I went in to see Selma yesterday prepared to find an angry polemic, and defensive over what director Ava DuVernay and others involved allegedly did to LBJ’s reputation. Instead, I found him portrayed as a man who had a grasp of the bigger picture. For black Americans there can be no greater issue than injustice based on white racism. For LBJ, I expect that the world was framed on the basis of political expediency. And for that reason, watching him resist the pleas of MLK to act to protect black lives and black rights didn’t make him a monster in my eyes. It made him a believable historical figure. What makes him look (relatively) bad is that the story is told from a black perspective – and Lord knows it’s high time the story of Civil Rights is told without white heroes who save the day in the end becoming the centerpiece of the story. LBJ’s legacy is intact.
Just wanted to get that out of the way at the start.
This is one of those times when dwelling on the imperfections of a movie feels unworthy. The imperfections here come from an artist's choice of what to film and what to leave out. Left out are the realistic depictions of blood and guts and snot, although there is plenty of violence, because to leave that out would be not to tell the story at all. And what comes through with powerful clarity is the dignity of MLK and the Movement. Getting David Oyelowo to play Martin Luther King was a superb choice. Just brilliant. And I want to say that without slighting the performances of virtually all the rest of the main characters.
Selma is an American way of telling history – through highly stylized drama, with good guys and bad guys. There’s plenty of that in Selma, and in one case – the J. Edgar Hoover character – they went way over the line by making him half clown/half zombie. Usually one feels the need to criticize this black-and-white American habit. But in this story I left the theatre trying to brush from my clothes the ugliness of white people carrying Dixie flags and shouting abuse at dignified ladies with their church hats on walking steely-faced and determined, not knowing whether they were going to be tossed off the bridge into the water or mowed down by horses. Sometimes the bad guys simply are bad guys and coming up with Hitler-built-the-autobahn rationalizations does a disservice to honest story-telling. The physical discomfort one feels at the thought that Americans had to endure that kind of abuse in the lifetime of many of us stays with you. I woke up today, the morning after, with a feeling of panic, imagining myself in their shoes. There are certain films I find myself wishing I could make required viewing for all the schools in America. Milk is one. So is the TV serial, The Wire. And Selma is another.
The story is tight. The pacing feels just right. The tone is lofty (that’s how the dignity comes through). The scene where MLK and Coretta face his infidelities brought tears to the eyes, so effectively had I been made to care for these characters by this time. There is a sense of excitement as you spot Andrew Young and John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin, the Rev. Hosea Williams and other players in the film and in real life you’ve come to know from these times.
Another powerful emotion wells up as you watch this film, and that’s the realization that this tale of an historical moment, the sacrifices made to attain voting rights for blacks in the south, is being told in a modern context in which today’s conservative forces are still at it, still trying to remove the rights forced from the hands of LBJ in the 1960s. It brings to the film an immediacy you don’t get from every historical drama.
Selma is a well-told tale. History come alive. I’m concerned that black people will stay away because they think they know the story already and white people will stay away because they don’t want any more bad news. I went to see it with a friend at the AMC Metreon, the giant theatre complex at 4th and Mission yesterday with seats for hundreds. There were only five or six of us in the place. It was 2:40 in the afternoon on a weekday, of course, but still…
That would be a mistake. Selma is a must-see.
And for a review that says what I think better than I just have, try this one:
Picture Credit: Trai Byers. He's only a minor character in the film, but I include him here because he's so damned good-looking.