Monday, January 26, 2015


Early poster naming Lee Daniels as the director  

Amelia Boynton being cared for by an unnamed marcher after being knocked unconscious in a police attack on Selma protesters trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, March 7th  

The 2nd attempt to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge is forced to turn around on Tuesday, March 9th  

Martin Luther King and wife Coretta lead marchers across the Alabama River on the first day of the Selma-to-Montgomery march on March 21st  

SELMA           B     
USA  Great Britain  (127 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Ava DuVernay            Official Site

The movement is a rhythm to us
Freedom is like religion to us
Justice is juxtaposition in us
Justice for all just ain't specific enough
One son died, his spirit is revisitin' us
Truant livin' livin' in us, resistance is us
That's why Rosa sat on the bus
That's why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up
When it go down we woman and man up
They say, "Stay down" and we stand up
Shots, we on the ground, the camera panned up
King pointed to the mountain top and we ran up

One day, when the glory comes
It will be ours, it will be ours
Oh, one day, when the war is one
We will be sure, we will be here sure
Oh, glory, glory

One supposes that each generation needs to revisit their relationship with history, especially events recent enough to still be fresh in our minds, where the release of this film comes on the heels of the marches in Ferguson, Missouri, precipitated by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, an unarmed 18-year old black youth shot by a white police officer.  Written by first-time white screenwriter Paul Webb, with considerable uncredited rewrites by the director herself (specifically some of Martin Luther King’s speeches, as the rights had previously been obtained by other film studios), SELMA is a historical drama of events during the Civil Rights movement, African-American Civil Rights Movement (1954–68), taking place in the early months of 1965, coming after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination, but the powers to enforce the act remained weak, making it difficult for blacks to register to vote, where the film documents the non-violent methods of civil disobedience implemented by Martin Luther King in the voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama that turned into an all-out assault by the local police, smashing heads with Billy clubs and beating several marchers unconscious, images broadcast across the nation that eventually lead to an outpouring of support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 signed into law several months later on August 6, 1965.  The film shows how the past is still relevant to the present, and that progress is never guaranteed, especially because the events of the past bear an uncanny resemblance to events of today, particularly the number of young black men being shot and killed by police officers, making this essential viewing.  Just as importantly, on June 25, 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder (Oyez: Shelby County v. Holder) essentially struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws overnight without Federal oversight, where incredibly Chief Justice Roberts wrote in his majority opinion that the law was “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.”  With Republicans making dire warnings of predicted “voter fraud,” even with no evidence or previous history of fraud, 13 states quickly passed more restrictive voter ID laws, as scores of election laws were suddenly enacted banning same day registration, a common practice in some states, and requiring voter ID’s in a blatant attempt to thin the ranks of poor and minority voters, where according to this November 5, 2014 article, How Much of a Difference Did New Voting Restrictions Make, by Wendy R. Reiser, a former NYU Law School professor, the changes already had a significant impact as recently as the November 2014 elections that ushered in a Republican landslide, where once again millions of disenfranchised voters across the country were legally turned away from polling booths, 600,000 in Texas alone, exactly as they were half a century ago. 

While SELMA is considered a “black” film, largely due to the historical civil rights subject matter, where this is the first fictional film depicting Martin Luther King and is actually that rare Hollywood film directed by a black woman, but only three out of eleven producers backing the film are black, including billionaire television mogul Oprah Winfrey, the director herself, and Paul Garnes, an executive producer from the Tyler Perry Studios.  With one Latina working out of Hollywood, all the rest are white, including Brad Pitt and two other execs from his Plan B Entertainment studios, and four British/Irish producers associated with British film director Danny Boyle.  While this is as racially diverse as Hollywood allows, an industry where black history is almost exclusively projected through an all-white lens, using blacks in front of the camera with whites thoroughly entrenched behind the scenes, much like Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013), although recent low-budget independent films like Fruitvale Station (2013) have attempted to change that perception by showing a day in the life of a young, unarmed black kid eventually shot by police before the night is over, where at the moment it is estimated that police kill a black man, woman, or child every 28 hours.  Nearly half have no weapon on them, or anything resembling a weapon when they are killed, though in more than a third of the cases the police allege the victims displayed a weapon, often disputed by witnesses on the scene, as only 18% (less than one in five) are actually armed.  Blacks are arrested at nearly 3 times the rate of other Americans, while the likelihood of black males going to prison in their lifetime is 28% compared to 4% of white males, and if that black male drops out of high school the number skyrockets to 50%.  While other films like The Central Park Five (2012), In the Land of the Free... (2009), and The Trials of Darryl Hunt (2006) document the lengthy prison terms served by blacks who were wrongfully convicted, according to The National Registry of Exonerations, since 1989 blacks constitute nearly half of all wrongfully convicted cases, where the disparity is greatest in sexual assault cases, as black defendants constitute 25 percent of prisoners incarcerated for rape, but 61 percent of those exonerated for such crimes.  Still, according to a December 31, 2014 article published by the Chicago Reporter, Data: Black Chicagoans at higher risk of being shot by police, Chicago police are 10 times more likely to shoot blacks compared to whites, where the city pays out millions of dollars in damages each year to settle related lawsuits involving police misconduct (specifically $45.5 million from 441 lawsuits between January 2009 and November 2011), most based on excessive force and false arrest allegations, where a third of these cases involve repeat police offenders, with 4 out of 5 of them retaining their jobs, as rarely are members of the police force found culpable. 

