Background left to right: Tessa Thompson plays Diane Nash, Omar Dorsey plays James Orange, Colman Domingo plays Ralph Abernathy, David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King, Jr., André Holland plays Andrew Young, Corey Reynolds plays Rev. C.T. Vivian, and Lorraine Toussaint plays Amelia Boynton in SELMA, from Paramount Pictures and Pathé.On Monday night (Nov. 17, 2014) in NYC, Ava DuVernay and cinematographer Bradford Young presented a festival cut of "Selma," which premiered last week at AFI Fest to rave reviews and a standing ovation. (The NYC audience had an equally enthusiastic reaction.) This period drama offers an intimate look at the events leading up to the famous civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, AL., including the devastating events known as Bloody Sunday.

David Oyelowo stars as Martin Luther King, Jr., alongside Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon B. Johnson, and a star-studded cast playing storied civil rights activists and leaders.

1. It's called "Selma" for a reason.
This isn't your typical biopic; while obviously a great deal of the narrative is focused on Martin Luther King, Jr., "Selma" is about all of the people involved in the events leading up to the legendary marches. "Selma" offers the human side of such legendary events: the marital tension between the Kings; the differing opinions on how to proceed in Selma; and the relationship between Dr. King and the President, just to name a few details.

It also offers some interesting insights into how the media was used to help the civil rights movement. Who could ignore the photos and footage coming out of Selma? No one, not even the President.

2. There's a message, but it isn't a message movie.
Sometimes books and movies that are about huge historical events rely on exposition to fill in the details, but that's not the case with "Selma." Yes, it's educational, but it doesn't feel like a lecture. It's not heavy handed or condescending. However, if you go in already knowing about, say, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing or the way the FBI monitored civil rights activists or who each of the figures are in the movement, you might get more out of the movie than if not. And if you didn't know before, now you have no excuse.

3. The cast is enormous -- and impressive.
Oyelowo is incredible as Martin Luther King, Jr., but "Selma" is a team effort. Lorraine Toussaint barely has to say a word to convey the gravitas of Amelia Boynton, who was front and center at the Bloody Sunday march. Ejogo is wonderful as Coretta Scott King, who struggles with the danger threatening her family at every turn, not to mention her husband's dalliances, as alluded to in the movie. Tim Roth is downright diabolical as the Alabama governor George Wallace. Keith Stanfield ("Short Term 12") has a small but unforgettable role as Jimmie Lee Jackson, a protestor murdered by a state trooper, and Tessa Thompson ("Dear White People") has a strong onscreen presence as the young Diane Nash. Wendell Pierce, Common, Oprah Winfrey, Stephan James, Colman Domingo, and Giovanni Ribisi are equally excellent. Ledisi Young has an incredible cameo as Mahalia Jackson in a late-night scene when Dr. King calls her on the phone simply to listen to her sing.

4. It's not just about history; it's about the people who made history.
There are plenty of speeches that will move audiences to tears, but there are just as many intimate scenes between friends and allies. DuVernay focuses on the details in a way that makes "Selma" come alive. A particularly memorable scene takes place in the house of Richie Jean Jackson (Niecy Nash), who hosts Dr. King and his inner circle during their work in Selma. (You can read more about her in "The House by the Side of the Road.") It's a casual lunch between friends who joke around as they eat a home-cooked meal; everyone needs to relax once in a while, even Nobel Prize-winners. If anything, the unthinkable hate and violence that Dr. King and his colleagues faced made it even more important to have some moment of levity.

Left to right: David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King, Jr. and Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King in SELMA, from Paramount Pictures and Pathé.5. The violence is somewhat stylized.
It is important to witness the violence and brutality visited upon the people in the civil rights movement, and to acknowledge what people have given up in the name of freedom. DuVernay and Young balance this with a style and grace that relies on empathy instead of shock. You'll be hard-pressed to forget the slow-motion shots of Annie Lee Cooper (Winfrey) being wrestled to the ground by officers, or the terrifying police chase that ends in the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson (Stanfield), or the heartbreaking moments of little girls in their Sunday dresses just moments before the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, and not because they're particularly gruesome, but because they're human.

6. It looks beautiful.
Cinematographer Bradford Young has worked with DuVernay on a few of her earlier films, like her TV doc "My Mic Sounds Nice: The Truth About Women in Hip Hop" and the award-winning drama "Middle of Nowhere," so they work together really well. As he said during the Q&A, "Whatever image you see up there that you like, it was generated by [DuVernay's] brain first and transfused to me." Whether they're showing cozy interior scenes and close-ups or breathtaking long shots of protesters marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Young and DuVernay have crafted a film that's as visually striking as it is moving.

Young's other credits include Dee Rees's glorious "Pariah," indie drama "Mother of George," "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" with Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, and another buzzy fall flick, "A Most Violent Year" with Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac. Basically, he's no slouch.

7. Get your Oscar ballots ready.
It's easy to be snarky about historical dramas and biopics as surefire Oscar fodder, but "Selma" backs up that awards season buzz with a big, heartfelt, beautiful movie about the real people behind the civil rights revolution.

"Selma" opens for a limited run on December 25, and goes nationwide on January 9, 2015.

categories Movies, Reviews