dir: Ava DuVernay
Time for more homework, me guesses.
Selma is definitely homework. Selma is the kind of flick most people only get to see because it gets mentioned at Oscar time (for people like me, I guess). Had it not been nominated for anything, anything at all, no-one would have seen it, and no-one would really have cared. Nor missed it, nor felt its lack in any substantial way, regardless of what Oprah might tell them.
What’s it about? Is it about that most beloved of Simpsons characters, Selma Bouvier and her many husbands, or her perpetual disdain for customers down at the DMV? Is it about Selma Blair, that actress from the 90s who doesn’t seem to have done much else since reaching her pinnacle in Todd Solondz’s Storytelling?
I mean, she did her bit for black/white relations in that harrowing film, but where's her parade?
No. It’s about something far more boring/important. It’s about African-Americans fighting for their right to register to vote in the South in 1965. It’s about them fighting for, and in many cases, dying for, a right most of us take for granted.
Because it’s about a specific event, you wouldn’t really call it a biopic of the very Reverend Martin Luther King’s life, and yet you couldn’t argue that he wasn’t the main character in this flick, because otherwise the main character would be… Selma, Alabama itself.
What is Selma? Selma is a town, a town in Alabama where they still didn’t like black people. It was a town selected by King and his supporters because they believed the local redneck sheriff would go berserk and unleash hell on the peaceful protestors staging actions with the intention of getting press coverage. The purpose of the press coverage is to compel the President (Tom Wilkinson), or LBJ as he is better known, to pass a piece of legislation making it illegal to prevent African-Americans from registering to vote.
I guess it’s less important to talk about what it’s about than to talk about ‘how’ it’s about it, as in, is it an interesting and informative rendering of events? I mean, just to be horribly unfair and obvious, if I wanted to find out about these events, presumably I could watch an actual documentary about the events, or I could read a book about it, or look up the Wikipedia entry. Why would I watch a fictionalised movie about it instead?
Well, I’m one of those shallow people that usually only learns about history through films. I’m never going to read another book or watch another doco about the Civil Rights movement. But I’ll sure as shit watch a good movie about the same events, because a) it’s easier and less time consuming that way, and b) if a film is well done, it can have more of an impact, at least upon my memory.
I couldn’t help but feel that this was largely a superficial rendering of events, even as I applaud the central performance in this, by David Oyelowo as the great man. I even thought Wilkinson, who’s been criticised a lot for his LBJ, was pretty good, even Tim Roth as vile Dixiecrat governor George Wallace was pretty great, seeing as he loves playing venomous villains.
The problem for me was that when MLK wasn’t talking, I didn’t really care. The other bits didn’t really feel as real. Even if what Oyelowo is doing in the central role is only to embody or imitate a very famous icon, he gives the performance sufficient weight and gravity such that it feels compelling and real, and vital.
The other performances? Not so much. There was especially, I found, an arch stiltedness in many scenes, but especially in the scene between the good doctor and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) that felt like no conversation about infidelity had by a husband and wife ever in human history, let alone by this good doctor and his saintly wife.
It’s not like that scene or any other is badly acted, far from it. It’s just that while they might have been plausible in what they were trying to do and say, they weren’t really believable as actual humans at all.
That’s as opposed to the scenes of brutality, the historic scenes straight out of the horrors of what these people and their supporters endured, which are all too believable. The night march through Marion, Alabama, which results in horrible beatings and deaths look as horrible as it doubtless was. Sure they could have been nastier, but what more other than “these people suffered a lot” really needs to be asserted? The crucial element is that it was an unprovoked attack on harmless people doing nothing more than walking by state troopers who were never prosecuted for their murderous actions.
Where’s the movie about those shitheels, rednecks and scumbags? Where’s the movie about them living their comfortable lives throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, as they never regret their actions, and lament that they should have killed more "Negros" when they had the chance?
