Best known for his oratory, Oyelowo has perfectly captured King's familiar cadence and he delivers both sermons and calls to arms with forceful fire. It is not in the rousing speeches that either actor, or film, truly soars though, but the moments of silence. For every precise and moving word, there is a flicker in the eyes or an instant of quiet contemplation that paints in far richer detail. Although his inner demons are externalised at times, it is the pauses through which Oyelowo and DuVernay seek to sketch the weight and cost of King's ongoing battle. In single beat they convey everything from painful remorse to clenched frustration or momentary reprieve. As King and his cohorts arrive in Selma intending to stir up the populace and outmanoeuvre a stalling Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), the lines are drawn.
The primary opposition - encapsulated in Tim Roth's loathsome governor - may be binary, but parlays must also be agreed with both militant activists like Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) and the young, mobilised black residents of Alabama. Likewise, King struggles to reconcile himself with the violent retribution (for his non-violent protests) that he relies upon from the establishment. His stall is set and his cause is just, but DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb want more than a summary reading of events and their ethical ramifications. When the levee does finally break, it does so in unflinching scenes of chaos and terror. It's brutal, desperate and enraging. It casts Selma as a vital and timely missive to a new generation that is as sobering as it is uplifting, all built around a performance of astounding accomplishment.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson