Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Selma - A Great Film an Imperfect World Deserves

We do not often speak of people this way, but there are American Saints.  These are figures so beloved, so important to our history, that they become semi-divine.  They are legends beyond reproach, not real people with petty terrestrial concerns.  According to my count, there are six such icons.  Four are Presidents:  Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy, and Reagan.  But one stands alone, a man who never took elected office, but still has his own individual Saint Day in January.  That man is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the greatest figure of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.

As for the sixth American Saint?  Elvis Presley.  But he's not in this movie.

One cannot envy the task that "Selma" has given itself:  to make a human portrait of Martin Luther King.  Biopics are typically beloved fair of Oscarbait, but they are always tricky movies to make.  Few lives add up in total to a single dramatic formula that fits a two hour movie.  The worst-structured biopics end up meandering and often boring.  For example:  the otherwise brilliant "Mr. Turner".  These problems are multiplied infinitely when your figure is an  irreproachable member of the modern Pantheon, more sacred than most actual divinities in this country*.  "Selma"'s solution is as brilliant as it is simple:  do not be a biopic.  Focus on a single moment in time and make your figures merely actors in a grand historic play.

"Selma" borrows much of it's structure from "Lincoln" - be a drama about a single battle in your hero's life, not a drama about his entire life.  This film is only about the 1964 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.  King orchestrated protestors to strike at the very bastion of White supremacy, forcing the US government to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  "Selma" goes somewhat further than "Lincoln".  It is not a story about one civil rights leader, but a tale about the entire movement, with MLK merely being the appointed star.  King (David Oyelowo), fresh with a Noble Peace Prize, uses the Selma march to convince a relunctant President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to side with him against Southern tyranny.  "Selma" manages to juggle reverence with drama, building a tight, intense, and emotional movie giving a clear, modern picture into one of the most difficult chapters of American history.

One challenge that any history piece must confront, be it a book or a film, is to capture any moment in time in a way that is appreciable to a modern audience.  "Selma" correctly judges that it will be impossible for any audience to be sympathetic towards the Whites in power.  They are cast as simple creatures of hate.  Though there is not a single Klan member in "Selma", it's state troopers are just as monstrous, with no redeeming factors of any kind.  Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) is a pure villain, one who truly wishes to see Black people defeated in his state**.  The tensions of a repressed minority attempting to overcome a viscous caste system is universal, an easily sympathetic tale.  Still, with the weight of history on your side, it is difficult to resist temptations to not become too preachy.  This must remain a human story with characters confronting real dramatic tests, not preaching lessons.

The Lords of Selma.
David Oyelowo's Martin Luther King is a character full of complications and doubts.  He is not merely a preacher following a call from God, but a crafty political strategist, choosing a very particular battlefield in Selma.  This was no accidental skirmish, rather a particular spot designed to incite a violent response from an angry and stupid sheriff, manipulating the press and the nation to act.  After King is punched in the face by a random White boy, he knows:  "Selma is the place".  This King is not standing alone against a phalanx of angry conservatives.  Rather he has an army of pastors, lawyers, and political activists played by actors such as Common, Lorraine Toussaint, "Dear White People"'s Tessa Thompson, and an 'I'm-still-relevant-dammit' cameo from none other than Oprah Winfrey.  These figures have their own egos, disagreements, and fractions, which King must manage the best he can, while he deals with his demons.

It is hard to tell after "Selma"'s first whether events are still being managed by the Civil Rights Leaders or if they have begun to grow an energy all their own.  As young protesters are shot in cafes attempting to escape Alabama state troopers and White pastors supporting the movement are beaten to death in the street, the Selma March becomes an organism with it's own will and own tempo.  Martin Luther King leads forward on a roaring historical tide, much as the film is pushed along by fantastic editing and stirring pacing.  Director Ava DuVernay manages to create a feeling in her audience of being a part of that very historic tide.  You can feel the energy as the world changes, and are swept away by it.

King himself is still the primary character, though he does not need to be in every scene or make every key decision.  He is the rallying figure for many disparate characters, and he is the emotional core of the movie.  There are moments though where his faith and personality feel almost trampled by the crest of the movement he is leading - and being led by.  King's wife Coretta Scott (Carmen Ejogo) is a quiet long-suffering woman, having her family essentially torn apart by her husband's mission.  Martin himself is tired, worn, and aching to just go home.  The man finds he must again fight more battles, realizing on some level that his life will eventually be lost by this quest.  Oyelowo's voice trembles as he tries his best to hold together a failing marriage nearly torn about by his own (graciously unseen) philandering.