The most important scenes in this flick aren’t the scenes of violence, or the marching / protesting; it’s when King is laying out their strategy for victory. It’s explained in such a way that even a genius like me can understand it, but it really goes to illuminating just how complex the game they were playing was.
That scene, which is before just about halfway through the film, is the crux of the matter. It’s far more important, and far more credible that almost anything else, at least for me. Don’t get me wrong, in case I haven’t asserted it enough, David Oyelowo is great as King, and is always compelling, letting the cadences and flow of his preacher’s elocution carry scenes through to their best ends, whether he’s consoling the parents of murdered protestors or begging Mahalia Jackson to re-inspire him by singing Take My Hand, Precious Lord over the phone (a very weird scene, but maybe I just didn’t get what they were going for with it).
No, King setting out (for the dumber members of the audience like me) exactly how these protests and marches were intended to work is worth a textbook of explanation or a 12-hour Ken Burns documentary about the same topic. The goal was to find a town where the police were not only rednecks who hated African-Americans, but that they were dumb enough to overreact. Violently. They had to be so stupid and violent that they would happily attack innocent people with all the press and cameras around. They had to be so blind to their own stupidity, that they couldn’t realise their actions would directly destroy their own cause of white supremacy.
They had to be recorded attacking the ‘regular’ protesters in such a way that ‘White” America itself would be horrified at the fundamental unfairness of it. Only then would this film’s version of LBJ feel compelled to act.
The way this works out is brilliant. The way it actually leads, when King puts out the call to religious people across the States to come and support them in their march towards the state capitol in Montgomery, brought tears to my eyes. Seeing (let’s not play the race-baiting game here) Greek Orthodox priests, Catholic nuns, Jewish rabbis and probably some snake handlers linking arms with the marchers as they are about to cross the infamous Edmund Pettus bridge, forcing the police to step aside, is pretty much not just an important moment in American civil rights, it’s a great moment in our species’ history. It’s a great moment for all of us.
There’s this weariness amongst a lot of people, decent and otherwise, in that themes and stories like this are said to be overdone or unnecessary, because all the battles have been won, and we should be focussing on the future or some other crap. My problem with this idea is that it looks at human history as a sequence of after-the-fact inevitabilities, as in, well, of course it happened, it was always going to happen eventually, even if it didn’t happen at that particular time, so what’s the big deal?
That kind of attitude does a fundamental disservice to the people who fought and died for these rights. There was nothing inevitable about these moments. They happened for a whole bunch of reasons, but mostly it’s because bunches of people worked bloody hard to make it happen, and many paid the ultimate price.
I’ve heard complaints that the flick does LBJ a disservice by misrepresenting his actual position on voting rights for African Americans by making it look like King had to drag him to the negotiation table through actions taken to make him look bad. I fail to see how anything in this film defames or portrays him in that negative a light. Sure, the FBI apparently didn’t start hounding King and his family until after Selma and the Voting Rights Act, but it certainly maligned him, and, not coincidentally, happily maligned other people involved like Viola Liuzzo, who gets a brief mention at the end of the film, who was murdered by Klansmen, and who Hoover lied about in the press to portray her as a drug addict with jungle fever when she was nothing of the sort, not that it would have justified her murder regardless.
And anyway, fuck LBJ for not passing the Voting Rights Act sooner. Many people wouldn’t have lost their lives if he’d had the balls to do it sooner. There, I said it.
This flick gives an adequate summary. It gives a decent idea of what was at stake, what lengths certain Americans were prepared to go to stop African Americans from ever voting (which still holds true today), but it’s also pretty perfunctory and feels artificial in its striving for ‘prestige’ status. Plus it has Oprah in it, which isn’t that good an idea at the best of times.
It’s not a great film, though, no matter what the makers were hoping for. The story is great, but this telling of it, whenever King is not on the screen, is somewhat less than great.
7 times it’s sometimes easy for me to forget how stupid and how awful people are capable of being over the dumbest things possible out of 10
“Our lives are not fully lived if we're not willing to die for those we love, for what we believe.” - Selma