An American Problem?

I had a pun all ready for use — well, the beginnings of one. I don’t think it is appropriate. I shall censor myself.

Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014)

This is an astonishing and moving account of the events around the 1965 Selma marches that deserved to have won an Oscar over the single continuous take of Birdman. David Oyelowo deserved shortlisting for the Oscars for Martin Luther King, but able-bodied playing disabled is always a fair bet (as is straight playing gay). I’ve not seen more than an episode of Spooks, so I don’t know Oyelowo’s work (although he was the principal in Interstellar). He’s surrounded by a host of British actors — Tim Roth as Governor Wallace, Howard Wilkinson as Lyndon B. Johnson, Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. Everyone seems to be giving their all. An uncredited Martin Sheen, meanwhile, as federal judge Frank Minis Johnson, seems to be channelling President Bartlet.

That being said, there are a couple of places where they didn’t quite hold their nerve.

It’s telling that there’s quite a large disclaimer at the end of the film noting that it isn’t documentary — which is on top of the usual no-intended likeness clause. Well, duh. Toward the end of the film we see King smoking — I think this may be almost the only time characters do so in an era when many more people did (I didn’t notice because I wasn’t looking earlier, but his smoking did stand out). In context the moment is there to show how much is at stake — he is nervous about what lies ahead. I didn’t quite believe it. One reporter seems to ask all the questions and offers the commentary. No biggie. There’s a couple of white guys that get beaten up and killed — were these guys real or just representative? I guess they stand in for any ally who lost their lives. More problematic is the placing of LBJ as supportive to an extent and whether King would have been able to be so blunt to a president without being shown the door. On the one hand, it’s dramatically right (did he fly? how could he afford such visits? how long would it take?), on the other, a generation will take their understanding of King and LBJ from this movie — which is why I felt little wish to see the version of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.

There are a few of moments of, “As you know, Martin” dialogue, so that we know enough historical context, but I think in general that is handled as well as it might be. It’s fascinating to watch the sheer self-awareness of their tactics — they know how the protest will work and what kind of impact they will get. It’s tempting to think of the past as more naÏve than it clearly was. Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch) has a low-key cameo, the more militant figure historically speaking, but again aware of the game being played (and let that use of the word “game” not undermine how serious all of this was).  King repeatedly refers to himself as a marked man, foreshadowing the assassination that you know lies in the future — although the action is focused on 1965.

The violence is, as it should be, distressing. From the frankly terrorist explosion in a church to the police charges around the Edmund Winston Pettus bridge, with whips, truncheons, barbed wire wrapped night sticks, smoke bombs and more, it is too unbearable to watch but too important not to. Obviously, I felt my buttons being pressed, the cameras are placed in such a way that you identify with the marchers, but it needs to be witnessed.

And then, in the closing credits, we get to the kind of music that troubled me a bit from the trailer  — in the kind of hypocritical not seeming historically-appropriate way. The track is called “Glory”, the work of John Legend and Common, the latter also appearing as John Bevel in the film. The song gives a kind of historical context:

Justice for all just ain’t specific enough
One son died, his spirit is revisitin’ us
Truant livin’ livin’ in us, resistance is us
That’s why Rosa sat on the bus
That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up
When it go down we woman and man up
They say, “Stay down”, and we stand up
Shots, we on the ground, the camera panned up
King pointed to the mountain top and we ran up

The Selma to Montgomery march was part of a wider campaign for voter registration in line with the US constitution and further fights for civil rights, one victory among many before and since. Anyone who has been watching the news over the last few years — the Rodney King beatings, the treatment of Barack Obama, the shooting of Michael Brown — must be aware of how a tension still runs through US culture. I wonder if we might have been trusted to make such connections ourselves?

I don’t know.

Clearly consciousnesses still need raising.

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