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Film Review: Selma, MLK, and Voting Rights: The Film Version

It seems like an eternity has passed since the chants of “we shall overcome” to “I can’t breathe” and “hands up, don’t shoot.” In fact, a millennium seems to have gone by since that night in Grant Park on November 4th, 2008 when some Americans thought we were on the point of entering a post-racial era, only to find in the last six months the streets of Ferguson, and New York turning into scenes of volatile protests against police brutality and racism.

It is fortuitous for Ava DuVernay’s film Selma that it has appeared at a time when race is again a roiling issue and when only those who like to indulge in wish fulfillment can believe harmony in race relations—despite measurable progress—has been achieved. DuVernay’s stately, deeply moving film centers on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (although there was a TV miniseries in 1978 starring Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson, this is the first feature film to use him as a main character) and the stirring 1965 Selma-Montgomery marches that he led. DuVernay couldn’t have foreseen the protests this fall and winter, but she and the cast wore T-shirts in support with the “I can’t breathe” slogan, when promoting the film. There was also the fact that in 2013 the conservative Supreme Court struck down section four of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, at which the Selma march had aimed and succeeded in getting passed.

Yes, the two eras protests share some of the same justifiable anger against the virulence of white racism. But the world was different in 1965 when Martin Luther King led the Selma march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was still a segregated South where rednecks could use violence to protect their racist institutions and laws, and where politicians like Governor George Wallace openly pandered to their constituent’s racism to further their political careers. The protestors then had to deal with racism backed by state power rather than the implicit subtler racism of today, where the police serve as genuine protectors as well as at times oppressors of minority communities. In addition, the unchecked power-wielding head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, was hard at work then to discredit King and the civil rights movement, wiretapping King’s phone conversations and creating intense anxiety for the King family. Today the FBI may be far from a bellwether of civil liberties, but there is nobody as ominous and vindictive as Hoover in control.

Interestingly, Selma shares some of the same characteristics as another film about an American icon and martyr, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012). Both present a single event, in Lincoln the passage of the 13th amendment and in Selma the Selma to Montgomery March, and both use more intimate scenes to evoke some of the personal and even less admirable qualities of their heroes. InLincoln Tony Kushner’s script and Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance create a nuanced, indelible portrait of our eloquent, haunted 16th president. Spielberg and Kushner achieve this without turning Lincoln into the larger-than-life mythic figure that has often dominated our image of him. He’s viewed as a man caught in a difficult marriage with the neurasthenic Mary Todd (Sally Field), whom he affectionately calls Molly, and painfully involved in a losing argument with his older son about joining the army and, most markedly, operating as a hard-nosed politico behind the scenes, who was not hesitant to use his power and chicanery to achieve his goals.

Selma spends a bit less time on the nature of King’s character and much less on his personal life than Lincoln, but there are smaller incidents such as King and his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), whose persona is seen as dignified, genteel and clearly burdened, fussing with his ascot before his Nobel laureate speech in 1964. The scene conveys genuine affection between them. It’s a rare moment in a strained, difficult marriage, especially (though its never discussed directly) because of King’s adulteries and womanizing. King is portrayed neither as a saint nor as someone free of self-doubt. He wonders if it’s enough to end the segregation of a lunch counter or of an interstate bus without alleviating poverty. He expresses anxiety about leading a march, where he is responsible for the safety of thousands of citizens who could be brutalized by troopers while practicing non-violence. And he has to live with the fact that people were bloodied and a few died when the Selma March took place. There is one scene that beautifully captures his unease. King makes a late night call, and at first one thinks it’s to one of his mistresses. But it is to his friend and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson asking her to sing for him, so he can ”share the Lord’s voice” to provide him with consolation and reassurance. She sings his favorite gospel song, Thomas A. Dorsey’s classic plea for divine intervention “Take My Hand Precious Lord”.

Though the reflective, self-doubting King is given a fair amount of screen time, it’s the public figure and events that resonate the most in the film. The film makes clear that King was not only a brilliant orator, an idealist and a visionary, but also an astute tactician. He chose Selma as the battleground because of its vicious law enforcers, such as Sheriff Jim Clark and the state’s racist and demagogic governor, George Wallace. He knew that the march would generate violent clashes that the media would cover, conveying the nature of the struggle to the American people-and ultimately put pressure on LBJ’s White House. It also shows how King could learn from his mistakes, when he mentions Sheriff Laurie Pritchett’s handling of King’s Albany movement, which was a complete failure because Pritchett treated the protestors with wise restraint and almost no violence.