With this in mind, SELMA is not a new radical approach in cinema, but seems more instrumental in becoming a teaching moment to reacquaint a new generation of viewers to this recent chapter in Civil Rights history, a timely look back, drawing parallels into our modern world, using the Spielberg model of emotional manipulation in an attempt to hook the most amount of viewers.  Spielberg is a contentious director to cineastes and art film devotees as the measure of his success has largely come in dollars and cents instead of artistic accolades, where he has always ridden the wave of convention instead of carving out new roads.  Spielberg always associated his historical dramas like AMISTAD (1997) and Lincoln (2012) with teaching moments, which included handing out educational materials with the release of his films, much like blockbuster films use merchandising.  Similarly, pamphlets and free educational materials have been made available to the teaching community with the release of this film, where the director Ana DuVernay has indicated the film is a teaching tool that she hopes will trigger curiosity in students, though she cautions that the film condenses 13 years into 120 minutes, where she hopes educators will fill in the history gaps in classrooms nationwide.  The film is not without controversy, however, as President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), after an early career voting against racial equality became a strong proponent who helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but was more interested in advancing his War on Poverty agenda that he introduced in his January 1964 State of the Union address and felt the time was not yet right for Selma or voting rights, believing this could undermine the southern votes needed for passing his own legislation.  While taped conversations between King and Johnson confirm that the President supported King’s cause, many watching the film will assume that Johnson was an obstacle for civil rights leaders, as the film shows Johnson meeting with King ahead of time and is adamantly against his intentions to march in Selma, fearing it could lead to a bloodbath, while also well aware of the divisive racial power of voting rights in the South, that passage of the bill would for all intensive purposes hand the mostly Democratic South over to the Republicans for generations to come (which indeed it has).  The film actually demonizes Johnson, suggesting he attempted to sabotage King’s efforts in Selma by endorsing the dirty tricks of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to discredit King and his wife, where the timeline of the movie events are set by FBI agent surveillance reports where King and his supporters are referred to as agitators and black militants. While Johnson certainly had access to these files and no doubt listened to FBI tapes (as do all Presidents), there is no evidence suggesting Johnson directed or controlled the sinister and malicious actions of J. Edgar Hoover and his illegal spy operation known as COINTELPRO.  The FBI campaign to discredit and destroy King was marked by extreme personal vindictiveness, where as early as 1962 Hoover himself penned an FBI memorandum, “King is no good,” claiming he was “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.”  Shortly afterwards in 1963, Time magazine chose King as the “Man of the Year,” and later in October 1964 at the age of thirty-five he won the Nobel Peace Prize, at the time the youngest recipient to ever win the award, an honor which elicited Hoover’s comment calling King the “most notorious liar” in the country.

The opening sequence blends together the FBI smear campaign against King, his trip abroad to receive the Nobel Prize, the racially motivated 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of a Birmingham church in September, 1963 killing four young black girls, and the eerily cruel attempt of Selma resident Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) to register to vote when the white registrar makes the outrageous demand that she name all sixty-seven names of the Alabama county judges before he’ll grant her request, stamping “rejected” on her application.  While highlighting the role of King, the film is not a King biopic, but a snapshot of a particular place and time, a moment in history that still resonates today with astonishing power.  David Oyelowo, a classically trained British-Nigerian actor spent seven years campaigning for the role of Martin Luther King, but Lee Daniels, the original director on the film didn’t believe he was right for the part.  Due to the slowness to materialize, most of the original cast and Daniels eventually left the film project, where it was Oyelowo who suggested Ana DuVernay as the director, as they worked together in an earlier film she directed, MIDDLE OF NOWHERE (2012).  What Oyelowo brings to the role is the familiar cadence of King’s speech that the audience immediately recognizes, while another British-Nigerian actress Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King, where each bring the required level of dignity and reflection to their relationship, which is tested throughout by continued FBI leaks to King’s wife.  By the time King arrives to Selma with religious leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in January, 1965, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a collection of white and black volunteers, mostly college students, had already been leading a voter registration drive since 1961, having received considerable resistance in their efforts from white county law enforcement officials, where in the summer of 1964, three SNCC workers, James E. Chaney of Mississippi, and Michael H. Schwerner and Andrew Goodman of New York, were killed by white supremacists.  While Selma had a population that was 50 percent black, only 1 percent of the town’s black residents were registered as voters.  King proposed the two organizations work together, combining forces against Selma’s racial intransigence, organizing a series of demonstrations in front of the Dallas County Courthouse, bringing national coverage to their efforts, hoping to build momentum from the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to win federal protection for voting rights.  On February 17, protestor Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) was fatally shot by an anonymous Alabama state trooper in a full-out night assault against marchers, events that were not captured by television cameras due to the cover of darkness. 

