Speak up at your peril: This sentiment punctuates Ava DuVernay's Selma, which takes on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by Martin Luther King, Jr., James Bevel, Hosea Williams, and John Lewis. Throughout Selma, King's family is targeted by the FBI, and activists are brutally beaten by police. But it's another historical detail that's drawn criticism from viewers: Much ink has been spilled over Selma's treatment of then-president Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). But while the film's version of events has likely furrowed the brows of devout Johnson scholars, LBJ isn't actually vilified, but framed as someone managing conflicting alliances and interests, who ultimately does the right thing—you know, a politician.
DuVernay pulls strong performances from David Oyelowo as King, and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, but the actors in smaller roles really make Selma's world, from the perennially great Wendell Pierce to Orange is the New Black's Lorraine Toussaint. Despite the quality of these performances, though, there's a flatness to the characters, perhaps due to Selma's broad scope.
When activists like King are presented on film, they're often framed as less radical than they actually were. So it's notable that Selma addresses King's opposition to the Vietnam War, as well as the very real violence the real-life demonstrators faced. There is a lot of violence in Selma, as in the real Selma. The film's second scene is particularly shocking, even though, if you know anything about American history, you'll know what's going to happen from its first moments. DuVernay's willingness to engage with this particularly American history of violence sets Selma apart. Portraying a movement on film is an impossible task, but if DuVernay has succeeded, it's in the way Selma forces a kind of reckoning for its viewer. At these moments, you won't be able to look away. And you shouldn't.