One of the realities of American life is that one cannot broach the topic of race without allegations of racism entering the conversation almost immediately. That is unfortunate but understandable. The history of race relations in this country is an injury to the body politic, if not soul of America. Sometimes it is a scar. Sometimes it is an open wound. These days “Tea Party” politicians and Fox News pundits are fond of saying we live in a “post-racial” society. The statement is absurd. The issue of race continues to be politically charged and fraught with agenda from every perspective. It is within this context one sees Ava DuVernay’s film, Selma. And it is within that same context one observes the controversy that surrounds it.
Selma is powerful and well-crafted film. It tells the story of the events leading up to the march from Selma Alabama to the state’s capital in Montgomery in March of 1965; focusing largely on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s role in those events. The event was organized to protest the disenfranchisement of African-American citizens who were systematically prevented from registering to vote in much of the Deep South since Reconstruction, nowhere more so than in Alabama.
The film is not a biopic of Dr. King, though he is portrayed most prominently. Neither is it a history of the Civil Rights movement. The events dramatized in Selma occurred almost a decade after the Montgomery bus boycott made Rosa Parks a household name. The 1963 March on Washington where Dr. King gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech was almost 18 months earlier. Indeed, the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 was already the law of the land. What makes the march from Selma so significant is effect it had on America. It’s been said that opposition to the Vietnam War was driven, in part, because, for the first time, television put images of the war in people’s minds by putting it in their living rooms. Media coverage of the Selma march forced Americans to confront the ugliness of segregation and the violence to which it’s defenders could resort.
Despite her previous experience being limited to smaller scale films, DuVernay does a skillful job of presenting the reality of the march, especially the events of “Bloody Sunday” when the first attempt to march was driven back when the marchers were brutally attacked by County Sheriff Jim Clark’s “posse” and Alabama State Troopers, sent to Selma by Alabama Governor George Wallace. There are moments in the Bloody Sunday section of the film that are almost physically painful to watch. The march went ahead eighteen days later after President Johnson sent Federal troops to protect the marchers.
The narrative is mostly linear. The film begins with Dr. King’s acceptance of his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. This event is juxtaposed with two other events; the unsuccessful attempt by Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey who is also a producer of the film) to register to vote in Selma, and the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church which took the lives of four young African-American girls. The film culminates when the march reaches the capitol steps in Montgomery.
The film was a long time in the making. It was championed by David Oyelowo, the British actor who plays Dr. King. DuVernay was the fourth director to work on the project before bringing it to completion. She also contributed to the screenplay though, for contractual reasons, she is not credited as a writer.
The film makes an effort to avoid canonizing Dr. King and the other leaders of the movement. We see glimpses of the struggles in his marriage. the philosophical gulf between Dr. King and Malcolm X, and the tactical and generational differences that result in political infighting between Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and John Lewis’ Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
The performances are universally strong. It is interesting that most of the principal actors are from the U.K. Dr. King, Coretta Scott King, Governor Wallace and President Johnson are all played by Brits.
The writers could not get the rights to use Dr. King’s speeches so all of his speeches had to be written for the film, no small task when the character is arguably one of the best, and most recognizable, orators of the 20th century. DuVernay and Oyelowo have both said they took pains to avoid making the performance an impersonation of Dr. King. I think they succeeded. The same could be said of the actors playing Coretta Scott King, President Johnson and Governor Wallace. A number of other well-known historical figures are also depicted. I remember Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and John Lewis but I remember them as they were later in their lives so any deviation that might exist in their speech and mannerisms do not detract from the story.
Much of the controversy surrounding the movie stems from questions about it’s historical accuracy and its depictions of its Caucasian characters. DuVernay has been criticized for depicting the Church bombing because it occurred in Birmingham, not Selma, and because it occurred 18 months early in September 1963. That does not bother me. It was a critical event in the history of the Civil Rights movement and undoubtedly affected the climate in the which the events of 1965 took place.
As an ‘old white guy’ watching this film, it is noticeable, and uncomfortable, that almost all of the Caucasian faces depicted in the film before Bloody Sunday are little more than masks of racial hatred. Of course I am even more uncomfortable knowing that such people did, and do, exist. After Bloody Sunday Americans, including Caucasians, traveled to Selma to support the movement. They are shown participating in the struggle and being victims of the violence. It is that shift in popular opinion that we need to see to understand the truth of Selma. This is effective and tells a true, albeit incomplete, story.
The loudest protests have been from those offended by the depiction of Johnson. LBJ has a strong record on civil rights and I think that is fairly presented. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law due to his efforts. In the film he is shown as seeking to prioritize his “war on poverty” over voting rights. Whether or not one is a fan of LBJ, there is no doubt he was a master of ‘real politik’. Eventually the force of Dr. King and the movement convinced Johnson to re-prioritize. He engaged in serious arm twisting with Wallace and, when that failed, he sent in troops. He signed the Voting Rights Act into law the following year and it served to enfranchise minority voters for the next 50 years.
An area where the critics have a valid complaint is the implication that Johnson authorized J. Edgar Hoover to use the information gather in the FBI’s (illegal) wire taps of Dr. King to smear the civil rights leader. That Hoover did this is a documented fact. It is unlikely, however, that it was done at Johnson’s direction. The role of the FBI in the civil rights movement is an important aspect of this story. That the screenplay chose to show this as a meeting in the Oval Office between Hoover and Johnson is a bit of storytelling license that is unfair to Johnson.
Ultimately, Selma presents a story that reveals the truth about the events that took place there. That there are relatively minor history inaccuracies troubles me very little. Supporters of the film characterize the criticism, and the film’s dearth of Oscar nominations, as racially motivated. Perhaps…(see paragraph one).
In addition to being powerful and well-crafted, Selma is an important film at this moment in history. Last year the Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, eliminating much of the enforcement power and opening the door for a return to discriminatory election procedures in states with long histories of enacting them, and they are doing so.
At least one of the likely 2016 Presidential candidates has gone on the record in saying he thinks the equal accommodations requirements of the 1964 Civil Rights Act should be struck down or repealed. He feels businesses should be free to serve “whites only” if the marketplace will bear it. It will.
And here in Harper’s Valley we have a sheriff ….. and he has a mounted posse too.
Everything old is new again.