In response, a protest march from Selma to Montgomery was scheduled for Sunday, March 7, where six hundred marchers assembled in Selma, including Rev. Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) from SCLC and John Lewis (Stephan James), then SNCC chairman, now a prominent U.S. Congressman from Georgia who has been re-elected nine times since 1986, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge (now a U.S. National Historic Landmark) over the Alabama River en route to Montgomery, the state capitol.  On the other side, however, they found their way blocked by Alabama State troopers and local police led by Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) who ordered them to turn around.  When the protesters refused, to the cheers of white bystanders the officers shot teargas and charged the crowd on horseback, beating the nonviolent protesters over their heads with Billy clubs, including John Lewis who still bears the scars, knocking several unconscious, including one of the organizers, Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint), a longtime friend of both Martin and Coretta King, where a picture of her lying on the Edmund Pettus Bridge was broadcast around the world, ultimately hospitalizing over fifty people, a day now commonly referred to as Bloody Sunday.  Outraged by the events, King called upon supporters to come to Selma for a second march two days later, where he was encouraged by the outpouring of support from clergy and other sympathizers across the nation, but also warned by the Justice Department to wait until the courts could rule on whether the protesters deserved federal protection, as Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) refused to intercede.  Still conflicted, King led the second march on March 9, but after kneeling in prayer he turned the marchers back before crossing the bridge, a momentary pause for mutual reflection.  That night, however, a white group beat and murdered civil rights activist James Reeb (Jeremy Strong), a minister from Boston who heeded King’s call to come to Selma for the second march.  King’s actions exacerbated the tension between SCLC and the more militant SNCC, who were pushing for more radical tactics that would move from nonviolent protest to active opposition against racist leaders and institutions, where in the late 60’s SNCC changed their name and eventually became a black nationalist group advocating black power, where an attempt to align themselves with the Black Panther Party failed, with the organization largely disappearing after that in the early 70’s, where only small local chapters remained.  Several weeks afterwards on March 21, however, the historic final march included federal protection, leading to the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 several months later. 

While the weakness of this film is an uneven script that often stumbles into poor melodrama substituting for history, one of the real surprises is how King is not portrayed “only” as the noble hero, like he’s always been depicted in history lessons or Black History month, but as an ordinary man who takes out the garbage and appreciates a lively conversation over a home-cooked meal, while he’s also a great orator with unique abilities to stand up to extraordinary pressure, whose human flaws are exposed alongside an acknowledgment that the movement under his direction made plenty of mistakes, often paying too high a price by underestimating or miscalculating damaging outcomes.  History is never a perfect picture, but DuVernay does do an impressive job revisiting this unique moment in history, making a compelling case for remembering the hard-earned lessons of the past and learning from those mistakes, as otherwise those same problems are likely to reemerge and haunt future generations.  The film quite clearly demonstrates how a nation’s past shapes its current form, where there seems to be a strong urge among many, including Supreme Court Justices, to dismiss any disadvantage minority groups still have today by ushering in phrases like “that was 60 years ago,” but films like this show that national policies made hundreds of years ago still have consequences that are being felt today.  One can’t talk about race, or even poverty or social injustice, without acknowledging how we arrived at this point in time.  It is essential, therefore, that we examine our own unvarnished history without a Hollywood lens.  The LBJ inaccuracies in the film are no worse than Ben Affleck’s intentional distortion of the truth in Argo (2012), dismissing the role of the Canadians and once again creating a fictitious version of Hollywood heroism, yet that film won the Academy Award for Best Picture.  In American Sniper (2014), audiences are clearly willing to whitewash history in the Hollywood style and overlook the racist component of the American soldier in their zealous rush to support our troops and label the film heroic and patriotic, while in SELMA it’s a much harder sell to stare into the face of American racism and see how it impacts upon our lives today.  In attempting to be honest about history, whatever SELMA may be, it’s not the condensed or sanitized version that Argo and American Sniper are, fictitious Hollywood films that feed into a false mythological impression of America.  The disinterest in SELMA at the Cineplex suggests America is not yet interested in reliving the past or in addressing the message of racism while instead preferring movies with a toned down and mostly white Hollywood view.  Yet only by conscientiously acknowledging our past and seeing how it shapes the present do we have any hope of understanding the myriad of complex racial problems that continue to plague us in the present. 

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