The most surprising thing about the history of Hollywood and Martin Luther King Jr. is that there isn’t one. There are no good King movies. There are no bad King movies. There are simply a handful of cameos in biopics about other people, such as Ali and Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Nearly 50 years after King’s death in 1968, Selma–which was released in selected cities Dec. 25 and opens nationwide on Jan. 9–is the first full-length film to take a deep look at King or make him the main character. Directed by Ava DuVernay and starring David Oyelowo, it examines a pivotal period in the last four years of King’s life, the three voting-rights marches he organized from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., that ultimately led to the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act in 1965.
King’s absence from theaters is “a jaw dropper,” says DuVernay. “Let’s not even list the biopics that we’ve had,” she says, “but not one about one of the most famous and influential Americans who changed the way we all behave and live. Films with African-American protagonists are not first on the list of things to do.”
Selma addresses King’s legacy not by putting him on a pedestal but by showing him frustrated and beleaguered. While his obvious opponents were white-supremacist voters and politicians, he also faced challenges from erstwhile allies, including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which had grown impatient with his tactics, as well as a complicated presidential partner in Washington. The film’s tight focus on the Selma marches–with their climax on “Bloody Sunday,” when 600 marchers assembled on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and were met with the nightsticks, tear gas and charging horses of Sheriff Jim Clark and his deputies–allows it to closely follow tactical debates among King’s uneasy collaborators and between King and Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who urges the civil rights leader to proceed with greater caution, insisting that change would come incrementally.
“We were not doing a sainted version of him or an overcorrected, antihero version of him–both of which are scripts that have floated around,” DuVernay says. “We wanted to stay close to what happened–a dynamic leader who was at times depressed and let his ego get in control.”
A Long March
The cast and crew of Selma began breaking boundaries even before the film was released. DuVernay is the first black woman to be nominated for the Best Director prize at the Golden Globes; expectations are high that she will break the same barrier when nominations are announced on Jan. 15 for this year’s Academy Awards. Oyelowo, who appeared last year in supporting roles in Interstellar and A Most Violent Year, was one of only two black actors nominated for the 30 movie-acting slots at this year’s Golden Globes. (The other was Annie’s Quvenzhané Wallis.) The Screen Actors Guild’s 20 nominees were all white.
DuVernay and Oyelowo both toiled in relative obscurity before Selma. The director spent many years as a publicist, marketing awards-ready movies–often made by white directors–to the black community, including Invictus, The Help and Dreamgirls. She directed the sensitive Middle of Nowhere (2012), co-starring Oyelowo, about a young woman dealing with her husband’s incarceration, which won her a Best Director prize at Sundance. But her film was overshadowed that year by Beasts of the Southern Wild, a fantastical tale about black life in the South. It was only after Lee Daniels dropped out of a long-gestating King biopic that DuVernay came aboard, on Oyelowo’s recommendation.
DuVernay, who reshaped screenwriter Paul Webb’s script before production began, says she was still rewriting in December 2013. “Less than a year from script to theaters is a little accelerated,” she says.
That Selma came together at all after years on hold is remarkable. But it’s all the more impressive that the movie denies easy gratification. It has more to say about the messy business of political organization than it does about King. And its time frame–the early months of 1965–means there’s no triumphant “I Have a Dream” moment. King gave that speech at the March on Washington 18 months earlier, and though he would later reprise elements of it, his tone in Selma is far less optimistic.
Oyelowo, a trained Shakespearean actor, found an advantage in skipping King’s most famous refrain. “It’s like doing ‘To be or not to be,'” he says. “Not to denigrate the speech, but it’s a bit like doing a karaoke song. What you want, in playing a character like Dr. King, is something revelatory. Otherwise, go watch a documentary.” He had been hesitant to dig into the project, he says, until the director “put so much meat on the bone,” challenging him to create an original character rather than ventriloquize an icon. In one gripping sequence, King’s marital tensions come to the fore when the FBI sends his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) a tape of her husband, apparently with another woman. “I knew it was something we had to handle,” says DuVernay.
Oyelowo’s voice echoes King’s familiar intonations but, directed at individuals rather than projected to a crowd, lacks its preacherly openness. Audiences will hear a more intimate side of King. “Most Americans don’t know Dr. King’s conversational voice,” DuVernay says. “They haven’t seen interviews or heard him laugh. They know the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and then that he was killed. There’s a lot in between.”
King’s achievements were legion, but they’re under threat. The Voting Rights Act–the signature accomplishment won in the Selma marches–was weakened by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling. The arguments over what sort of resistance is acceptable and what goes too far could as easily have taken place a month ago, during nationwide protests against police brutality toward unarmed people of color. The images of tear gas look all too familiar. “If there’s one thing that Selma shows,” says Oyelowo, “it’s that things haven’t changed enough. There’s things in our film that show how far we need to go and means by which we can get there.”
The film’s most stirring scene comes early, when Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey, one of the film’s producers) attempts to register to vote, having brought ample documentation, and is faced with an unpassable political-IQ test. The challenges the Selma protesters faced, the movie suggests, weren’t rooted in the sort of racism that could be argued away when rhetoric makes people see reason. They were baked into the political system.
Selma has already ignited controversies of its own. DuVernay has earned praise for her nuanced portrayal of King, but in showing Johnson as a President who was opposed to the marches and had to be manipulated into proposing the Voting Rights Act, she blurred the facts, according to some historians and an aide who worked in the White House at that time. While Johnson did want to advance his Great Society agenda first, they argue, he had already prepared voting-rights legislation that he could present to Congress. Furthermore, the President was happy that King’s Selma protests were making Southern bigots look bad; he knew the news footage would build support among sympathetic whites.
Critics also question a key plot point involving Johnson, the FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover, who tells the President he’d be happy to smear King in retaliation. At first, Johnson rejects the idea and decries Hoover’s methods, but later he asks a secretary to connect him with Hoover. We then see King’s wife opening a parcel that holds a recording of King in bed with another woman, along with a threat that he must stop his activity in Selma or face further revelations. It’s true that King was a notorious womanizer, but it was actually Robert F. Kennedy who had approved Hoover’s mud gathering, years earlier. And though the FBI did send such a recording of King, it was mailed the previous year. “We knew we were bugged,” former King aide Andrew Young, who is portrayed in the film, told MSNBC. “But that was before LBJ.”
Others, including writer Gay Talese, who covered the marches for the New York Times, have defended DuVernay’s portrayal of events. And most historians agree that the claim made by Johnson’s aide that the Selma marches were the President’s idea is overstated. DuVernay responded to the criticism with a tweet: “Bottom line is folks should interrogate history. Don’t take my word for it or LBJ rep’s word for it. Let it come alive for yourself.” With King finally getting the kind of big-screen treatment he has always deserved, it is appropriate that he once again stirs deep argument.
This appears in the January 19, 2015 issue of TIME.