Moving, didactic and unsurprising. The film suffers from what I call the Milk syndrome, a heartfelt fealty to its subject so strong it obliterates any sense of authenticity. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) is etched in marble, and marble is both beautiful and boring. While the film is occasionally poignant, we are left with its one-dimensional hero, colorless acolytes (Coretta Scott King and everyone who works with King) and cartoonish villains (Tom Wilkinson’s LBJ and Dylan Baker’s Herbert Hoover are particularly ridiculous).
The film’s best moments come when King is not ennobled, but crafty, as when he explains to two Selma locals why he needs to elicit violent repression from the authorities for publicity purposes; King as tactician is just more interesting than King as emblem.
The worst moments come in quiet discussions, where the activists trade speeches littered with biblical passages and maxims like “eyes on the prize.” There are too many long sermons provided to educate an audience director-writer Ana DuVernay doesn’t trust (a conversation between Coretta and her husband about his infidelities has a reserved dignity that is otherworldly).
In a film punctuated by Oyelowo’s expert recitations of King’s actual speeches, the effect is tiresome. The characters are in the middle of a pressure-cooker maelstrom, uncertain as to which road to take, hemmed in by any number of political and social forces, and beset by violence at any turn. Yet, they are reduced to the roles of resolute and/or suffering nobles. When one black man wants to go get his gun after the marchers have been brutally bloodied, he is met with a sermon on the foolhardiness of his instincts and its effect on their historic struggle. After an ass-beating, it’s a rare man who can summon a soliloquy.
The film is beautifully photographed. Cinematographer Bradford Young (who, in A Most Violent Year, captured early 80s NYC) employs a lyrical, classic style he describes as a “period, Kodachrome-esque look.” The effect creates memorable moments, some stunning.
But pretty isn’t enough.