Directed By: Ava DuVernay

Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Lorraine Toussaint, Common, Giovanni Ribisi, Omar Dorsey, Andre Holland, Niecy Nash, Colman Domingo, Wendell Pierce, Tessa Thompson, Keith Stanfield, Stephan James, Alessandro Nivola, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Martin Sheen, Tom Wilkinson, and Oprah Winfrey

"A state trooper pointed the gun, but he did not act alone.
He was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff who practices lawlessness in the name of law.

He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician, from governors on down, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism.

He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam and cannot protect the rights of its own citizens seeking the right to vote.

He was murdered by the indifference of every white minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of his stained-glass windows.

And he was murdered by the cowardice of every Negro who passively accepts the evils of segregation and stands on the sidelines in the struggle for justice.
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Eulogy for Jimmie Lee Jackson

Sometimes films about the past illuminate the present.  Michael Brown.  Eric Garner.  Tamir Rice.  The murders of these black males at the hands of the boys in blue and the justice system's pathological inability to actually deliver justice have mobilized a movement in recent months.  They have awakened citizens who are tired of injustices being swept under the rug time and time again by those officers, prosecutors, and politicians who could care less about the heinous acts committed upon African-Americans by the very individuals who swore to protect and serve.  With all the protests and die-ins taking place around the country, it's abundantly clear that it's time for these individuals to perform their duties recognizing that black lives matter or step aside.  As I watched a reenactment of Dr. King's eulogy for civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson in the period film Selma, King's words about how a community bears responsibility for the crimes of those who represent it ring just as true some 50 years later.

Though the nation has certainly changed over the last half century, it's impossible not to watch Selma through the lens of very recent American history.  The inhumane acts of a few police officers today are far from a hateful army of officers acting in the name of white supremacy back in the day.  That being said, there are valuable lessons to be learned in Selma that inform the crises of today.  Director Ava DuVernay showcases the heroes that stood up during the Civil Rights Movement and protested for the right to vote in this tense, riveting period piece.  DuVernay's decision to elevate the ordinary heroes of yesterday highlights the potential shortcomings of the people today.  Just look to Ferguson where voter registration barely inched upward this past fall after all that's taken place.

After passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) would like to move on from the Civil Rights Movement and focus on the War on Poverty.  Activist Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) have something different in mind.  Desegregation and civil rights are hardly milestones in the movement if the Negro still lacks the right to vote.  Though the power of the ballot is a constitutional right, it's a nonexistent one in the face of poll taxes, literacy tests, and all other vile means of keeping blacks away from the voting booth.  As such, Dr. King asks President Johnson to sponsor legislation to ensure that everyone has the right to vote without any type of obstruction.  When the president promptly refuses, Dr. King decides to provoke a response.  He decides to march on Selma.

Now that negotiations have failed with the president, Dr. King and the SCLC decide to demonstrate in Selma, Alabama, a city ripe for protests.  With a hot-headed sheriff like Jim Clark (Stan Houston) at the reins, the demonstrations are certain to make headlines.  To augment the effort, the SCLC is looking to partner with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  While member John Lewis (Stephan James) is ready to support the movement, James Forman (Trai Byers) does not exactly welcome Dr. King and the SCLC with open arms.  As the demonstrations begin and Sheriff Clark plays right into Dr. King's hand, the cameras are rolling.  The resistance is raging.  The world is watching, including President Johnson and Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth).  Meanwhile, tensions surface at home for Dr. King.  His wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) is weary from wading through a dense, dangerous fog in which her husband is constantly on the road and prodding the hateful underbelly of America.

A standard biopic would try to capture the life of a historic figure in its entirety in a single film, and this is often not the mark of greatness.  Despite the short time that Dr. King walked this earth, he is a towering figure in history, and it would be just about impossible to do justice to his journey in two to three hours.  This is why I respect the fact that DuVernay chooses to focus on a moment in the Civil Rights Movement in Selma.  It allows her to thoroughly explore this point in American history.  It allows her to fully explore these historic figures in a rather thorough character study.  Moreover, it allows her to knock Selma out of the park.

At the heart of Selma, there's a public relations war unfolding.  When the cameras are rolling, it's time for the people of this city to negotiate, demonstrate, and resist those that would do them harm and prevent them from fully contributing to society.  It's engrossing to watch this take place all over again on the big screen.  With an appropriately vitriolic performance from Tim Roth as George Wallace, a thunderous characterization of President Johnson by Tom Wilkinson, and a noble, conflicted depiction of Dr. King by David Oyelowo, DuVernay has everything she needs to recreate this three-way media battle in suspenseful fashion.

The march from Selma to Montgomery is more than just this PR war, however.  It is one complicated beast.  With is in mind, DuVernay also brings other heroes to the forefront in Selma, those that don't necessarily get the attention they deserve in the history books.  Just look to Keith Stanfield and Henry G. Sanders's heartbreaking performances as Jimmie Lee Jackson and Cager Lee respectively.  Look to the silent strength of Amelia Boynton Robinson, who is stolidly portrayed by Lorraine Toussaint.  Look to Stephan James and his passionate conviction as SNCC's John Lewis.  You can even look to Tara Ochs in her quiet, wistful bit role as the late Viola Liuzzo.  With these supporting performances and many more, DuVernay tackles a range of issues such as police brutality, the fractious relationship between the SCLC and SNCC, and the physical and emotional toll that the Civil Rights Movement took on its heroes.

As much as the film is about the movement, it's also about the life and times of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  David Oyelowo certainly does his part in bringing Dr. King back to life on the big screen.  With incredible make-up, he has the right look.  With that slow southern drawl reminiscent of the beloved Baptist preacher, he has the right voice.  With the soul of a conflicted leader tormented by the penalty the movement assesses on its participants but invigorated by the notion of a people reclaiming its dignity, he has the right mentality.  It's not just Dr. King who is brought back to life in Selma, however.  It's also Coretta Scott King, and Carmen Ejogo does an outstanding job in portraying this strong black woman.  As her character navigates the horrors of living constantly under the threat of death and worrying about her husband's well-being, Ejogo brings an undeniable intensity to the screen every time she's on camera.  With a commanding performance, she has a presence that is felt throughout the film.

I've always firmly believed that protesting is never enough.  We can make politicians and officials feel as uncomfortable as we want.  At the end of the day, however, it's about having the power to decide one's own fate.  It's about the ability to pick up a ballot and vote.  The protests have to translate into votes.  Otherwise, it's meaningless.  For many who view Selma, I hope this is how Ava DuVernay's journey into the past illuminates your present state of mind and your actions in future election years.  This movie is the kind of wake-up call this country needs for this problem plaguing communities around the country.  It's our duty and responsibility to make sure injustices like those committed upon Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice don't happen again.  Another life is one too many.  Selma gets a sober rating.