Wednesday, January 7, 2015

SELMA illuminates our present state of race relations by revisiting the past

I have this memory of being in first grade and just learning about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the first time. We had some kind of worksheet that gave us some basic facts about him, along with a drawing. I very clearly recall squinting at the date of his death: 1968.

1968? That made no sense to me. He was fighting for black people to be seen as equal. A year earlier I had played Abe Lincoln in a school play, so I understood about the Civil War and how black people were consider slaves then. But that war ended in 1865. Surely this information about Dr. King meant to say that he died in 1868. 1968 was only about 20 years ago. The Batman TV show I watched in reruns every afternoon was from 1968. You mean to tell me that when Batman was fighting crime, there were still major civil rights issues?

I told my mom there was a mistake on the ditto. She informed me the date was right, that he hadn't died all that long ago. I just couldn't process how people could still be so racist in so recent a past. I grew up in the midwest, where as far as I was concerned, everyone WAS equal. There were black kids in my class, no one treated them any different. I just couldn't process how racism had lingered so long after the days of Lincoln, and then how it seemingly had disappeared so much since Dr. King.

It's funny how it all makes sense to a child that everyone should be equal. Of course today I look around and all I see is how much further we have to go. 

It seemed so odd to me then because it wasn't my experience. It was so far outside the realm of what I knew, that I couldn't process it. I thought about that a lot during SELMA, a film deftly brings the experience of oppressed southern blacks into the audience's awareness.

Like THE CRUCIBLE, SELMA tells a story about the past with very direct commentary on our present. Some of the parallels are so of the moment that for a moment, you might almost think that it was conceived in direct response to incidents like the horrifying police brutality in Ferguson, and the abominable dismantling of the very Voting Rights Act that's origins are depicted in the film.

The film wisely doesn't attempt to be a full biopic on Dr. King and instead focuses on the marches Dr. King led from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in an effort to protest obstacles put in place to prevent black citizens from registering to vote in the South. Though they legally have the right to vote, a number of provisions have been put in place to achieve the end of disinfranchising black voters. In turn, this ensures that racist, bigoted elected officials remain secure in office, and also that blacks can't serve on juries, meaning that that the system shields racist officials and individuals even if they manage to be brought to trial for crimes against the black community.

Dr. King has appealed to President Johnson to step in and call for a congressional law outlawing these practices. Johnson has bigger fish to fry, and there's more than a suggestion that he doesn't want to piss off a large chunk of the Southern electorate by calling for legislation sure to be unpopular among angry reactionary bigots who will vote him out of office. He tries to pass the buck on down to the state level.

The film essentially becomes a chess match between King and Johnson, with King recognizing that their endgame needs to be to shine enough light on the injustice in Alabama that Johnson has no choice but to act. As long as these actions are taking place in darkness, Johnson can afford to ignore it. But if the eyes of the nation are fixed on Selma, Johnson is going to have to get his hands dirty somehow.

There's a simplistic view that activism is just about making a lot of noise. Hell, I think there are plenty of activists who think the best way to achieve their ends is to be loud and disruptive. There's not a lot of big picture thinking going on there. There are some brilliantly-written scenes that lay out this strategy. It's not just about making noise - King insists they work out a plan so that when Johnson caves, they can give him specific solutions that can be implemented as part of the law they will call for. They're not just doing pie-in-the-sky "raising awareness." It's very much a "Now that we have your attention, here are the solutions we want in a language you can understand."

There's a scene where King and his associates have to decide what the single most important aspect of the issue they need to address is. It's a moment of exposition, but it doesn't play totally as such. It feels like problem-solving, and in one efficent scene, the stakes and the solution are swiftly laid out.  We know what the law has to address, we know that King has an endgame, and we understand what it will take to get there.

