So I know I am a day late with this post but the Schomburg archives ate me yesterday so yea but I am here now to talk about this truly extraordinary movie! Selma was all I expected and more. Director Ava DuVernay and the exceptional cast truly brought a humanity to the people during a crucial moment in the Civil Rights Movement that has not been seen in the multitude of made for TV movies produced about Dr. King. This humanity is seen in an intimate scene between Martin Luther King played by David Oyelowo (who brought a freshness to King making more than a Civil Rights leader but a husband, father, and a man) and Coretta Scott King played by Carmen Ejogo (Ejogo’s resemblance was uncanny!) when Coretta asks MLK if he loved her after they received a number of J. Edgar Hoover FBI sponsored intimidation calls for King to stop his pushing. Martin responds yes then comes the second question where she asked if he loved the others too. The silence that follows for the next few seconds is deafening (I will not share his reply you should go see it for yourself!) but it was Ava’s way of discussing the infidelity that was a reality in the life of the Kings that added a new layer to this narrative. Many who know the story of Dr. King, the non-sanitized version, knew about the other women and knew that this was what the FBI used to try to blackmail King.
This is a powerful moment in Ava’s storytelling that I was very grateful for. In her interview with Melissa Harris-Perry she mentions how when she received the script the women were not there. This is problematic as many feminist scholars would agree because women were crucial in these movements. The characters such as Richie Jean Jackson (Nicey Nash), Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson), and Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint) were crucial to the movement so it was very important that Ava included them. She humanized the struggle of trying to register to vote with Annie Lee Cooper showing how she was able to recite the Preamble of the Constitution, name how many county judges there were in Alabama without flinching but the clerk then forced her to name all of the judges which no one even today would be able to do. The despair [sic] on her face when he stamped her application was something anyone with a heart should be able to empathize with. Also the beatings that Cooper and Amelia Boynton faced during their shows of protests were powerful as they illustrated how the racial state refused to honor them as women simply because they were black (This was extended to the white supporters of the march some of which were killed).
Now this movie of course ruffled some feathers because of the depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson who many heralded as a champion for getting the Civil Right Act passed. However, the critics were upset at how Johnson was portrayed as being unmovable in regards to federal legislation to guarantee that all US citizens were able to practice their right to vote. I thought the portrayal was brilliant and more believable than a Johnson who automatically bowed to the demands of MLK and the movement. Considering that this was in 1965 it would be unlikely that Congress or a large portion of white America would have been open to having these discussions about expanding the rights of blacks in the US so radically. Therefore, a President that stressed a gradualist approach made perfect sense. Seeing MLK challenge Johnson and force his hand by not bowing out because of the blackmail makes me question President Obama’s desire for a graudalistic approach to combating racism in America (Seriously what happened to the Better Policing Commission we should at least be getting some updates on their research). I feel after seeing King take on Johnson it is not hard for me to see MLK challenging President Obama for not doing more considering his position at the helm of the most powerful nation in the world as a black man. Ava said it beautifully that “I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie.” There you have it! This movie is not about LBJ so his supporters need to calm down. This is about MLK and the people of Selma so to them LBJ was something that needed to be moved in order for real change to come.
Dr. King is now at least agreed upon by many as being a national hero (Except for those schools that don’t honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day) but he wasn’t always that way. He was seen as a “troublemaker” or an “outside agitator” like activists that joined local activists in Ferguson after the murder of Mike Brown. After all MLK was challenging the racist foundation of America and many including Alabama’s Governor George Wallace were not going to allow him to change the status quo. The first scene that truly depicted the ugliness of the overt racism of this time (because it is still here don’t be fooled) was the bombing of the church where the four little girls were killed. Once the scene started you knew how it would end but what made it truly heartbreaking and stirred my sadness was how innocent the girls were. They were walking down the stairs talking about how they admired Coretta Scott King for her hair when suddenly the bomb went off. The carnage was real which I appreciated because viewers needed to be able to see the horror of that attack. Every thing slowed down as the girls’ body parts flew around with a backdrop of the fiery explosion in slow motion. The legs of one girl clap together in the air devoid of a body. When the dust settles, the church is in ruins. That set the stage for why the march from Selma was so necessary.