The public virtue of King and his associates in the SCLC was beyond question. Their movement adhered to Gandhian non-violence and had its roots in Southern black churches (King in the film kneels in prayer and quotes scripture). The march was markedly different from the basically leaderless, spontaneous protests of today (there is no man or woman who has the political weight or charisma to be called a national black leader in 2015), which can’t always control the violent and destructive individuals who join up—adding an element of nihilistic chaos to a genuine cry for justice and opposition to victimization. On the other hand Selma was carefully planned, had defined goals, and a strong leadership group that made the movement a model of disciplined and purposive behavior.

That leadership group included Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), and Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo). The film also includes the passionate and courageous SNCC chairman, later Georgia Congressman, John Lewis (Stephen James) who joined with the SCLC on the march. (Lewis ended his commitment to SNCC when Stokely Carmichael became chairman the next year, realizing that the integrated grass roots organization was heading in a militant black power direction that conflicted with his ‘‘personal commitment to nonviolence.’’) None of the leadership group are given much dimension or personality, but they are still more defined in the film than Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson) who is seen as a mere bystander in an almost all-male SCLC movement. But it was the fearless, tactically astute Nash who originated the idea of the Selma to Montgomery march Thus, DuVernay compounds the frequent error of seeing the Civil Rights movement as solely the province of males, leaving out the important contributions of women like Ella Baker and others.

This historical omission is surpassed by DuVernay’s treatment of President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkerson). Selma portrays Johnson as hostile to the idea of a voting rights bill, even plotting with J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to wiretap King—a blatant untruth— to undermine King. There have been many Johnson supporters who have risen to his defense, most notably former cabinet secretary Joseph Califano. Their contention is that Johnson was fully supportive of King’s campaign for voting rights and even consulted with him on strategy. Also, David J. Garrow, the author of Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, stated that “Selma may not have been Johnson’s idea, but he was happy that King was out there mounting a voting rights campaign.”

What is certain is that Johnson wanted to get his beloved War on Poverty going before he turned to voting rights, which might have made his support for the poverty war a bit lukewarm. Hardly anyone doubts that the War of Poverty was closest to Johnson’s heart. Indeed that policy was born on the evening after JFK’s assassination and possibly years earlier as a result of Johnson’s own impoverished and hard-scrabble adolescence and youth. Of course Johnson knew that he had to pass Civil Rights legislation in 1964 in order to go unchallenged for the democratic nomination, and he was also hesitant about actively pushing the Voting Rights Act so close to the passage of the Civil Rights Act. As a matter of fact to the end of his days Johnson lamented the fact that the Vietnam War had killed his war on poverty. But he did leave a lasting legacy when Congress passed both the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Medicare bill within seven days of one another.

Despite its historical flaws, Selma has a great many virtues. David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King does more than play the role of King, for his diction and his body language captures both King’s surface and essence. His performance and the film bring back to us just how charismatic and eloquent MLK could be. For legal reasons, DuVernay had to reimagine King’s oratory (but the soaring words like, “A man stands up and says enough is enough,” still have King’s cadence and moral resonance. If they lose something in authenticity, the power of his words remains undiminished. Duvernay also captures the tension and violence of the marches, especially “Bloody Sunday” with fluid editing and by avoiding creating overly grandiose tableaus.

It’s realistic film, so neither the heroes of SCLC or their enemies are turned into outsized figures. They are all grounded in history, and we believe in their existence. It makes for a film that should be required viewing for anyone, especially the young, encompassing those interested and even those unconcerned about 20th century American history and specifically the Civil Rights movement. It is also a reminder of a time when the better angels of our society were able to claim a victory over the darker forces that also inhabit it, when a man like King could make a speech after ending the Selma March at Alabama’s state capital in Montgomery that envisioned “a society of justice where none would prey upon the weakness of others; a society of plenty where greed and poverty would be done away.”

Given that speech, it’s useful to remind those who perceive our contemporary problems as intractable and inexorably moving us towards cynicism and apathy that Dr. King believed in a moral arc of the universe that is long but also will bend toward ultimate justice.

We are struck by how much this country and Black America lost with the assassination of King in 1968. If King had lived into the 70s and 80s, he clearly would have tried to move us towards issues of inequality that would have made a true difference in an American society, confronted with an increasing economic gap between the rich and the middle class and, of course, the poor. King would then have left us with an even more enduring legacy than he has done.

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