Subscribe for 99¢
Film Review Selma

In this image released by Paramount Pictures, David Oyelowo portrays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a scene from "Selma." (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Atsushi Nishijima)

Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) is in Oslo, Norway, to be presented the Nobel Peace Prize when he has a bit of trouble tying an ascot he plans to wear to the ceremony. His wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) can’t help but be amused. But then, she’s grateful for a lighter moment in a relationship that has come to have its difficulties.

As a clergyman and activist, King has become a symbol of the hopes and dreams of millions of black Americans and has enjoyed significant success. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 has made segregation illegal, with the support of President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). But when it comes to dismantling the legal barriers that deny blacks the right to vote, LBJ and MLK seem to be at an impasse.

King’s woes aren’t limited to the White House. Things are getting stressful at home, as Coretta weighs the benefits and drawbacks of being married to one of the most powerful men in America.

It all comes down to a strategy — marching from Selma, Ala., to the state capitol in Montgomery in 1965 — that tests King’s nonviolent philosophy and gauges whether white Americans choose to be conscientious or complacent.

“Selma” offers a visceral take on a pivotal moment in American history. Working from a screenplay by Paul Webb, director Ava DuVernay (“Middle of Nowhere”) captures the danger and uncertainty of the civil rights movement while portraying King as a man who isn’t always comfortable with what’s demanded of him.

And Oyelowo, who starred in “Middle of Nowhere” and is perhaps best known for “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” is just the right actor for the role. Oyelowo takes full advantage of his close physical resemblance to King, but he wisely avoids mere impersonation, delivering a performance that’s as sensitive as it is spellbinding.

In an era of comic-book movies, “Selma” is an impressive reminder of the real-life struggle for human dignity.

What “Selma” • Four stars out of four • Rating PG-13 • Run time 2:04 • Content Thematic material including violence and brief strong language

Calvin Wilson is theater critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.