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Traveling Freedom Road

Biopic is a poignant if over-packed look at our not-so-rosy past

Rated: PG-13

Run time: 2 hours 7 minutes

Stars: Carmen Ejogo, David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson

Director: Ava DuVernay

Too many biopics aim to capture a subject's entire life. Selma, to its benefit, focuses on the three-month period in 1965 when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. conceived of and organized the nonviolent march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., to win African Americans the constitutional right to vote throughout the nation.

Director Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere) and British screenwriter Paul Webb powerfully re-create the ugly prejudices endemic to the mid-century South. In a sequence that's hard to stomach, they show white policemen brutally attacking march participants during the infamous "Bloody Sunday" march across Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge.

In dramatic contrast, the film's portrayal of the protesters' final, successful — and nonviolent — march drives home the enormousness of the social change that King brought about in our country; the Voting Rights Act, for example, was passed by Congress that same year.

Uncannily channeling King's physical appearance, speech mannerisms and quiet charisma, David Oyelowo (Lee Daniels' The Butler) gives a breathtaking performance. But DuVernay and Webb don't deify King. Selma realistically depicts him as a man beset by fears and uncertainties, both in his personal life and in his quest for justice. In one memorable scene, Coretta Scott King (fabulously played by Carmen Ejogo of Away We Go) tells her husband, who's trying to deny the authenticity of a tape recording of him with a lover, "I know what you sound like." And in MLK's meetings with Lyndon B. Johnson (oddly cast in English character actor Tom Wilkinson), Oyelowo portrays King presenting his case in pleading rather than strident tones.

DuVernay and Webb ambitiously dramatize all the intricacies, detours and compromises a wide-scale social justice movement entails, shining stark light on backroom deals, FBI schemes and even rivalries among various pockets of grass-roots rebellion. All of these moral hazards (and more) did King learn to navigate in order to succeed.

If Selma suffers from one weakness, it may be the film's surfeit of protagonists. In addition to King there's John Lewis (Stephan James of Home Again), leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo of Lincoln) of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, also a producer of the film), a courageous Alabama resident who dared trying to register to vote. The complex political machinations of the time likewise threaten to elude even the most attentive or historically minded viewer.

Yet given recent events from Ferguson, Mo., to New York City — and with the Supreme Court having put a dagger through the heart of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 — this powerful story hits movie screens nationwide at an opportune time.

Meg Grant is West Coast editor of AARP The Magazine.