Selma ★★★★

It's hard to believe the first major motion picture about Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn't made until 2014, but its arrival couldn't have come at a better time. To say race relations in the United States have been strained recently is a vast understatement. While much progress has been made since the days of the Civil Rights Movement, there is still plenty left to accomplish. Selma, with immense skill, illustrates that reality.

The exclusion of opening credits immediately tells the viewer director Ava DuVernay's Selma isn't playing by the rules of the conventional biopic. But it's hardly a biopic, rather a docudrama of the 1965 Selma marches in protest of black voter suppression. It's a very specific time period—about three months—during MLK's Civil Rights leadership, yet the film uses the Selma stage as a microcosm to produce a penetrating look at the man, his work, and the movement.

Rather than take an operatic Hollywood approach, DuVernay instead crafts the film with considerable restraint, emphasizing calm moments of contemplation and discussion. Despite what the movie's marketing may suggest, Selma is a meditative picture. In fact, Paul Webb's script is primarily comprised of dialogue-heavy scenes of strategizing, deliberation, and argument. The film is a fascinating depiction of tactical civil disobedience and political gamesmanship as much as it is anything else.

The overwhelming humanity of Selma is unmistakable. David Oyelowo's MLK is an articulate, charismatic leader but also a sensitive, concerned, and, at times, hesitant and uncertain man who leans on his faith and his wife for strength and guidance. The scenes between Martin and Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) are as powerful as those depicting the marches. Oyelowo and Ejogo both dig deep into their characters to capture their essence on screen, and the two are surrounded by a top-notch cast. Tim Roth's George Wallace comes across as a bit of a caricature, but that has more to do with the writing than the performance.

As Selma moves along, it generates a quiet rage that reflects the powder keg nature of the events. At any moment, violence could erupt—sometimes it does—and this gives DuVernay's film suspense even though viewers know how it will play out. But more affecting is the narrative's vitality. Selma is a stirring portrait of perseverance for equality and resistance to violence. As long as racial injustice remains a shameful reality, Selma will retain its potency. MLK may as well be speaking to a modern audience.