There's another intriguing moment of gamesmanship where Malcolm X offers his own form of assistance in a meeting with Coretta Scott King. It's made clear more than once that politicians like Johnson see King as the more "acceptable" figurehead for the civil rights movement, as opposed to the more militant and aggressive Malcolm X. Malcolm X knows this and offers to be the "worst-case" alternative that sends the power structure running into King's arms. (As it turns out, he's assassinated before much can be done, but it's interesting to see the dynamics at play here.)

There's a pitfall cliche that a number of older films about civil rights efforts fall into - they're often centered on the acts of a white savior. It doesn't seem like a huge problem until you struggle to find such a film where the black protagnist is truly at the center: To Kill A Mockingbird, A Time to Kill and especially The Ghosts of Mississippi all fall into this trap. That doesn't automatically make any of those movies bad, but it's a trope that one should always be sensitive to.

I bring this up because in a way, SELMA addresses this "white savior" tendency. It's spelled out that the real victory will come when the struggles facing African-Americans are put on display for the white Americans. Then they will call for change and Johnson will have to listen. There is the unfortunate implication that white activism carries more weight than black activism. Particularly at that point in time, that's an unfortunate reality, and I would love to see film scholars more intelligent than I dissect this point in a little more depth. King definitely comes across as a man who is determined to use the system to change the system.

I don't recall any prior instances of Dr. King being depicted on screen, which means that David Oyelowo has to break ground as the first performer to personify this icon. That's no small task, though it might be aided in part by the fact that Oyelowo is still a relative unknown. We're not asked to accept Will Smith as Martin Luther King and so Oyelowo's challenge is to find a way to make the "behind closed doors" depiction of King feel like a piece of the great orator whose "I Have a Dream" speech every school child is familiar with. He pulls it off and perhaps the greatest compliment is that I cannot think of any other actor who could have done a better job.

It's hard to watch some of the sheer police brutality in some scenes and then realize that too many recent tragedies echo the same circumstances. Cops are show beating unarmed citizens, and at one point shooting another citizen dead long after they'd fled the scene of the riot and ceased to be a problem. You want to watch it and think, "Damn, that's horrible, but at least it's in the past." And then you remember that a Ferguson cop emptied his gun into an unarmed kid a hundred feet away and the case was never even brought to trial! The injustice these marchers face is far from in the past.

Even more so, it's a sad irony that the entire climax of the film comes down to Johnson calling for the Voting Rights Act that will shut down all of the red tape that has been disinfranchising black voters. In one early scene, we see just how capricious these laws are when a woman played by Oprah Winfrey goes to the registrar's office and he asks her increasingly arcane questions about how many local judges there are and what their names are. When she fails to answer a question that I'd wager most white voters would flunk, he uses that as a means to deny her.

Why is that said? Because just over a year ago, the conservative wing of the Supreme Court struck down some major parts of that act. This opens the door for future legislation to again restrict voting. For those who didn't quite grasp the full implications of this when the decision came, SELMA could be an eye-opener.

I'd put this on the list of 2014's must-sees, and I suspect that it'll become a tool for many a history teacher. I can't point out the virtues of the story without noting that this was no easy film to produce in the first place. This film not only faced the challenge of a comparatively small $20 million budget, but it also legally could not use any of the text of King's actual speeches. Every speech given is a line-for-line paraphrase of his actual words. (The script is credited to Paul Webb, but there was no WGA arbitration and interviews have made clear that DuVernay made considerable contributions there too.) 

This is a film as much about 2014 as any other contemporary film. I'm aware this is an intensely competitive year, but director Ava DuVernay deserves to be singled out by both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Directors Guild of America for her extraordinary work here. SELMA is more than an "eat your vegetables" movie. It's an important film that honors some brave men and women who stood up for their rights and forced a nation to look hard at it's own shame.


  1. Great article! FYI - Nelsan Ellis played M.L.K. in The Butler, but it was a small part.

  2. Great review. Hoping the smear job that is currently taking place doesn't affect its Oscar chances. Can't wait to see it!