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(2015) *** Pg-13
127 min. Paramount Pictures. Director: Ava DuVernay. Cast: David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Wendell Pierce, Tim Roth, Keith Stanfield, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Martin Sheen.

/content/films/4758/1.jpgPerhaps it's best to start where Selma ends, with the song "Glory." Written by John Stephens, Lonnie Lynn, and Che Smith; the song features vocals by John Legend and Common, who raps, "Resistance is us./That's why Rosa sat on the bus./That's why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up." Given that the film premiered November 11, it's a sit-up-and-take-notice moment of how wet the paint is on both this film and its subject: the ongoing struggle for African-American civil rights.

Selma isn't a Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic, something that has still eluded Hollywood (and thank King's heirs for that). But it is the first feature film to put King front and center as protagonist, and it stands an excellent chance at educating a generation about the hard work and imagination required for political change. Paul Webb's screenplay and Ava DuVernay's film begin as King (British actor David Oyelowo) readies, in Oslo, to accept the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. King frets about the pomp and wishes he were doing something more active about the climate that allows hate crimes (the Birmingham bombing, searingly revived in flashback) and voter discrimination (illustrated by Oprah Winfrey's Annie Lee Cooper being denied yet another registration application).

The stage set, Selma sets out to tell the tale of how King was the calm center of the stormy three-month period in 1965 that built to three Selma-to-Montgomery protest marches and culminated in President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act. Oyelowo commendably wears King's public face (the actor's weight gain for the role contributes to a startling change of appearance), though as is our wont, the man feels more enshrined than full-blooded in Selma's treatment. When Selma is on the ground, cataloging the strategizing of and tensions between S.C.L.C. and S.N.C.C., it's at its most useful: John Lewis (Stephan James), James Bevel (Common), and Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) appear as key figures in a movement that wasn't King's alone. We also follow King to significantly high and low destinations: the Oval Office (for Mexican standoffs with Tom Wilkinson's sympathetic but hesitant and irritable LBJ) and a jail cell (where Nigel Thatch's Malcolm X visits and offers to be the scary alternative to answering King's demands).

It says something, though, that I sat down with a steady stream of coffee to watch Selma and still found it sleepy. At times, DuVernay's film plays like a talking textbook, with a slow cadence at that. The dialogue is speechy even when King isn't behind a podium (don't get me started on the dramatically D.O.A. scene about King's infidelity), and the characters' frustrations feel less like functions of humanity than illustrations of a thesis. Perhaps that's for the best—there's a certain rigor to it, and DuVernay's general sense of stylistic restraint befits King as Spike Lee's fire complemented his Malcolm X—but a story like Selma would've benefited from more passion or energy in its writing if not its filmmaking. All in all, though, Selma is wet paint Americans (especially young ones) had probably best watch dry, as we remember the past and contemplate where the country goes from here.

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