Nota bene: the name of the film is Selma, not King. Sure, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (portrayed with careful dignity by David Oyelowo) serves as architect, engine, lightning rod, and general for the organization and execution of a march from Selma, Alabama to the State Capitol in Montgomery, seat of pro-segregation governor George Wallace. But director Ava DuVernay, working from a script by first-timer Paul Webb, wisely shifts the emphasis away from the person — it's hard to make a movie about a saint, even a secular one — and onto the process: what had to happen to make a march like this happen? Well, for one thing, King had to play several rounds of political chess with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), here portrayed as a sympathetic soul who nevertheless was not about to be bullied into adopting someone else's timeline, church bombings or no church bombings. Their frank and flinty exchanges make for the most entertaining of the many "here's what you need to understand" conversations that fill the film; elsewhere, you may find yourself surprised that the character-cum-mouthpiece isn't simply lecturing to the camera. Still, the machinations do merit exposition, if only to understand the enormity of the moment. And they keep the piety at bay: throughout, these are people, figuring out how to fight a war without firing a shot, straining to stand together as their opposition seeks to knock them down and drive them apart. Speaking of the opposition: Tim Roth looks to be having a good time in his portrayal of the weaselly Wallace. (2014) — Matthew Lickona
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