Hard to know if they are staying together out of love, or the expectations of the movement.
Above it all is a few brilliant filmmaking flourishes.  Ava DuVernay peppers her film with unexplained ledger notes, at first seeming to be just an expository technique.  Then you realize what this really is.  It is the all-seeing-eye of the Federal Bureau of Investigation typing out the movements of the Civil Rights Leaders.  "Selma" opens with a literal bang as the Bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church is Birmingham, moved forward two years in time for dramatic license, ends with lives of four innocent little girls.  In slow motion we see torn fabric and parts of limbs move across the screen in the midst of a sea of flame.  Then of course, there are the showstopping moments of Oyelowo breaking into a full impression of Martin Luther King's masterful and unforgettable speeches.  Pure acting grace matched with narrative balance makes "Selma" a truly great, unmissable film.

There has been a great deal of controversy around "Selma", as one would inevitably expect.  Dramatic convenience simplifies a great deal of the timeline.  Certain characters and elements are ignored or diluted.  But there is one issue that seems to have rallied opponents to this film:  LBJ.  Lyndon Johnson is hardly a villain on the same scale as George Wallace.  His place in the story is more of an obstructionist, with his opinion being that voting reform should wait while he focuses on a grand War on Poverty.  King and his supporters, for a litany of reasons, will not wait.

Some have called LBJ's presence in this movie an insult to the most Civil Rights-minded president of all time (which Johnson undeniably was).  I would say this is a misinterpretation of the goals of the film.  Johnson in this film is clearly on the Civil Rights side, though Tom Wilkinson's performance makes the character seem stubborn and offended by a question to his power.  This Johnson is not really the LBJ of our reality, whose motives during the Selma March can be debated by historians forever like everything in history, but rather an incarnation of Moderate Whites during this period.  He is slow to realize the depth of the problem in the South, but once he is finally moving with the tide of Civil Rights, he as great of a supporter as any other figure.  It was a necessary component to the structure of this story, not a slander of a President.

He has a Dream.
"Selma" is not a relic from a by-gone age.  And in a lot of ways, that is a terrible fact.  It is a film that continues to speak to the world we live in today, when maybe it shouldn't.  Black and White cultures within the United States continue to have a difficult struggle living together.  We are ever more linked and joined by inseparable bonds thanks to the work of the great heroes at places like Selma, Alabama.  We can never go back to those times.  However, the story has not been concluded.  You cannot see White lawman beating down people with billy clubs and not see Eric Garner or Michael Brown.  Are they victims of racial injustice such as the ones who were killed in 1964?  Most likely not.  America has changed since that time, we are not who we were fifty years ago.  But negotiations to share this country peacefully continue to need to be made.

"Selma" probably should not be a film that is too relevant.  I would prefer for it to be as dusty and separate from our modern understanding as "Mr. Turner".  However, it is still a powerful film - about the past, but speaking to today.

* Sorry, Ganesh.

** The real Wallace was more complicated.  He was more of a populist than a true racist, whose ultimate goals were attacking the wealthy, not Black people.  Most of Wallace's hideous speeches were influenced by his Ku Klux Klan leader speechwriter, Asa Earl Carter.  There was a huge angry voting block heatedly opposed to the Civil Rights Movement, and George Wallace was more too willing to use it to win votes.  Though he became the defining arch-segregationist, Wallace renounced all of it by the 1970s.  However, the man who once said "segregation now, segregation forever" cannot really complain if future generations decide he is a complete monster.  He would not be the last politician to pander to the worst elements of the human animal to vote office.

PS:  Damn, just missed MLK Day with this review.  Oh well.  It's not like Martin Luther King ceases to matter on January 20th.


  1. Kennedy and Reagan beyond reproach?

    Okay yeah they are influential , but didn't Kennedy's family have mob connections and don't many of the left side consider Reagans early term to be a bit of a war footing.

    I mean to doubt they are influential, but they had their flaws.

    Personally if it was not for the Japanese internment camps I would think to throw FDR on that list.

    But that's just my thoughts

    Sword Of Primus

    1. Not really a universal standard. It depends really if there is a cult to their name. Listen to any Republican speech made in the last twenty-five years, Reagan is a God. Kennedy is America's great martyr, the so-called end to our innocence, Camelot, whatever. They're worshiped figures by some.

      I can't think of a seventh man or woman in our history who has managed to achieve that.

    2. Fair enough.

      I was actually thinking about another person or persons that have been "worshipped figures".

      After a bit of thinking of I came up with two.

      Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin . The first man on the moon and first man in space are definitely deserving of all the respect they can get.

      Admittedly that's a bit of bias on my part, I love space and have the utmost respect for the space programs.

      But aside from the moon landing deniers ( a cover up of that scale is impossible) and those still bitter from the cold war that a communist got into space first. Most people highly respect these men.

      But that's just my thoughts, they are different from yours and I respect persons different opinions if they can reasonably articulate them, as you have done so.

      Sword Of Primus

  2. A lot of the Founding Fathers would probably fall under the same category as those six you mentioned. That brings up a fascinating discussion though. We really do deify these people.


  3. According to Bioshock Infinite, There's also Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson o.o