Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Selma (Paramount, Pathé, Cloud 8 Films, Celador Films, Plan B Entertainment, Harpo Films, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I had been waiting for a long time to see Selma and finally got the chance Monday night when the San Diego Public Library played it along with a live gospel concert by the Martin Luther King, Jr. Choir that took up about half an hour before the film began. Selma is a story of a true-life historical incident that I had vivid memories of when it was happening — the campaign against Black disenfranchisement staged in Selma, Alabama in 1965 and led in an uncertain coalition by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the more radical Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The film had six production companies — Paramount, Pathé, Cloud 8, Plan B, Celador and Harpo — the last being Oprah Winfrey’s outfit (the name isn’t a reference to the silent Marx Brother but is simply “Oprah” spelled backwards) — though Winfrey (who, unless one of those pre-“discovery” African empires had a female monarch, seems to have been the richest African-descended woman who’s ever lived) appears to have been the prime mover behind the project. She also appears in it, in a brief but indelible cameo as Annie Lee Cooper, a Black woman who attempts to register to vote in Selma and is put through a series of humiliating tests — she’s asked to recite the preamble to the U.S. Constitution by an officious white clerk who first asks her if she knows what a “preamble” is, then asked how many counties there are in Alabama and then asked to name them all — before her application to vote is denied.

Selma was made by a Black woman director, Ava Du Vernoy (that’s how it’s spelled on her credit, though and most other sources mash the two parts of her last name together and spell it “DuVernoy”), and the writing credit goes to Paul Webb, though some “Trivia” posters said Du Vernoy rewrote most of the script herself and particularly came up with all the pastiches of Martin Luther King’s speeches delivered by David Oyelowo, since the King estate maintains tight copyright control over King’s actual words and had apparently already licensed them exclusively to Warner Bros. for a King biopic that has yet to be made. It does seem odd that both Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo, who plays King’s wife Coretta, are half-British and half-Nigerian; they both do perfectly fine jobs, but weren’t there any African-American actors qualified for these roles? (To add to the irony, Ejogo had previously played Coretta Scott King in a film called Boycott — and had got married for real to Jeffrey Wright, who played Martin Luther King in Boycott.) Selma wasn’t quite the uplifting celebration of political protest, direct action and nonviolent resistance I was expecting, mainly because director Ava Du Vernoy and screenwriter Paul Webb kept the mood of the piece surprisingly somber for much of it. I give them a great deal of credit for not turning the movie into a hagiography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — there’s a marvelously ironic scene about his womanizing in which his wife Coretta is shown playing a tape the FBI has sent secretly, denouncing him as a “degenerate,” telling him to commit suicide and then offering a sample purporting to offer a genuine sexual encounter between King and another woman. “That’s not me,” King tells his long-suffering wife. “I know it isn’t,” she replies. “I know what you sound like.” Then she asks him point-blank if he loves her, and after a long pause he says he does. Then she asks him, “Do you love any of those others?,” and after an even longer pause he says, “No” — making it clear that Coretta King, like Hillary Clinton, saw a higher purpose in staying in her marriage despite her husband’s “straying.” The film also shows the sometimes bitter antagonism between King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the younger, more radical members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the SNCC people’s understandable upset that they’d been organizing in Selma for months and now here was King, coming in to take over the movement and present its public face to the media.

Selma is a quite interesting historical document and I could see it being useful in school classes about the civil rights movement, though a teacher would have to use the film and put the history it shows in context: that within a year SNCC would publicly break not only with King but with the whole strategy of nonviolence and elect leaders like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown who would proclaim “Black Power,” a doctrine that took the principle that the liberation of oppressed people must come from struggle by the oppressed people themselves and ran it into the ground. What the “Black Power” people did was break off all cooperation with whites — either elected officials or grassroots activists — and thereby bring a sudden end to what has been called the “beloved community” of Blacks and whites working together to achieve liberation and an end to the institutionalized racism of the U.S. in general and the South in particular. Those of us who were alive when the struggles in Selma happened (I was 11 but I was precociously aware of what was going on in the streets of Selma, and my mom was an active participant in SNCC’s white auxiliary, Friends of SNCC, until the “Black Power” activists that took over SNCC in 1966 disbanded it) were inspired and thought they would be a model for future actions that would advance the cause of civil rights — instead they became, as Debussy said of Wagner, “a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn” (in earlier writings on the period I’ve reversed that quote and said of the 1964 Barry Goldwater Presidential campaign — which, like Al Smith’s campaign in 1928, lost but set the stage for America’s next political realignment — that it was an ugly sunrise that was mistaken for a dusk). There’s even a hint of King’s assassination when J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) tells President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) that if King becomes too troublesome, he can simply be eliminated — the line in the film is, “Mister President, you know we can shut men with power down, permanently and unequivocally” — which couldn’t help but remind me that in his autobiography Malcolm X (depicted obliquely in the film and played by actor Nigél Thatch) had predicted both his own murder and King’s and had said the white power structure would not let either of them live. Selma became a controversial film for its treatment of President Johnson — whose former aides came to his defense and said he was a lot more supportive of the civil rights struggle in general and of King in particular than he’s shown in the film. In a way Selma was the answer movie to all the critics of the film Lincoln, which had shown Abraham Lincoln as a conniving politician ready to achieve the noblest of ends (passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery in the U.S.) with the foulest of means, including open bribery of wavering Congressmembers with jobs, and which at least some progressive critics had denounced as saying that you can’t achieve progressive ends without corrupt means. Well, guess what — you can’t (as will become quite apparent if the Broadway play showing how Johnson got the 1964 Civil Rights Act through Congress makes it to the screen).

