Dear friends and readers,
(Downton Abbey will have to wait.) This is to recommend going to see Selma and why.
Selma is a powerful re-enactment of some central costs of protest against what the powerful in a society and their brutal henchman and the parts of their constituencies filled with deep resentment, hatred, mindless meannes will inflict –bodily. The sequences that are telling are the marches and the attempts to integrate public places in the south. Pain is important — as a weapon. Death, its shadow, the fog it places around your mind and acts (these are from lines spoken by David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King). We are made to see and feel close up what it is to be beaten and relentlessly hunted down and murdered. We see a white priest who came from Boston to join the protest beaten to death and we hear the blows. We see a young black man shot up close in a bar: the police chase him down, beat and then murder him in front of very one in the bar. We see older women, all sorts of people flee and hurt. Remember Voltaire: “pour encourager les autres?”
It’s not all violence. We watch Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper fill out a voting registration form, go up to the courthouse, how hard to walk through that door, stand in front of a sneering man who says her boss will like to hear about this, listen to his questions, she can answer each hard one until he wants to know the names of the 67 men who were county executives in the last number of years. I find it to be a woman’s film by this emphasis, by the choice of intimately felt scenes throughout.
See Miss Izzy on the film as by a black woman director: “But perhaps the refusal to be nicer to the big famous white guy in the story illustrates why this film is important … ”
Although Fergusson occurred after the filming or late in during it, this incident and so many others across the US, is what this film is about. Historical films are ways of taking a usable past and speaking to audiences about that past in terms of the present. Not just Fergusson, and all the countless other racial protest marches and mass assemblies and demonstrations around the Us, and not just what happened to the Occupy movement now almost 3 years ago – but by metaphor when these public demonstrations and the beatings and state terror tactics that destroy them occur across the earth in all the places the US and its allies occupying forces beat down (not to omit Israel on the Palestinians, now ISIS, Boko Haram and the boss of that state who lets them do what they want). I say possibly because these other places and forces are there by analogy and the protests against them are quite different from the racial ones in the US which Selma is about (analogy works only so far).
It is a kind of odd thrill (to me) to see re-enacted John Lewis (by Stephan James) when young, how he came to join King too. These are my heroes too. Other people are enacted (Andre Holland as Andrew Young, Reuben Santiago-Young as Bayard Rustin and almost not recognizable small parts well done: Alessandro Nivola as Johnson’s political operative trying to persuade King to cool it and protect himself, Tim Roth in the thankless role of the snake-sleaze Wallace) but the plaudits have to go to David Oyelowo who I’ve seen a number of times before: most notably in memory, Small Island. He made the daring intelligent choice not to do a virtuoso imitation but act the part from within himself; he is in physical type like King, round face, stocky body, and he did when delivering some of King’s speeches allow himself (so to speak) suddenly to begin to imitate King’s speech patterns, tones, body language — well it was terrifically successful and then I felt a strong wave of wishing King had lived and wishing he had been permitted to do something far more than he was able.
Those who were alive at the time (1960s) may remember King began to emerge as someone moving beyond racial issues. He began to argue eloquently against the vicious policies of the US abroad; and he began to become more widely popular, even with whites. That wouldn’t do and those who had the abilities and power to do so with impunity had him murdered.
It’s also good to go as a kind of political statement. At my local art house there was a considerable row of black people in the audience. It’s a movie house deep in Fairfax, hardly ever any black people. The audience was not full but they applauded afterwards as I’ve seen people do at political films and also when they want to express their approval intensely.
It has its problems. Overproduced, over melodramatic, glossy surface, too quick scenes. It’s getting so it’s hard to find a movie which doesn’t do these things and they ruin the experience, do not permit nuances. It’s not a very nuanced film — it reminded me of Lincoln, a pious parable. The worst thing is that the relationship between King and Johnson is apparently wrong. King did not have to force Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass the legislation which made it for about 50 years very hard — impossible — to stop black people voting. (No more. The present reactionary Supreme Court has eviscerated it. It must be re-enacted now in a contemporary form and soon.) They worked together.
Tom Wilkinson who played Lord Mansfield in the film, Belle, seems to be this year’s idea of the benevolent well-meaning (but somewhat misguided) white patriarch (patriarchy not questioned in this film, or Belle, for that matter)
It would have been less dramatic to tell the truth. Still a historical film like this ought to have some conscience — and the real truth of how they worked together is probably of real interest instead of this heads-on melodrama. It would tell far more about human nature and how politics works, how such legislation came to be passed. There was no emphasis on the reporters except that they were there. None on lobbyists, there needed to be more intermediary people. Read Elizabeth Drew in the NYRB.
You see the film showed those marches in an entirely different spirit from the way they were framed in the early 1960s. The film tried to suggest that in the 1960s the marches were fairly shown on TV.
Not so. The depictions on TV were appalled but often very hostile. I was like many people moved by the outpouring of (in effect) protest and standing together on behalf of liberty and against barbarity (though we saw the French police practice murderering too, full-scale shoot-outs of the type that happen frequently in the US). The film does have a reference to Fergusson near its end, in the themed underscore music, but in the US we don’t frame marches that way — in the US after the horrors of Fergusson we did have marches, people did come out to protest, to defy, to stand for all people (blacks included especially) mattering, but what it televised that way? Was it framed that way? not at all. The same holds true for our Occupy Movement three years ago now. (The French don’t murder each other daily the way US people do. It’s no use talking about the NRA — how did they get to be so powerful; they must have backers among the US population wide enough). So it was more than the marches which passed the legislation. Again the film didn’t want to go there — that’s why it remained unfortunately a child-like parable.
Sometimes I wonder why I study films. Well, because it is the medium in which our world communicates to one another. I liked that rap song that rightly won the Golden Globes last night: Stop and listen.
The director used a combination of means. There were realistic scenes, iconic emblematic large scenes, scenes where the actors spoke to one another in effect allegorically, all against a backdrop of recreated sixties-looking cities and towns and landscapes. The scenes were punctuated — across them appeared suddenly typed letters in white — the recordings of the FBI and other watchdogs onto machines keeping track of where the people under surveillance were and what they were doing. This too has resonance in 2014 — the methods were much cruder then; the people monitoring those acting could not capture their very conversations through digital technology.
Towards the end of the film you get footage and when the last huge march to the Alabama courthouse happened and the marchers had many whites among them and star black people — you will see a young Harry Belafonte marching, Sammy Davis Junior over to the side apparently not wanting to call attention to himself, but there.
Vote for it. Go.