Selma (dir. Ava DuVernay)

Posted: January 21, 2015 in Uncategorized

Just in time to celebrate the Supreme Court striking down sections of the Voting Rights Act, we get “Selma”, a film about Martin Luther King’s actions to ensure blacks could exercise their right to vote leading to President Johnson pushing for and signing the Voting Rights Act.  One of the things they drill into you in Film Studies is that any film, no matter what time period it takes place in, is really about the time in which it is made.  While not as many people picked up on Spielberg’s “Lincoln” really being about Obamacare, my guess is anyone watching “Selma” will know the film is concerned with voter ID laws, law enforcement’s treatment of young black men, and the overt and open racism that has spiked up since Obama was elected president.

It’s been tough for Hollywood to make a film about Dr. King, largely because his children, who control his estate, are very picky about who is allowed to use the actual words in King’s speeches.  You see, those speeches, including the famous “I have a Dream” speech, are copyrighted material.   Yes, a man whose words should really belong to the world and not to heirs who did nothing for anybody has domain over his famous works controlled by them solely due to capitalist rights of inheritance.  Not only that, but when you’re dealing with such a revered figure, people can often want to just see the man as an infallible figure from history books, and not as the living, breathing, flawed human being he and everyone else truly is.  Let’s get this out of the way: “Selma” does, albeit briefly, mention King’s extramarital affairs.  It’s only one scene, it isn’t harped upon, but it’s there and makes narrative sense.  Another scene, showing King and friends having lunch at a woman’s house and joking around, could have easily come from a scene in Chris Rock’s “Top Five” when Rock’s character visits friends from the neighborhood he grew up in.  For many people who grew up after King’s death, we seem to only picture King making speeches and marching.  It’s nice to be reminded that he was a guy who had friends and joked around with them, even while concerned with serious issues.  He was a human being, and while the film “Selma” clearly likes and respects the man, it doesn’t try to make him into a god.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about whether “Selma” was snubbed in the Oscar nominations because of racism or something.  I think the film may actually just be suffering from “12 Years a Slave” backlash.  “12 Years” won Best Picture last year, and in a year where films like “Her”, “The Wolf of Wall Street”, and “American Hustle” were nominated, it felt like “12 Years” won because the Academy felt it had to and not because they actually believed it was the best film of the year.  For the record, that film didn’t even come close to my top 10 films of last year, and I think it is a good but overrated film.  “Selma” is actually much better.  Aside from the backlash, and the coincidence that both films are produced by Brad Pitt, “Selma” may suffer because it’s not all that well directed.  Director Ava DuVernay films the whole movie in a muted color palette that doesn’t communicate a time period or place, so much as it looked like there was an issue with the projection in my theater.  The image looks like it needs the brightness turned down and the contrast turned up.  On top of that, I don’t know what lenses she used to shoot the film, but the edges of the frame were often out of focus and blurred (not to the extent that most people would notice) while the main focal point of the frame was in crisp focus, as if the whole film were meant to be a dream sequence.  I haven’t seen anything else she has directed, but the film has the hallmarks of a director who is still in their learning phase but has an innate talent.  A few more films and she’ll be a great director, but as of now she needs some work, and another director may have possibly done a better job with this material.

King is played by David Oyelowo, and his snub for Best Actor was likely because the role doesn’t allow for much extravagance in comparison with playing, say, Stephen Hawking.  Still, Oyelowo captures King quite well.  He plays King as reserved in public among Whites, but on the cusp of being a firebrand when speaking among his own people in a church setting.  Of course this would be the case, as we tailor our messages for the audience.  The film makes the case that King was tolerated by those in power because they saw him as a peaceful, preferable alternative to the likes of Malcolm X, and so tacitly endorses the idea of radicals as useful to allow people like King, who was also a radical if a non-violent one, to gain a seat at the table. Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) does show up in one scene of the film, seemingly having cast aside some of his radicalness, wanting to be used as a tool to have King taken more seriously by comparison.  Much like a moderate candidate who looks good running against a fringe candidate (Romney or Michelle Bachman? Suddenly Romney looks better), radicals were useful in allowing King to advance his agenda.

Much has been made over the film’s portrayal of LBJ (Tom Wilkinson).  It may not be strictly true that Johnson was as against the Voting Rights Act as the film shows, but it is true that he had other priorities he deemed more important at the time as part of his whole Great Society and War on Poverty deal.  The film amps this up a bit for the sake of narrative purposes, and I for one don’t mind.  We also briefly get J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) saying unkind words about King, after which the film uses superimposed text of FBI surveillance reports on King as a way of dispensing exposition and transitioning scenes.  It’s both clunky and ingenious, and at the very least you are never lost while watching the film.

Obviously, voting rights are the main focus of the film.  There’s a very great scene, early on, showing a woman (Oprah Winfrey) attempt to register to vote at her County Clerk’s office in Selma, Alabama.  After meticulously filling out her application, the white clerk asks her to recite the preamble to the Constitution.  Then how many district judges there are in the state.  When she correctly does both, he tells her to name all of the judges.  The onerous and arbitrary reasons places in the United States were able to use to deny people the right to vote, a right added to the Constitution for them to have, is mind-blowing, and that this was only 50 years ago!  When some people claim “slavery has been over for  over a hundred years”, they seem to forget that it hasn’t exactly been hunky-dory on the Civil Rights front ever since.

