It’s damn hard to humanize a saint — or even someone considered a saint by many. Yet Ava DuVernay makes a gallant stab at it in “Selma,” a film that attempts to pay tribute to the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. by portraying one of his most rousing successes, the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
The young director has made a couple of strong indie films, “I Will Follow” and “Middle of Nowhere ,” but never a film on this scale with so many characters and large scenes. So she has pulled off a personal triumph by managing an engrossing film that serves up a chuck of history too many Americans don’t know or have forgotten.
Yet in her film Martin Luther King Jr., as played by Hollywood’s new go-to actor, David Oyelowo, remains a remote figure, delivering speeches on podiums, in jail and even his own kitchen rather than expressing his humanity. He doesn’t seem to have any other mode of address.
The problem, of course, is that King remains not only a controversial figure in American history but a delicate subject even for his most fervent admirers. An aura of sainthood, unclaimed by King himself but maintained by many followers, cannot be adulterated by too much talk about marital infidelities or strategies that many still question.
So DuVernay, using a script by Paul Webb, keeps her focus on the political sphere and the vicious racial divide in the Jim Crow South and turns away from anything that might humanize a larger-than-life figure.
There are moments in his nose-to-nose arguments with President Johnson about voting-rights legislation and his gentler but just as firm handling of younger civil rights crusaders that display the true grit and savvy of this man of religion who became a major politician albeit not the kind who runs for office.
But in any of those late-night talks with his wife Cory —Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) — staged without the slightest hint of intimacy existing between this married couple, little of his humanity gets expressed.
The focus, just as it was in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” is on a single political battle in the hopes that this will reveal the whole man.
You get the strategy, a hand-picked battle where King hopes his strident enemies will make a “mistake,” the kind that grabs national headlines and forces a President’s hand. Indeed he has to hope for several such mistakes, even though these will mean that people will suffer grievous physical harm and in some cases death.
No one questions such a strategy from a non-violent leader who must nonetheless hope for violence — by his opponents. It worked for King just as it did for his hero, Gandhi, because they faced opponents who were actually capable of shame.
In Gandhi’s case that would be the British who could not tolerate his fasts and their soldiers’ abuse of non-violent protestors. Americans too felt shame when they saw on TV or read in newspapers about the clubbing and shooting of unarmed protestors. This strategy would not, of course, have worked against the Nazis.
So “Selma” does offer a primer in King’s practice of non-violent protest and how to claim the moral high ground. It also offers a sense of the inner struggle he felt in his neglect of his family, hardly at all seen here other than his wife, or of any other aspect of his personal life.
But the movie is never able to offer the man in full, to get beyond speeches and into the area of reflection, self-doubt or even the fear he must have felt with his life in danger at every moment.
The film is unable to become intimate with this important man. Rather it showcases (and extremely well) the public man, a leader of marches and sit-ins and a determined foe of any who would deny Americans their civil rights.
The film also has its moments of full spectacle. The initial march across the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where police and troopers on horseback viciously attacked the black protestors, is shocking and heartbreaking. A murder that swiftly follows is equally as appalling.
Little wonder LBJ seethed in the White House as he witnessed these events on television. He was going to have to act.
One can’t help but notice though that the wrong actor is in this key role. The same can be said for another role.
It’s strange the filmmakers felt the need to bring in classically trained British actors to play major American political figures — Tom Wilkinson for LBJ, Tim Roth for the racist governor George Wallace and of course Oyelowo himself as Dr. King.
Oyelowo gets a pass since his is a remarkable performance that does capture the pubic man. Certainly were Wilkinson playing a cunning Southern politician or Roth a nasty villain with names other than Johnson or Wallace these would be acceptable performances. But Americans know these men all too well and neither actor comes close to the mark.
Meanwhile many actors crowd around Oyelowo playing King confidents. None forges much of an identity. Unless one is paying close attention to names the flow swiftly by in dialogue, only in an ending credit sequence do you realize who these men were.
Two actors that do stand out are Nigel Thatch, who does a striking impersonation of Malcolm X in one brief scene, and Henry G. Sanders as the aging father of a man murdered in Selma.
“Selma” is a noble effort that succeeds in portraying an era and a political movement that is crucial to understanding where we have been and where we’re headed as Americans.
Yet it pretty much fails to get to the heart of who Dr. King was and what drove him to accomplish all that he did.
Opens: December 25, 2014 (Paramount Pictures)
Production companies: Plan B, Harpo Films, Cloud Eight, Celador Films, Pathé
Cast: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Carmen Ejogo, Andre Holland, Common, Wendell Pierce, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Alessandro Nivola, Dylan Baker, Cuba Gooding Jr.
Director: Ava DuVernay
Screenwriter: Paul Webb
Producers: Christian Colson, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Cameron McCracken, Oprah Winfrey
Executive producers: Brad Pitt, Nik Bower, Ava DuVernay, Paul Garnes, Diarmuid McKeown, Nan Morales
Director of photography: Bradford Young
Music: Jason Moran
Costume designer: Ruth E. Carter
Editor: Spencer Averick
PG-13 rating, 122 minutes