After the recent cycle of American guilt-porn movies, and given the Academy’s predilection for lumpen biopics, I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to Selma but I didn’t have much of a chance to right it off in advance as I saw it prior to its UK release courtesy of Odeon’s “Screen Unseen” series of surprise movies.

Whereas 12 Years a Slave was horrifyingly brutal but structurally flawed, and The Help was ultimately a bit too twee and winsome to really succeed as a cutting evocation of America’s troubled history of racial conflict, Selma being set barely half a century ago instantly feels far more relevant and the sickening violence in Ferguson and elsewhere gives it a grim modernity which its makers can’t have anticipated.

By sensibly focusing on a small period of time – the few weeks in 1964 between Martin Luther King accepting the Nobel Peace Prize and the march from Selma to Montgomery – the movie avoids the shapelessness which dogs so many biopics, and early on director Ava DuVernay is in total control of the material, juxtaposing King in Oslo, the shocking murder by explosive of four young black girls and producer Oprah Winfrey’s neat cameo as would-be Selma voter Annie Lee Cooper, where she pulls of the neat trick of combining stoic dignity with aching vulnerability.

As the movie settles down and we meet the rest of the cast, DuVernay’s camerawork becomes a bit more pedestrian. A magnificent crane shot towards the end is eye-catching but a most of the rest is unshowy, simple and just intended to capture the performances. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but a movie ought to full the frame a bit more than a TV show and from time-to-time Selma does feel a bit movie-of-the-week, with a little too much slo-mo and a little too much omnipresent syrupy music from Jason Moran. I’m not saying DuVernay should have gone full Michael Bay on this, but a more dynamic camera would not have undermined the story at all.

Where she does succeed is in marshalling a terrific cast, and balancing the sub-plots with the main story. Without ever taking energy away from the central thread, we get glimpses into the lives of King’s loyal followers such as James Bevel (Common), James Orange (Omar Dorsey) and Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson); we see the uneasy relationship between the two young men already working in Selma for voting rights; we see the earnest white folks who rally to the cause, not all of whom make it out of Selma alive.

It helps that we get some familiar faces in this sprawling cast like Lorraine Toussaint, from HBO’s Orange is the New Black and Wendell Pierce from The Wire, because we’re not done yet. As well as the law enforcement on the ground in Selma, we also have a brilliantly reptilian turn from Tim Roth as Governor George Wallace, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos from Cuba Gooding Jr and Martin Sheen, not to mention Carmen Ejogo who does a great deal with very little as King’s ever-patient wife.

There are a couple of loose threads. Dylan Baker appears in only about two scenes as J Edgar Hoover and irritating captions keep appearing which remind us that the FBI is spying on the Kings, while giving us further information we already know – but the FBI storyline never amounts to anything. Even more bizarrely, Nigel Thatch appears in exactly one scene as Malcolm X, is never seen to meet King and then dies off-screen.

Then main conflict then is between Tom Wilkinson’s rangy Lyndon B Johnson (fascinating to compare this performance with Bryan Cranston’s approach which I was privileged to see on Broadway last year) and David Oyelowo’s electrifying King. Pitting Johnson’s compassionate pragmatism against King’s fiery idealism is a fascinating dichotomy and the scenes between them are wonderfully handled. Being shamefully unfamiliar with the details of King’s story, I was struck by the shocking nature of his tactics – broadly to mount nonviolent protests in the hope that the other side will retaliate with violence. The movie is unafraid both to criticise this approach and also to consider the cost on King’s personal life as he knowingly puts young men and women into harm’s way in order to achieve a greater good, but ultimately it becomes clear that progress would be unlikely to be achieved in any other way.

Smartly surrounding him with a rich cast of supporting characters, DuVernay is nevertheless happy to let Oyelowo off the leash from time-to-time and my word does he tear up the part when he needs to. He is absolutely magnificent, embodying Dr King with fire and passion and integrity in a way which seems almost impossible for a British public school-boy to pull off. And a further hat-tip to DuVernay who is apparently responsible for writing new speeches for him to say, when the original Martin Luther King speeches were not available. That must have been a daunting project to say the least!

So, this is not the most ambitious film on the list, nor is it the most formally daring. But it is a compelling story, well-told, with a world-class performance at its centre and a deep pool of acting talent in support. That it was so widely overlooked by the Academy is absolutely baffling, particularly Oyelowo’s performance, and particularly the screenplay, if only for those astonishing speeches.

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