Thursday, June 25, 2015

"Selma" Offers a Captivating Story and Worthwhile Commentary on Present Day Race Relations

Critics argue Selma grossly misplays the dynamic between MLK and LBJ.
While watching Ava DuVernay’s Selma, I was reminded of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (reviewed here). Both films focus on iconic moments in the American civil rights movement, while managing the tricky tasks of humanizing the larger-than-life icons involved. More intriguingly, both also illustrate the forceful guile and cunning strategy required to make such sweeping change.

Yes, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. stood on high ground ideologically and morally, but they also were willing to poke, prod and even play a little dirty to ensure success. These aren’t just stories of saints standing on the side of justice until society came around to their way of thinking – these are tales of men pulling strings to manipulate America into bettering itself.

There’s something I find so incredibly interesting about all of that, about the notion that King (commandingly played by David Oyelowo) and his compatriots in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) specifically targeted Selma because the sheriff there was a hotheaded racist who could easily be baited into doing something oppressive to nonviolent protesters. The film suggests the SCLC wasn’t concerned with long-range grass rooting – they left that to other groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. No, what they wanted were headlines that would put pressure on Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), a president who supported black voting rights, but who had a difference of opinion about the timing of further legislation. “We negotiate, we demonstrate, we resist,” King says in one key scene. “We raise white consciousness. And in particular, the consciousness of whichever white man happens to be sitting in the Oval Office.”

The film has come under fire in some corners for its inaccuracies, particularly related to its portrayal of Johnson as an antagonist to King. The idea that people could watch this movie and come away incensed at the treatment of a white person is pretty mind-boggling, but what makes the whole thing especially odd is that the film delivers a mostly nuanced take on the King-Johnson relationship.

Johnson isn't really the bad guy; he supports change, but doesn't agree with King's time frame. He certainly stands in stark contrast to the film's actual villains, even considering his attempts to slow King down by using wiretap information to expose the good doctor's extramarital dalliances to his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo). Not only does he surround himself with fair-minded advisers like Lee White (Giovanni Ribisi), but he also rebuffs a suggestion by J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to shut down King "permanently and unequivocally" and chastises George Wallace (Tim Roth) by saying "I'll be damned to let history put me in the same place as the likes of you."

Is this exactly how it happened? Probably not, but it makes thematic and dramatic sense, and it seems a lot more logical than the assertion that Johnson masterminded the whole march or that he was totally innocent of wiretapping King (I think it's an injustice to show Johnson taking aim at King's marriage, but the dude was president of the United States, for god's sake; he damn well knew about those wiretaps). The New York Times and Washington Post have done fairly good assessments of the entire controversy for those interested in reading more on the topic, but as far as opinions go, I tend to agree with this take in Slate.

The film posits that MLK's mission in Selma was to change the discourse among the inherently good but generally apathetic multitudes within white America, to impress upon them the immediacy of the situation. Johnson becomes the major stand-in there, and the film argues that the work put in by King and his brethren eventually allows Johnson (and a large contingent of whites) to see the light, to transition from sympathy to empathy, as evinced by his words, “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.”

This message is one that's still incredibly relevant today, given all the present day upheaval surrounding unjust treatment of blacks by law enforcement and the recent church slayings in South Carolina. Watch the scenes that depict the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing or the beating of Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) and tell me they don't seem eerily familiar. It's easy to rationalize, explain or condemn certain situations on an individual basis while pretending there is no larger race problem in America, but on aggregate such justifications don't fly any better now than they did 50 years ago. Is black life better in America now than it was in 1965 when MLK led the march to Selma? Yes, certainly, it is, just like it was better in 1965 than it was in 1865 when Lincoln was trying to abolish slavery. But it isn't where it should be, and that's an American problem.

DuVernay gets that, and Selma encapsulates it, perhaps at the risk of smudging the role of Lyndon B. Johnson. But, I found myself cheering for the man when he put Wallace in his place and later when he spoke so passionately when presenting his bill. I believe that was the film's intent, so it's hard for me to say the film is casting Johnson in a negative light. It's much more accurate to say the film is turning him into a metaphorical beacon.

Is it incongruous that I'm defending artistic license here when I took a movie like Saving Mr. Banks to task for playing loose with history? Maybe. Maybe, I'm just blinded by my ideological persuasions in both cases. But, I have to call it the way I see it, and while I see a relevant thematic purpose in this instance, I only saw corporate propaganda in the former.

Selma is not a perfect history lesson, but if it encourages people to "interrogate history" as DuVernay suggests, and if it makes people a bit more empathetic in their considerations of race relations today, then it's a movie that offers a whole lot of value. When you toss on top of that the notion that it is a well-made and captivating story on the micro level, well that's really something.  A-