If Lincoln is a movie for activists who believe in working through the system and making the compromises it demands, Selma is a movie for those who believe that political change can be achieved through direct action and street demonstrations. In fact, it takes both — a reality the American Left knew in the 1890’s, 1930’s and 1960’s but has long since forgotten, while the Right is well aware of it and skilful in combining pressure from outside groups like the “Tea Party” with cunning manipulation of the levers of power from elective office to get what they want. Johnson is also a problematical figure in this movie because Tom Wilkinson, who plays him, gives the weakest performance of any of the principal cast members; at times he seems undecided whether he’s playing Johnson, Richard Nixon or Ed Sullivan. It’s true that a lot of the actors in Selma had the peculiar challenge of playing people who were extensively photographed and recorded when they were alive, and of whom extensive film footage still exists — an actor cast as Presidents Kennedy, Johnson or Nixon has a considerably greater challenge than one playing Lincoln to create a persona distinct enough from the real one but at the same time believable to people who’ve seen the films of the real one — and David Oyelowo as King handles this challenge a good deal better than Wilkinson. Oyelowo doesn’t quite master the rolling cadences of King’s public speaking style, and his rhetorical style is less powerful than the real King’s, but his is a quite good performance that manages to convince us he is the man he’s playing in a way Wilkinson never does. Selma also suffers from an especially extreme case of the past-is-brown syndrome (the cinematographer is Bradford Young), which is even more annoying in a film in which the main characters are Black: all too often key scenes are virtually impossible to “read” on screen because the actors’ deep brown faces are doing way too good a job of blending into the dank brown backgrounds. (In fairness to the film, the deficiencies of the new San Diego Public Library’s separate theatre building as a venue for film didn’t help; the broad glass front looks spectacular but lets in way too much light, there are no curtains you can draw over it, and the film did get easier to watch once the sun finally set.) The past-is-brown look and Du Vernay’s oddly slow pacing through much of the film — as well as her and Webb’s decision to incorporate the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama and the deaths of four Black girls (14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson and 11-year-old Denise McNair) in the blast into the film even though it really took place September 15, 1963, a year and a half before the campaign in Selma — give the film an oddly elegiac tone; instead of a paean to activism it’s more a poem about how sheer desperation can drive an oppressed people to do incredible things.

It’s a measure of how fast things can change in American politics that the movie shows President Johnson addressing Congress on March 15, 1965 calling on them to pass the Voting Rights Act and beginning with his famous opening words, “I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy” — two years later Johnson had turned from the progressive community’s favorite President into its most reviled, thanks to his escalation of the Viet Nam War, and it’s a measure of how thoroughly the counterculture turned against him that in 1967 Mike Bloomfield’s blues-rock band the Electric Flag (itself a name with all sorts of political associations!) sampled that line from the speech in an ironic context — “Yeah, right” — at the start of a cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s song “Killing Floor.” And a lot of the original reviewers of Selma noted that it was released around the same time that the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act and thereby allowed Republican state governments in the South to start passing laws deliberately aimed at reducing the participation of Blacks and other people of color (as well as young people and working people in general) in the electoral process — with the Republicans and Democrats having switched their historic positions on civil rights (the party of the Civil War, “states’ rights” and the Ku Klux Klan became the party of civil rights, while the “Party of Lincoln” saw its future — and ensured its political dominance in the modern era — in becoming the party of Strom Thurmond and white racist reaction) and the Republicans seeing that their path towards full-spectrum dominance of the American political system (they already control the entire federal government except for the presidency, and they fully expect to gain that in 2016) lies at least partly in making sure people who would be likely to vote against them — people of color, women (especially unmarried white-collar professional women) and young people — aren’t allowed to vote at all. At the same time, what’s left of a Left in America has hamstrung itself by, among other things, either disinterest or outright opposition to the whole idea of electoral politics; if I read another article by a proclaimed Leftist saying that the whole idea of representative democracy is inherently illegitimate and therefore having anything to do with protecting, enhancing or even exercising the franchise is anti-Leftist, I think I shall go crazy over what Vladimir Lenin (hardly one of my favorite people, though he’s looking better and better in an era in which Leftists go out of their way to avoid building the kinds of effective, tightly-run hierarchical organizations you need to go up against entrenched power) called “an infantile disorder.”