Not perfect. There are moments when the dialogue doesn’t quite click, and a few scenes that telegraph, and I seem to remember one that went on too long. But…”Selma”, directed by Ava DuVernay, is magnificent, in that it humanizes a pivotal figure in American history, in some critical ways that matter to me deeply, THE pivotal figure. In my estimation, black Americans became full Americans, were considered fully human, by about 1970, and MLK’s March from Selma was a matter of a deliberate, exquisitely calculated event designed to force Americans to choose which side of history they were going to be on.
There is debate about LBJ’s role: how willing he was, how resistant, to what degree King forced his hand, and to what degree they were cooperating. The fact is that you cannot make a film about historical events where every critic and viewer will agree that you got your facts right, or understood what was happening. Is. Not. Possible.
But what you CAN do is give people a sense of history, of what it was like to be there. I find LBJ believable: as a politician, even with the best of intentions, it would make sense for him to take the “force me to do this” position that Roosevelt took with Booker T. Washington. I’m old enough to remember talk radio, newspaper editorials and political chatter at the time, and there is no question that King was called a communist, radical, rabble-rouser, opportunist, and far more, and far worse, at the time. To assume that a President wasn’t taking a huge chance, wasn’t assuming moral leadership at a time that the country was divided on questions of basic humanity…would display, IMHO, ignorance of the actual situation.
And that’s the BEST case scenario. Do we really need to speculate on that aspect? I hope not.
So let’s move away from that. David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo are magnificent as Martin and Coretta King, and there are scenes between them that touch actual greatness. To root a great man in real, complex, messy human emotions is one of the real gifts art can bring us. It tells us what we are capable of, if we move beyond our fears and selfish instincts, and use the terror of mortality to spur rather than limit us.
Tananarive had already seen it, but wanted to see it with me as her birthday celebration. Her family was heart-deep in the Movement (my mother, a Republican, listened to Joe Pyne every day and generally agreed with the conservative position that King was causing more trouble than he was solving. IMHO this stemmed from her childhood in Georgia, in which she witnessed lynchings and had an extreme “keep your head down” position) and grew up with stories of King as a man, not as a demi-god or saint. It was the Movement that had to be immortal, because individual leaders could be struck down, killed, or discredited. Whether LBJ asked J. Edgar Hoover to bring down King is something we’ll never know. We do know that Hoover had good reason to believe a large segment of the population would agree with his actions, and in that sense, the scene where they imply this is legitimate, emotionally if not historically.
It was an attempt to destroy the family, the rock on which King stood. He knew he was a dead man. The reason to push as he did, agitate and plot and plan and shamelessly appeal to higher human purpose and conscience as he did, was for his family, blood and extended. And attacking that base was a calculated attempt to slow him down. Too much change, too fast, you see. Of course the other side was: not enough change, too much pain for too long.
One can take whichever side one wants. I doubt there is a “zero point” middle of the road on this one. And which side one takes will influence what one thinks of the events. And if you try to measure what happened then by current standards, you’ll miss what it felt like to be alive at the time.
To its credit, “Selma” does that. The fact that the story took so long to be told is simply evidence that the “too much too soon” crowd held sway right into the 21st Century. T and I talked about this film all the way there, and all the way home. And we’ve spoken for hundreds of hours about the events. And I’ve spoken to many who were there. There will be no end to the debate. Here’s what I know: the filmmakers earned Oscar nominations, no question. Do they deserve to win? I’ve not seen every movie up for the award, and it is impossible for me to remove my personal feelings from any evaluation of its worth.
I can say with confidence that it is groundbreaking, both political and philosophical and humanistic, and a fine, full film. I think one would have to be radicalized to an extreme, on one side or the other, not to appreciate what it has to say. “Selma” is an “A+” film with some small flaws that keep it from being a pure classic. But I’m starting to have a hell of a man-crush on Brad Pitt, whose “Plan B” productions is taking risks, and filling in historical holes, like nobody’s business. And as for Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo productions? (She herself plays a small, pivotal part as a woman denied her right to vote by loathsome means)…well, I’d be lying not to say there was a little voice in my head saying: “YOU get a history! And YOU get a history! And YOU…”
Well done, well done all.