Another important thing that Ava does bring up is the tension between the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). This is something that most movies have glossed over but it was truly important to mention as we are seeing this with the #BlackLivesMatter Movement currently where younger activists are trying to have their voices heard only for more attention to be paid to Rev. Al Sharpton. (Now I mentioned before how both parties are necessary but in the modern sense we do not have the luxury of such a robust organization such as the SCLC which did manage to have younger voices. Sharpton has served the black community well but we need more young voices at the forefront with this movement). The movie is obviously more committed to explaining the SCLC side because that is where MLK is but James Foreman (Trai Byers) does bring up the critique of King being a celebrity activist in a similar way to how young people currently view Sharpton. His friend a young John Lewis (Stephan James) eventually leaves SNCC for the SCLC though. I would love to see a movie that examines the role of SNCC during this period because young people are often overshadowed in these stories where we have one central figure.
This film is incredibly relevant for today considering the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, however, this is a different movement. I for one am against calling it the second Civil Rights Movement because the goals and players have change although racism has only evolved into something different. We are fighting for people to recognize how the racial inequalities are built into the system so that they can truly be fixed and not simply bandaged up. Watching Selma, it was hard for me not to think about 12 Years a Slave which was grabbing all the awards last year this time.12 Years did many things such as bring up beauty personified in Lupita Nyong’o with her amazing portrayal as Patsy (Thinking about when she got hit with the bottle is still too much). This movie moved me in an profound way similarly to Selma but it also touched something dark in me, as it reminded me of how my ancestors were treated and how the legacy of slavery still runs deep in the Western world (anywhere that had slavery has a problem with race. PERIOD). I could not bring myself to buy the DVD because after watching 12 Years I locked myself in my college dorm only coming out to shower and eat for the rest of the day. 12 Years was equally important because it portrayed the American reality that is so often forgotten because you know “it’s slavery and in the past so get over it” yet the film forced everyone black, white, Latino, Asian to confront this truth. Now this brings me to Selma not getting more awards at the Golden Globes and Ava not being nominated for an award by the Director’s Guild. All I have to say is it is a part of the system at work. If the directors Guild is used as an indicator for the Oscar nominations which come out tomorrow (1/15/15) we might just get more of the same. I argue that last year’s success of 12 Years a Slave was Hollywood’s way of allowing the proverbial black exception to occur. God forbid black people centered films win two years in a row or that this year the director is a black woman despite a truly outstanding and nuanced story she directed! Black people have long known that we cannot expect Hollywood to be supportive of stories that did not fall into some of the common stereotypes. I liked The Help a lot even if there were historical inaccuracies and I am happy Octavia Spencer won yet the image of a black maid is safe for the American conciousness while Denzel Washington as Malcolm X wasn’t (the list goes on to include Halle Berry’s sexualized image as Leticia Musgrove in Monster’s Ball which earned her the first Best Actress Oscar for an African American woman while Angela Basset’s strength as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It did not get the Oscar for a non-stereotypical image). Let me get off my soap box and just say that no matter what I appreciate and LOVE this film and it wins all the awards in my book. While 12 Years a Slave reminded me that the blood of some of the strongest people to walk the face of the Earth runs in my veins. Selma reminded me that I too can use that power to create change. On the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2015 I am empowered after watching this movie and I plan to keep up the fight for racial justice in whatever way I can.
Verdict: A + Give ’em bun Ava give ’em bun fi days! Dem a go tiyad fi see yuh face! I will buy this when digitally available.
Listen to the Golden Globe Winning Song “Glory” featuring Common and John Legend
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