Jan 13, 2015
Impressions: 'Selma' Evokes & Echoes An Era
Selma is an outstanding and powerful movie.
Directed by Ava DuVernay, Selma with lucid intimacy has you walk right alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he fights for equal rights, combating all the social and political obstacles and bloodshed that come his way, all while still upholding a sense of self. These attempts in the end lead up to the historic 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery that ultimately led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Selma first and foremost roars with violence and hardship that is astoundingly effective, but it's brilliant how the film begins with a tranquil and regarded interaction between King (played excellently by David Oyelowo) and his wife, Coretta Scott-King (played by Carmen Ejogo) moments before King accepts the Noble Peace Prize that honors his efforts during the Civil Rights Movement. This somewhat sterile, docile moment is the calm before the typhoon, as peace and the nobility to uphold morality are contested in the soon-to-be unfolding months as King and countless of loyal supporters and activists work tirelessly towards equality that is still not yet obtained.
Selma is somewhat broken up into small, yet intense bite-sized vignettes that ultimately latch together to give a panoramic landscape of King, the man himself, and the wide-spanning movement that was pushing to give voting rights to minority individuals.
Tension and gut-wrenching fear breathes down your back as you witness the shaping of protests and the often brutal retaliation against nonviolent demonstrations. The first attempt to march on Selma, during what was later dubbed "Bloody Sunday", is one of the most harrowing scenes to witness in a film. You can feel every billy club slap, the whips crackle, blood curdling cries from protesters and the disdain-soaked jibes from police officials as they ride horseback, chasing and assaulting over 600 individuals, with on-lookers having a front row seat to the brutality. Its an unsettling watch, but you can't look away as with DuVernay's piercing direction your thrust headfirst into the horror.
Juxtaposed with the raw violence is the stirring unveiling of the relationship between King and Coretta. Their relationship is rarely given such depth, but props should be given to screenwriter Paul Webb as sewn into Selma is a humanizing and prismatic portrait of an American power couple, that is about as intimate and surreal as if we're viewing our own parents in a new light. Through little quiet thunderclaps of scenes we become privy to the unguarded and often complex mechanics of what goes into a marriage as iconic and as stressful as theirs.
The script doesn't even steer away when it touches upon King's infidelity, something that Coretta suspects, and what is ultimately confirmed by way of an FBI tape in a disgusting tactic concocted by FBI head, J. Edgar Hoover as a means to dissolve the movement through the fracturing of King's family. Oyelowo and Ejogo give some of the most effective performances in these scenes where they have to come home from fighting a battle bigger than themselves, and then nestle into a normalcy that is almost suffocating to their union. Ejogo's turn as Coretta was truly profound as she proved that old adage that behind every great man, is a great woman, who has to muster up the courage and strength to deal with all the bullsh*t flung her way --- but who never cowers to accept it.
While I often don't think that each historically laced film should be the end all when comes to understanding racial and social issues, but Selma is of a different breed as the film upturns the idea of viewing a history lesson. There has been some discrepancy over the depiction of historical factors in this film, but viewing Selma makes these claims somewhat invalid as it aims to show King beyond powerhouse sermons and march organizations, taking things away from the naked, pavement pounding violence to projecting how keen he was about standing firm in the shaky political balancing act.
History tells us that King's legacy was encased with peaceful tactics, but truly, he was far from being a lush. King had a pragmatic approach to how he dealt with (white) political figures, as he wasn't afraid to sword words with them, but he wasn't completely ruling out their thought processes and being aware of what they too were up against, and he navigated what was stacked against him, weighing it what he had control of to find the best possible solution that fit with his fight. There are some excellent tug-of-war dialogue between King and President Lyndon B. Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson) as they both attempted to work together to find a compromise, but were vastly dissimilar when it came down to their motivations. How they criss-crossed each other, as well as interactions between Johnson and Alabama governor, the oily George Wallace (played by Tim Roth) are exceptionally done accounts, and lean into why DuVernay succeeded in not wanting to make a "White savior" flick and deals an even hand throughout.
Most movements are prone to not having everyone on the same page, and Selma shows this not just from the state and federal political spectrum, but also in the movement's inner fiber, as several of King's colleagues and supporters, while all having similar visions for equality rights, all had different approaches and ideals to go about pushing their desires into action. I especially liked how future congressman John Lewis (played by Stephan James) butted heads with his SNCC co-hort, and we get to see his inner-conflict all while giving glimpses of the ways different civil rights sectors in the Black community fought for equality.
In the beginning, I admit, I had little desire to see Selma. The accumulation of tension and anger from the issues in Ferguson, and its subsequent rise of protests against acts of police brutality left me fatigued and drained of the idea of seeing a film that was depicting a historical mirror image of my present. Apathetic I felt, as 50 years since Selma, and so little had changed from my standpoint from the senseless violence against people of color wage on to the political animals still continuing to thwart the same exact voting rights that King and others fought so diligently for by the Supreme Court gutting the decision back in 2013.
I kept thinking as I watched the trailer: What is this movie going to do? Is it going to help bring awareness? Are people really and truly going to realize that 'Hey! This racism and exclusion crap is messed up and is still going on! We should be ashamed! We should not be racist asswipes! Let's do something about this!'?
Even after reading interviews with cast and crew, and taking in the film for myself, I wasn't so quickly absolved of these questions as telling is how so little rose in solidarity when it came time to do so for the gross judicial mishandling concerning the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Black 'glitterati' and so-called social thinkers shied away from racial rhetoric and decided to limp into discussions about respectability politics; telling is how the media lacked in reportage of events unfolding in Ferguson, and never saw coming the rise of the #AllBlackLives movement, and are still unable to process it.
I'm not the one who needs convincing that things are politically screwy and that America and its leaders continue to fail in meeting its racial issues head-on. The ones that continue to be passive and ignorant about these things are the ones who need to have a film like Selma force their eyes open to see what they are are missing to put into focus.
But will these people I speak of see it? And if they do will they understand it to do better? As a Black person, I even sometimes find myself dreading historical films of my heritage, for this reason. Add to that, looming overhead is the worrisome obligation of seeing a film like Selma, like 12 Years A Slave, like Ghosts Of Mississippi, like Mississippi Burning, as they are depictions of painful parts of history with no solutions, but are still important films that jostle us to wake-up and realize we are not in post-racial Oz anymore. Follow by this is are down-pouring critics that believe these films are meant to scrub clean "White guilt" and keep the liberal Hollywood machine going, or that we're witnessing "torture" or "racism porn" instead of cinematic achievement.
These irks and questions rolled in my mind, but after reflecting on Selma with my family, I realized that I'm done having such doom n' gloom over this. As much as it would be nice to have more films like Beyond The Lights or Dear White People, I still want spectrum, I still want complexity, I still don't want to hide and deny that slavery, Jim Crow, and civil rights movements are my history, my American history. I still want the conversations to happen. I want to see the human spirit triumph above inconceivable cruelty. That's the story, the call and response to be told, not gagged on grievance, and Selma ticks off every thing I like about films in that regard.
In the wake of new movements, new victims, and new tools for protesting we should approach films like Selma differently. We should look at Selma as an intelligent and artful take on a challenging and confusing time, that allows us to view this time, remember and recall it, but not forget it, and try to understand it better for the new round of generations. Change isn't quick to sprint, King and the struggles and strain in Selma is proof of that, but if he didn't start, if others weren't willing to rise up to meet him somewhat halfway, then the changes we have now would have never occurred. For this we need Selma in all of its violence, its subtlety, and its tension, as we hear the echoes, and press onward.