In a later scene, some blacks attempt a peaceful protest by marching at night.  This leads to a violent crackdown by police, and after a young man named Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) tries to lead his parents into a black diner to avoid crackdown, cops enter the establishment and shoot Jackson dead with no reason.  “Selma” began filming in May of 2014, which was two months before the chokehold death of Eric Garner and three months before the shooting death of Michael Brown, but the killing of young black men by overzealous police officers isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Whatever controversy there may be over Brown, few can deny Garner was killed for doing little more than complaining of harassment from police (which didn’t match the level of his alleged crime of selling loose cigarettes illegally).  There was also the film last year, “Fruitvale Station” about the murder of a young black man by a subway cop.  By showing us an example of this in the 1960s, “Selma” reminds us that recent events are not isolated incidents that exist in a vacuum, and that it is perhaps the collected memory of these events and many more that lead to such an outcry about police violence and black lives mattering.  While white suburbanites may see annoying protests over dubious characters, many blacks see the continuance of brutal, authoritarian repression with every young black man shot down.  Even if Michael Brown turned out to be the criminal punk who provoked an attack, that doesn’t excuse the hundreds or perhaps thousands of Eric Garners and Jimmie Lee Jacksons.

The political messages of “Selma” are relatively safe.  One doesn’t have to go out on a limb to say racism or indiscriminate violence against blacks is bad.  However, “Selma” is not just a quaint historical piece where people can safely walk out and say “I’m glad I don’t live in those times”.  Voting rights are again under attack, and there is still a massive problem with how the American criminal justice system deals with minorities, as well as how American Capitalism serves to keep minorities down.  As one character in “Selma” says, “What good is being able to sit down at the counter with a white man if the black man can’t afford to buy the burger”.  King was sometimes tagged as a Communist or Communist sympathizer for occasional comments against Capitalism, but it’s hard to deny that American Capitalism has not served the black man, or any non-bourgeois man, well.

So then, what is course of action in fighting injustice?  For King, he saw non-violent yet still confrontational protest as a good avenue.  If the other side became violent, that would be enough rope for them to hang themselves, as the cops who cracked down on the original Selma marchers did, on national television no less.  Seeing that won over sympathetic whites and clergy, and that meant that whites in the halls of power could no longer ignore cries for justice.  King knew when to play inside the system, having direct meetings with presidents and other state officials, and he knew when to play outside of it.  While revolutionaries like Malcolm X, and perhaps the Weather Underground, would prefer a somewhat more violent fight against unfair systems and persons, one can’t argue with success.  While our modern Supreme Court may want to roll back King’s accomplishments, be it voting rights or potentially the FHA, they did stand for many years.  Unlike the failed Occupy Wall Street movement, which did little more but help coin the phrases 1% and 99%, it helped to have a leader and specific demands when protesting, which King’s movements had.   While our modern GOP may decry some actions as Saul Alinski-like tactics, perhaps they should be less afraid of the “Rules or Radicals” author, and more afraid that people will once again reach into the King playbook.

It’s hard to watch scenes of King making speeches while protestors on the sidelines hold up Confederate flags and signs with the word “nigger” on it, and not be reminded of the Tea Party, protests against the Affordable Care Act, and the general hate-tinged protests that have sparked up since Obama has been president.  The Conservatives may have replaced “nigger” with “Socialist” as their epithet of choice (which make a real Socialist like me scratch his head), and they may use the Gadsden Flag a bit more than they use the Confederate Flag, but the protests look awfully similar.  George Wallace (wonderfully portrayed in the film by Tim Roth) shows up in the film as the governor of Alabama and, of course, would later go on to run for president as a third party, secessionist candidate.  Watching the film, it’s hard to not notice Wallace-like tendencies in some modern, not necessarily racist, but certainly crazy and borderline evil politicians like Ted Cruz.  Films like “Selma” remind us that history is never too far off, and the struggles we face in the past often take only slightly different forms in the present.

“Selma” may not be a perfect film.  Aside from my quibbles with the visual style, it also has maybe too much affinity for religion (I understand King was a reverend, but does the film need to suggest a god told King not to march on the bridge on that second attempt?) and despite King being the hero who does all of the hard work, it still kind of suggests that all of the black protesting in the world won’t matter unless white people join your cause (as they do for the second and third marches), a white person dies (a white priest [Jeremy Strong] from Boston is shown beaten to death for being a black sympathizer), and a white person pushes your legislation, namely Johnson.  It’s nice to see a movie about black issues where the central character is at least black (looking at you “The Help” and “The Blind Side”), and obviously they can’t rewrite history, but narrative focus could have made all the difference.

Still, “Selma” is an important film both as a history lesson and as a reminder that we still struggle with these same issues even though we, in 2015, may sometimes think ourselves to be morally superior to our ancestors of only 50 years prior.  “Selma” is very well-acted, finds the right balance of reverence for King and humanizing him, and is all around a fine film. B+

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