Monday, January 19, 2015

Four Reasons to See Selma Immediately

Melissa and I and our two oldest daughters (ages 18 and 14; our third daughter, age 11, wanted to come, and we decided against bringing her--she couldn't have handled the violence and emotional intensity of the film) went to see Selma over the weekend. It's a tremendously moving and provocative work of art. If you haven't seen it, and you have two hours of free time this afternoon and $9 or so in your pocket, and you live in the United States anywhere near a major multiplex, I can't urge you more strongly: go see this movie right now. Why? Here's four reasons:

1) It's a great work of art, not a history lesson. This movie isn't, of course, fiction: all the people shown on the screen--Martin Luther King, Jr., his wife Corretta, John Lewis, Annie Lee Cooper, Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy, Hosea Williams, etc., not to mention President Johnson and Governor Wallace--really existed, really did the things (or nearly all the things) they're shown as doing, etc. The protests in Selma, AL, over the issue of voting rights really did unfold mostly as portrayed on screen. The film is, first and last, about telling a moving and provocative story, and not about instructing those who watch it about American history. The horrific bombing in Birmingham is placed at the start of the movie, even though it happened more than a year earlier. Meetings between Johnson, Wallace, and King are re-arranged and streamlined. Most importantly, all the speeches given to King are original for the movie. That's a result of legal problems with the King family estate, but it was fortuitous, because it liberated screenwriter Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay to craft words and scenes that counterpointed, and deepened, the stories being visually presented to us in a wonderfully (though also often despairingly) artistic way.

2) Though the more you know about the history, the more its scenes open up to you. It is ridiculously easy to tell a simplistic, hagiographic story about the civil rights movement; similarly, it would be easy to tell a simplistic, vindictive one. Selma does neither, instead finding ways to insert into the story moments which complicate and reveal the many failures, frustrations, and cross-pressures which characterized King's life, the events in Selma, and the whole civil rights movement. For example, the tensions between the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council and King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference are well dramatized in the film, most particularly in the scene between John Lewis and James Forman in which the latter contemptuously dismisses Lewis's willingness to join with King's organization in the Selma marches as "marching with the Lord." The fact that the SNCC became increasingly secular as the 1960s continued, and thus became increasingly uncomfortable with King's rootedness in Christian rhetoric and tradition, is there on display, if you're able to see it for what it is. Similarly, a brief moment in a Selma jail between King and Abernathy effectively anticipates King's turn to Christian socialism, and his deepening understanding of just how radical the call to equality must be. And a couple of sentences between Johnson and Wallace recollect the complicated legacy of Democratic reform in the American South, and how much the needed and valued efforts to improve the lot of the poor had historically depended upon pitting whites against blacks. Truly, this is a film which backs a lot of history, as seen through the prism of artistic license, powerfully and succinctly into its running time.

3) It never stops treating these people as the complicated human beings they were. Scene after scene in Selma showcases not just anger and joy, triumph and tragedy, but so many wonderful and revealing moments in between. The way in which the leadership of the SCLC politely but obliviously invade the kitchen of Richie Jean Jackson for their strategy sessions is a lesson all its own about race and feminism in the 1960s. The oily, ambiguous stare-down between FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Johnson--with Johnson ultimately looking away first, and referring to Hoover as "Mr. Director"--speaks volumes about the cross-currents of power. Martin Luther King himself is given multiple moments which reveal him to be as self-aware and as strategically conflicted as the best of us would have been--none more so than the tense and tragic scene in which the FBI's attempt to blackmail King into backing off his crusade collapses in the face of Corretta's enormous, almost painful generosity and forgiveness. This is a deeply human film, one that walks the cinematic line of familiarity and surprise expertly well. (Simply for their construction of the movie, the lack of Academy Award nominations for DuVernay and film editor Spencer Averick is plain robbery.)

4) It'll make you angry for the best possible reasons. This is a movie about the events which led directly to the passage of the Voting Rights Act--quite possibly the single most important piece of legislation passed during the whole civil rights movement (the short, three-sentence lecture which King gives to Johnson about why voting rights need to take priority over any other concern is a whole lecture on pluralist democracy in itself), and a piece of legislation which the Supreme Court unceremoniously gutted in 2013. If this film challenges you to ask how on earth a small cadre of ideologically aligned agitators managed to convince five justices on the Supreme Court to break apart what is widely regarded as one of the most successful advances in equality in the whole history of the United States--well, good. It's job--besides the primary one of telling a great story--will have been achieved.

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