing from thin air, but in fact that is what happens again and again and again. At any moment, a bullet, a bomb or a billy club could take one of the activists by surprise. The curtain that covers the kitchen door window in the modest King household (which resembles to a tee any modern, well-kept Southern bungalow) do not reach all the way down the pane. Every time they spoke in that kitchen I thought, What if someone was watching them in the night through that open sliver?
Selma opens on a montage that charges the plot with its key elements: the denial of voting rights to blacks in Selma; Lyndon Baines' reticence to capitulate to the civil rights movement; Dr. King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize; and most shockingly, the bombing of a black church in which some children are killed. This scene is a real triumph of cinematic terror. The publicity surrounding the film makes note of this sad beginning. Because you know it's going to happen, but not exactly when, your stomach sinks further and further, descending the staircase into hell, until you expect it so strongly at any moment that suspense loses all meaning and you are left completely unprepared. (My hand shot up on its own at the moment of explosion, but I'm a flincher.)
After a bright, punchy welcome at a local hotel, Dr. King is convinced by local activists that Selma is the perfect staging ground for a protest concerning voting rights because of its especially virulent racism and the bulldog personality of Sheriff Jim Clark. In their first encounter you'll find a deep parallel to the protests of today: the Selma locals stop in front of the courthouse in the static pose of someone submitting to arrest, but are beaten viciously all the same. Later on the bridge they will be read the riot act over a loudspeaker for a completely peaceful protest about voting rights, which, King deftly explains to Lyndon Johnson, is ultimately about police power. King has the privileged position of having the President's ear, but not his obeisance, which earns him the moniker of 'modern day Uncle Tom' from Malcolm X. When Johnson and King have their interviews, you get the impression perhaps that Johnson thinks King to be naïve, that he'd like to call him boy perhaps (watch the shoulder pat!).
Thanks to the clever use of titles filled with what I presume are FBI archives, we see that King is under invisible surveillance and learn of his marital problems. During the discussion when Corretta and Martin confront his infidelity, you could have heard a pin drop in the (admittedly small) audience. I attempted to chew the cinnamon crisp from my sundae as quietly as possible (it was delicious, thank you for asking). On other technical points the film suffers many quiet failures. The original score is not of the same caliber as the rest of the film; it entreats you procedurally on what to feel during each moment, brutally contours the arc of each scene and, while being neither memorable nor beautiful is seemingly omnipresent. The number of characters is Too Damn High™. This is a historical film, and suffers from the well-intended mistake of personally introducing every major figure for Posterity, even if they have few unique contributions to the Plot. It's like keeping track of all 67 Alabama county judges!
On the other hand, David Oyewolo is electric as King. I don't know much if anything about the civil rights movement, but anyone will recognize the authentic 'warble' in his voice, from I Have a Dream. I had a hard time believing King did not actually make any of the speeches in the movie, he was so good. Tom Wilkinson also has a meaty, twisty role to play in Lyndon Johnson. Very good accents and a general sense of purpose help mask over the functional performances of much of the other cast members (and it is not their fault, they are given little to work with!)
A very-good but not deeply satisfying film, still, the most urgent and time-sensitive.