Martin Luther King, Jr. is, without a doubt, one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century. His speeches are quoted often, there is a national holiday recognizing him, and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in America who can't tell you who he was.
The only people who will not agree that he was a great man are those who are explicitly racist, so, like any beloved person, it is common for him to be portrayed in much the same way that one would depict Jesus Christ delivering the sermon on the mount -- and why not? His influence towards modern culture lies primarily in delivering iconic speeches and swearing to nonviolence, so the comparisons to Christ are rather obvious. It is with great maturity and subtlety that screenwriter Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay show us that this was not true.
The creators of this film certainly think Dr. King was an incredible man, sure, but not every moment of Selma is about him as a being of absolute perfection. David Oyelowo, delivering a solid performance in the film's lead role, often seems exhausted from his fight for voting rights, and there is a scene in this film in which he refuses to speak with Malcolm X almost entirely out of spite. Perhaps most shockingly for a film about his greatness is that it even goes so far as to acknowledge King's allegations of adultery that were started by the FBI as blackmail, implying that he did have extramarital relationships. While these segments don't try to make Martin Luther King seem less heroic than he was, they certainly give him a level of much needed humanity that most biopics lack.
Despite this unique level of detail in depicting its subject, however, Selma is most definitely not a groundbreaking film. The cinematography goes nowhere new, and the music does almost as little, excluding one rightfully Academy Award-nominated song by John Legend that appears at the end. The one thing that makes this film absolutely worth watching is its incredible supporting cast, a collection of people who give performances that really do make you feel like you are in Alabama in 1965.
Unfortunately, the movie does have one major flaw. The film seems horribly paced, chasing tangents and subplots that don't get much if any development. These subplots make up a very large amount of the second act, leaving the story it tells disappointingly flat while the smaller moments generally don't grab the audience's attention.
The FBI's investigation of King, violence directed towards white people who supported the marches, President Johnson's feud with Dr. King, and many other vignettes go on while only making minor impacts on the events that you see transpire over the course of the film's two-hour runtime. I don't doubt that these were important aspects of the true story, but I do think that these stories deserve to make a bigger impact on the adaptation if they did.
There is a scene in the film in which Lyndon Johnson asks Alabama's governor of the time, George Wallace, if he thinks ignoring the civil rights issue of voting will make him remembered positively in 20 years. The unfortunate thing is that Selma, circa 2035, will not have any reason to be watched. It's a good film, certainly, but it doesn't mean anything. Twenty years from now, the only context I think anyone will watch this movie is if a history teacher decides to show it to his or her class. If you like history, want to catch up on awards season, or are willing to sit through some admittedly dull moments, I would recommend Selma, but there's not enough else I can think of that makes it worth watching.