'Selma' Manages To Be Both Passion-Inspiring And Measured Critic Bob Mondello reviews Selma, Ava DuVernay's film chronicling Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic voting-rights march in 1965. Mondello notes that recent protests make the film resonate today.


Movie Reviews

'Selma' Manages To Be Both Passion-Inspiring And Measured

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/372940354/372940355" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The movie "Selma" opens tomorrow. It's the story of the marches that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Critic Bob Mondello is not alone in noting that protests over the killing of unarmed black men make "Selma" especially timely.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: An African-American woman named Annie Lee Cooper approaches a white registrar near the start of "Selma" and he does not seem pleased to see her.


CLAY CHAPPELL: (As registrar) You work for Mr. Dunn down at the rest home, ain't that right?

OPRAH WINFREY: (As Annie Lee Cooper) Yes, sir.

CHAPPELL: (As registrar) I wonder what old Dunn would say when I tell him one of his gal's down here stirring a fuss.

WINFREY: (As Annie Lee Cooper) I ain't stirring no fuss. I'm just here trying to register to vote.

MONDELLO: In 1964, Selma, Alabama, has more black residents than white ones, but the voting roles are almost entirely white. We're about to find out why.


CHAPPELL: (As registrar) Recite the Constitution's preamble. Know what a preamble is?

MONDELLO: She does. She has prepared.


WINFREY: (As Annie Lee Cooper) We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union...

CHAPPELL: (As registrar) How many county judges in Alabama?

MONDELLO: Her eyes widen.


WINFREY: (As Annie Lee Cooper) Sixty-seven.

MONDELLO: His eyes narrow.


CHAPPELL: (As registrar) Name them.

MONDELLO: With a satisfied smirk at her dismay, he picks up a rubber stamp and does what clerks across the South have done many times - he stamps her registration form rejected.


MONDELLO: It is against this background that Martin Luther King, Jr., arrives in Selma. His mostly unsuccessful registration drives in Georgia had received little media coverage because the authorities there had met nonviolent protests with nonviolence. Alabama, under Governor George Wallace, has a less sunny reputation and when King is knocked down on his arrival in town...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Dr. King.

MONDELLO: By a white supremacist's punch.


DAVID OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King, Jr.) I tell you that white boy can hit.

MONDELLO: He knows he's come to the right place for a confrontation. And with a country sheriff who's eager to give it to him, he sets about the task of rallying supporters.


OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King, Jr.) As long as I am unable to exercise my constitutional right to vote I do not have command of my own life.

MONDELLO: Actor David Oyelowo mostly makes King quietly persuasive, a practical planner behind the scenes, but give him a crowd and he's magnetic.

OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King, Jr.) Those that have gone before us say no more.


OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King, Jr.) No more.


OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King, Jr.) That means protest. That means march. That means disturb the peace. That means jail.

MONDELLO: It's probably smart of director Ava DuVernay not to resort to King's oratory too often, but it's certainly rousing when she does.


OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King, Jr.) Give us the votes.


MONDELLO: Elsewhere, the movie is mostly about King's strategizing - what will get the feds involved, how best to attract news coverage, how to capitalize on it when it comes. DuVernay also lets you in on what this momentous confrontation's other players were thinking. President Lyndon Johnson is annoyed at King's pushing because he's anxious to get on to his war on poverty.


TOM WILKINSON: (As President Lyndon Johnson) Dr. King, this thing is just going to have to wait.

OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King, Jr.) It cannot wait.

WILKINSON: (As President Lyndon Johnson) You got one big issue. I got a hundred and one.

MONDELLO: Governor Wallace is calculatingly vicious in opposition.


TIM ROTH: (As Governor Wallace) We will not tolerate agitators attempting to orchestrate a disturbance in this state.

MONDELLO: Coretta Scott King is concerned, but pragmatic in support.


CARMEN EJOGO: (As Coretta Scott King) People are actually saying they're going to kill our children. They are trying to get inside of your head.

MONDELLO: That all four of these very southern icons are played by British performers testifies to a skill with accents that's pretty impressive. But no more impressive than the way DuVernay has crafted the film's smaller moments so that they lend power and emotion to its big set pieces - the marches. Three, and all across Selma's Edmund Pettius Bridge, that effectively started the clock ticking for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In a few weeks, we'll reach the 50th anniversary of those marches, an anniversary that comes amid renewed racial friction and a year-and-a-half after the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of that very Voting Rights Act. The film's timing, in short, could hardly be more resonant. And DuVernay's most remarkable accomplishment may be that with such passion inspiring material, she has made such a measured, resolute and levelheaded film. I'm Bob Mondello.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.