'Selma': What the Critics Are Saying

Selma Trailer Grab - H 2014

David Oyelowo portrays Martin Luther King, Jr. in Ava DuVernay's civil rights drama, produced by Oprah Winfrey

Selma, in limited release Thursday, casts David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. in the civil rights drama that portrays the historic 54-mile marches to Montgomery that ultimately led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Directed by Ava DuVernay and written with Paul Webb, the film collecting awards buzz also spotlights Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Common, Wendell Pierce, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Giovanni Ribisi, among others.

Read more Oscars: How 'Selma' Filmmakers Made a Movie About MLK Without Using His Words

See what top critics are saying about Selma:

The Hollywood Reporter's Stephen Farber writes that Selma "tackles the subject head-on — and, more importantly, does it justice. ... In a season of so many bloated, overlong films, this two-hour recounting of a few crucial months in 1965 seems just the right length. Intelligently written, vividly shot, tightly edited and sharply acted, the film represents a rare example of craftsmanship working to produce a deeply moving piece of history." Additionally, "DuVernay's experience making much smaller domestic films shows in her attention to all the faces in the backgrounds of scenes and to all the actors who have only a few minutes onscreen and yet register vividly. ... DuVernay and Webb want to provide a tapestry of a movement rather than a hagiography of one great leader. The film gives time to all the people who worked alongside Dr. King, sometimes arguing and at other times supporting him as they struggled to refine their strategy. Those who think they know the story will have their memories jogged by bits of less familiar history."

Also, "Although Oyelowo doesn't look or sound exactly like King, he gives a definitive performance. His rousing speeches are superbly done, and his moments of introspection and self-doubt retrieve the humanity in a leader who has come to seem larger than life. This year's race for best actor, which is already packed with strong contenders, may just have a new front-runner. And DuVernay may also make history by becoming the first African-American woman nominated as best director. This stirring yet always level-headed piece of history does what all the best films accomplish: It opens hearts and minds."

Read more 'Selma': Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo List Film's Lessons for Protesters

The New York Times' A. O. Scott calls it "bold and bracingly self-assured" as DuVernay "writes history with passionate clarity and blazing conviction. (The cinematographer, Bradford Young, captures its shadows and its glow.) Even if you think you know what’s coming, Selma hums with suspense and surprise. Packed with incident and overflowing with fascinating characters, it is a triumph of efficient, emphatic cinematic storytelling." Notably, "King, played by Oyelowo with the requisite grace and dignity and also with streaks of humor, weariness and doubt, occupies a central place in Selma, but the film is less interested in affirming his greatness than in understanding its sources and limitations, and in restoring his human dimensions. ... DuVernay’s portrait is astonishingly rich and nuanced, and it is very much a group portrait. ... Oyelowo’s quiet, attentive, reflective presence upholds this democratic principle by illuminating the contributions of those around him. I have rarely seen a historical film that felt so populous and full of life, so alert to the tendrils of narrative that spread beyond the frame."

The New Yorker's David Denby notes, "Oyelowo adds something of his own to the role, an extra layer of meditative richness and a touch of sexual playfulness (King is flirting with his wife in the hotel). He also underlines King’s idiosyncratic way of emphasizing the first syllable of words, which injects jolts of energy into the smooth and even tones. This King is slightly contemptuous; his composure is barbed." Also, "the reliably impressive Tom Wilkinson recalls, without the slightest exaggeration, L.B.J.'s looming head and neck, his heavy hands, his easy way with profanity. The icy confrontation between Johnson and Wallace—whom Roth plays as sarcastic and wily, with a lizard smile—is a minor classic in itself. Historical irony abounds in bio-pic land: our unique American heritage exists onscreen courtesy of talented British actors."

See more Cinematographer Bradford Young's Career on the Rise With 'Selma,' 'Most Violent Year'

The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday calls it "a stirring, often thrilling, uncannily timely drama that works on several levels at once. Yes, it’s an impressive historic pageant, and one that will no doubt break the ice for similar-themed movies to come," but DuVernay "has also rescued King from his role as a worshiped — and sentimentalized — secular saint. Here, she presents him as a dynamic figure of human-scale contradictions, flaws and supremely shrewd political skills. ... “Selma” carries viewers along on a tide of breathtaking events so assuredly that they never drown in the details or the despair, but instead are left buoyed: The civil rights movement and its heroes aren’t artifacts from the distant past, but messengers sent on an urgent mission for today."

The Guardian's Steve Rose says it's "unimpeachably important, ambitious in its scope and handsomely presented, it has all the hallmarks of a trophy winner, for better and worse. ... The movie becomes infused with that creamy glow of prestige myth-making. Everyone looks dressed in their Sunday best, and there’s no sense of the mud, rain and hardship the real Selma marches entailed. We often see King in church, backed by stained-glass windows, as if in admission that this isn’t the unvarnished truth; it’s the gospel."