Negotiate, demonstrate, resist in “Selma” (2014)

Extremists will always hate. Hatred corrupts minds and finds excuses which are sometimes unbelievable and impossible to comprehend. Extremists will always have explanations for their hatred. In “Selma”, George Wallace (Governor of Alabama) said in 1965:

“Because you can never satisfy them. First is a front seat of a bus, next is take over the parks, then is a public schools, then it’s voting, then its jobs, then is a distribution of wealth without work.”

That “always something” argument seems to be immanent to every radical everywhere in the world. Traditional values, preserving things as they are, not changing anything because every change is a disaster. When I was watching “Selma” I could’ve imagined the same kind of speech about gay activists, handicapped people or any other minority in existence. There’s always something and it never ends.

“Selma”, as the title suggests, focuses on Selma to Montgomery marches held in 1965 which had historical significance in ensuring right to vote for more than 20 million Afro-Americans in the United States. There is a lot of hype about “Selma”. Academy voters are criticized because of its lack of nominations in the leading actor and direction categories and some critics went so far that they labeled the voters as racists. In this Awards season leading actor category is one of the strongest and direction of “Selma”, although very good, doesn’t have the power to match any of the other nominees. Scenes in front of the court house were powerful, sometimes even too much (especially the scene of Oprah Winfrey beaten on the street in slow-motion) and scenes on Edmund Pettus Bridge were stunning; but as a whole Ava DuVernay directed the movie a bit overzealous, with too much pathos and slow-motions. Another scene which was unnecessarily slow-motioned was beating of the white clergy after the turnaround march. Ava DuVernay directed the movie in half-documentary style which is commendable and appropriate for the subject. When she was in “documentary mode” the direction was great. A problem exists with the scenes that are supposed to be dramatic. They are overstated, sometimes on the verge of soap-opera, and otherwise great movie is losing pace because of them. David Oyelowo on the other hand portrayed Martin Luther King with so much detail that comparison of the King’s original speeches with those held in the movie showed stunning similarities in the way he talked and the way he gesticulated with “original” MLK. It wouldn’t be undeserved if David Oyelowo was nominated for “Oscar” in the leading actor category. Problem is, however, who would go out? Bradley Cooper for “American Sniper” is an obvious choice but between Oyelowo and Gylenhaal who would you choose? Competition in the category is very strong this year, and in context of last year’s nominations for “12 years a slave”, maybe really Academy decided to honor entirely other subject. Does that qualify them as racists? I don’t think so. “Selma” is an interesting movie from different points of view. You can go and see it as anti-discrimination movie, but it’s also interesting as a manual for “protesting against the people in position”. It can help to redefine non-violent protests and methods used during the protest, but it can also shed a new light on the negotiators from both sides of the conflict. In one particular scene presidential emissary offers compromise to the SCLC and King refuses to negotiate in such a manner. Activism in this movie is about drama and about seizing the opportunity when it presents itself. King explains his ideology to SNCC students in Selma:

“What we do is negotiate, demonstrate, resist. And the big part of it is raising the white consciousness, especially the consciousness of whichever white man happens to be in the Oval Office. Right now, Johnson has other fish to fry and he’ll ignore us if he can. The only way to stop him doing that is by being on the front page of national press every morning and by being on the TV news every night. And that requires drama.” That drama is what makes “Selma” tick. “Bloody Sunday” in Selma is transferred to the screen with great accuracy and real comment of the New York Times reporter was the narration of the event. By using real historical material, film was moved from fiction into more real, documentary level. Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper was the symbol of black effort in Selma and she played the role with confidence of somebody who will not be humiliated or bullied. That was felt on the movie screen. Her first scene in which she is forced to tell the Constitution preamble can be used as a reminder. US Constitution is used as an excuse for unconstitutional practice. Great touch. Oprah acted wonderfully in that scene and I could almost touch her disdain for the white clerk buried in his racism. That drama is what makes “Selma” tick. “Bloody Sunday” in Selma is transferred to the screen with great accuracy and real comment of the New York Times reporter was the narration of the event. By using real historical material, the film was moved from fiction into more real, documentary level. Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper was the symbol of black effort in Selma and she played the role with confidence of somebody who will not be humiliated or bullied. That was felt on the movie screen. Her first scene in which she is forced to tell the Constitution preamble can be used as a reminder. The US Constitution is used as an excuse to unconstitutional practice. Great touch. Oprah acted wonderfully in that scene and I could almost touch her disdain for the white clerk buried in his racism. Key white protagonists in “Selma” are President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth). On the opposite sides of the Civil Rights struggle, both of them were key figures of the movie. Pressure on LBJ to make the right to vote a federal law and pressure on Wallace to stop humiliating and bullying Blacks was crucial. Wallace is the main antagonist of the story. His reasoning is the reasoning of a radical. He wants the world to stay as it is and he hates liberals and democrats which are saying to him that the world has changed. He’s afraid of the change. He doesn’t want it and he will do whatever he can to fight it. Tim Roth acted perfectly that southern brute. His accent was perfect, his gestures were convincing and in the dialogue between him and Wilkinson in the last part of the movie he managed to pull out one of the best supporting acting performances of the year. I have a slight problem with the perception of LBJ in this movie. LBJ did enforce the end of segregation in the US, he eventually did what he needed to do with his famous “We shall overcome” speech, but I’m afraid that our perception (and I think that reflected on the writers of the movie too) of Johnson will forever be tainted with the Vietnam War. That’s a pity because there is evidence that Johnson and King talked about “finding the worst condition in which he can run to” and put it on the national television long before the events that occurred in Selma. Some historians even suggest that Johnson gave King the idea. I’m not sure if that’s true, but my problem with his character is that he doesn’t have a clear attitude almost throughout the film. He even repeats MLK’s words to Wallace in that final dialogue. Yes, today is popular not to think much of Johnson, but we can’t revise history and take from him what he did well, I think that Jennifer Schuessler in New York Times raised the question: “Was Lyndon B. Johnson a civil rights mastermind, or a reluctant follower pulled along by activists led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?” Heated debate is still ongoing from both sides and Schuessler’s question is really food for thought. LBJ was a lot of things, but he wasn’t without a spine. Kennedy often described him as a “stubborn bastard” and I don’t think that his representation in the movie did him justice. On the other hand, even bigger lapse is made at the end of the movie. When the closing sentences were on the screen about every important character in the movie there were a few words about George Wallace too. We found out that he unsuccessfully tried to be President for five times and that he was a victim of an assassination attempt in 1972 after which he was paralyzed, but the most important thing, for me at least, wasn’t there. He publicly recanted his racism and asked forgiveness from Afro-Americans. That’s something that should’ve been in the movie, one sentence at least. Even their greatest enemy admitted the error of his ways in the end. Despite of these lapses “Selma” is an important film. I will definitely see it few times more. It’s different from all the other nominees. Its subject is much wider, other films are personal struggles and personal dramas and “Selma” is a film about social movements, not only about Martin Luther King. Some values are eternal and some excuses for hatred are, unfortunately, eternal too. “Selma” reminds us of both. I’ll end this review with a quote:

As long as I am unable to use my constitutional right to vote, I do not have command of my own life. I cannot determine my own destiny. For it is determined for me by people who would rather see me suffer than succeed. Those that have gone before us say, ‘no more! No more!’ That means protest. That means march. That means disturb the peace. That means jail. That means risk. And that is hard. We will not wait any longer. Give us the vote.

Picture of the original event.

IMDB

Rating: 8/10  

One Comment Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s