I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing Selma, but the backlash against perceived Oscar snubs of David Oyelowo for playing Dr. King and Ava DuVernay for best director, impelled a trip to the multiplex.
As for why I wasn’t particularly interested- I assumed it would be an easy melodrama of clear cut villains and heroes perfectly timed for a MLK Black History month release- which it actually is. But the craft of it, the filmmaking nuts and bolts, are superb.
Oyelowo plays King as a man more of logic than religious fervor, a man who understands his power and his duty to the fulcrum point of American history he finds himself controlling for that brief window of time after Kennedy and Malcolm X’s murders.
DuVernay’s very modern plot structure of short scenes give snapshots of emotion. The film opens with a shock; the most brutal violence imaginable, staged just right, so that even though you realize what must be coming, it still jolts. An 82 year old black man watches his grandson murdered by Alabama State troopers; Tim Roth as George Wallace, the buffoonish governor of Alabama, who walks right into certain failure in the face of King’s deft strategy.
The cinematography also stars here, claustrophobic and intimate moments of courage, tension, and rage propel the movie forward with staccato tension.
Oyelowo and DuVernay certainly deserved nominations, but, in the Academy’s (I guess) “defense”, an Oscar seem to have become somewhat more of a lifetime achievement award than anything else. Also there is this. And they gave a bunch of Oscars to a “black” movie last year, 12 Years a Slave. So there’s that- but on the whole, the backlash is certainly justifiable.
But. As I said, Selma, at the core of its storytelling, is an easy melodrama of clear cut villains and heroes. Watching the white ‘Bama’s wave their Confederate flags and the Nazi-like State troopers giving Kafkaesque orders to crowds of black marchers to disperse while attacking them with Billy clubs, whips, and tear-gas, reinforces the laughable nature of any lingering “pride” about the Old South.
In fact, none of the white characters in the entire movie, especially the “good” whites-who are more saintly caricatures than real people, come across as actual humans. Lyndon Johnson, widely regarded as one of the most adroit political operatives of the 20th century, is easily controlled by King and seems in way over his head as the U.S. President. Maybe he was, but a more nuanced ballet between King and Johnson on the screen would have rung truer for me.
Alabama governor Wallace, who later ran 2 disturbingly successful campaigns for President in 1968 and 1972 (he won the Democratic nomination in my home state of Michigan), is malevolent and creepy- which I’m sure he mostly was in real life, but, again, Roth’s portrayal is that of the idea of a segregationist governor more than a real person. I would bet that the real George Wallace’s motivations weren’t really driven by such personal malevolence- he was probably just pandering to an ignorant voting constituency in his lust for power- something American politicians (Obama included) are, of course, still doing today.
As an overall work of art, Selma is a solid 8.5/10. Go see it. So there’s your review, but I have an addendum. Historical dramas about important and contentious issues like the Civil Rights movement are marketed to us as worth seeing not just for their artistry, perhaps not even primarily for their artistry-we are told to see them because they are important, because they will teach us something about the world and ourselves. Does Selma really do that? No.
It’s easy for us to watch the ignorance-porn of racist southern police, the grace-under-fire of Oyelowo/King, the martyred white goodness of Viola Liuzzo and James Reeb, and feel good about ourselves and our country. Whites get to feel superior to their parents/ grandparents generation (and there is nothing more American than feeling superior, is there?), and blacks can watch Dr. King run circles around Governor Wallace and President Johnson on the silver screen while wearing their Michael Jordan gym shoes and basking in the glow of the Black president. Everyone leaves a winner.
For those interested, a deep pool of analysis on the Civil Rights movement and its impact is easily accessed, which raise tremendous questions about the long-term repercussions of the elite Black Clergy’s non-violent and join-the-system platform. For one, affirmative action, the final major public policy element of the Civil Rights movement, primarily benefited white women and African-Americans that were already doing well enough to be applying for college and corporate/government jobs. Blacks’ entry into the American capitalist machine has benefited primarily their own 1%, creating a junior-varsity of business moguls from the ranks of sports and entertainment. Most importantly, is it accurate to think of African-Americans as being more “free” when Black males in the United States are the most frequently incarcerated group of people on planet Earth, and are much more likely to be in government custody in 2015 than they were in 1965?
So, go see Selma, but if you really want to honor the legacy of that time and place, don’t let the film be an answer, but the door to even more questions, because the long walk to equality among all humanity has only just begun.