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Civil rights biopic 'Selma' is especially relevant today

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Selma | B+

For those who do not know recent history — which is, sadly, far too many Americans — March 9, 1965, marked a pivotal moment in our country’s ongoing struggle to establish equal rights.

Racial segregation had been outlawed one year earlier, but black Americans had yet to find justice when it came to the voting booth. South of the Mason-Dixon line white officials created nearly insurmountable barriers to voting by establishing poll taxes, ridiculous competency exams, and even sponsorship requirements. Liberal whites and President Lyndon B. Johnson, weary from the battle against segregation, saw voting as an issue that could wait.

Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleagues disagreed. After repeated failures to register black Americans at the polls they organized a 54-mile march, from Selma, Ala., to the state's capital in Montgomery. On the first day 600 unarmed, peaceful black citizens attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They were brutally tear-gassed and beaten by state troopers. Our nation's shameful and violent actions were captured by television news networks and broadcast to the rest of the world.

One can only wonder how Fox News would have spun the event had they existed 50 years ago. That the cable network's racially charged narratives find so much favor today (particularly in the South) doesn't speak well of our supposed post-racial achievements. And given the Internet's near-daily footage of unarmed blacks being threatened or killed by white police officers, director Ava DuVernay's measured yet passionate Selma serves as a timely and even necessary reminder of just how ugly things can get.

When one considers the topic at hand, it's easy to see where her movie might have been yet another well-acted, blandly respectful history lesson aimed at liberal-minded audiences. Thankfully, Selma mostly avoids that fate. DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb temper the unwieldy scope of history by focusing on the practical mechanics of MLK's political strategy, and the personal and political challenges that stood in his way. They smartly avoid carrying the "important movie" banner by creating an intimate and textured chamber drama that unfolds in unexpected ways.

For one, while King (played by David Oyelowo) is clearly the main character, he is not the main focus. Webb's script shifts perspectives that allows DuVernay to balance Selma's historical, political, and personal connections. From Johnson's Oval Office to George Wallace's mansion to the Kings' bedroom, from raucous church services to hostile county courthouses, from the embittered offices of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to awkward meetings with Malcolm X to the backrooms where King's faithful coterie plot and plan, Selma integrates the personal with the political. It doesn't always work but it comes damn close — most especially when the violence of March 9 erupts on screen.

Selma also brings the too-often sainted MLK Jr. back down to Earth, depicting his shrewd political sense, his oratorial gifts, and his moments o