Thursday, December 25, 2014

"Selma" hits hard as a dramatic re-enactment of the heart of the Alabama civil rights movement

Selma”, directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb, is probably the most complete account of the (three) Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marches in March 1965 in all visual media.  
The two-hour widescreen film opened to only four theaters in the DC area Christmas Day.  I saw it today at the AMC Hoffman Center in Alexandria, VA, in a very large auditorium, two-thirds full, largely African-American audience.  It applauded at the end. The detailed history is given in Wikipedia here

An early scene shows a black woman trying to register to vote, and the country registrar makes her recite the preamble to the Constitution, then give the number of counties in Alabama (67), and name all the county judges, which of course no one could. Another scene reenacts the bombing at a Baptist church in Birmingham AL in 1963, resulting in the death of three girls.  

Then there are many scenes between Dr. Martin Luther King (David Olewoyo) and President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, who is not as convincing a likeness as one might want).  Johnson is interested in his war on poverty but doesn’t want to focus on voting rights by itself.  But after the first march, on March 7, 1965, leads to vicious police trampling of the demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in front of 70 million viewers live on CBS, things do change.  The second attempt at a march, after many sympathetic white people come from the North, aborts even though police withdraw, as King, after prayer, fears that the police have set a trap.  Finally, Johnson is persuaded to protect the marchers with federal troops.  The argument is made that he is already sending men to Vietnam, but this was very early in Johnson’s Vietnam buildup with the huge draft calls that would come soon (and [‘ensnare” me in 1968).

There is a conversation where Johnson says to King, “You are a civil rights activist, I am a politician”. King sometimes gives collective guilt rhetoric, and makes participation in group demonstration a moral imperative.  
There are also some conversations between Johnson and Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth).  Wallace had an odd way of rationalizing what he knew was wrong and spinning double-talk.  I remember Wallace’s run for president in 1968 as an independent was interesting, because he wanted to combine opposition to desegregation with otherwise liberal Democrat social spending (Wiki ).  When I got stationed to Fort Eustis VA in September 1968, one of the soldiers in the barracks and coworker, trying to convert to Mormonism, said that he admired Wallace because he wasn’t a “candy-ass”.  Later the young man’s views moderated as he came to share the view of most soldiers that Nixon would be more likely to end the war in Vietnam sooner than a Democratic candidate, a position that sounds odd now, but was reasonable then.  It seems shocking now what our attitudes were then.
In early 1965, in fact, I was still a full time student at George Washington University in Washington, living at “home” after the 1961 catastrophe at William and Mary.  I would finish in January 1966 and enter graduate school at KU immediately.  I didn’t realize how sheltered I was. 

The film plays up the practical concerns of vigilante Klan violence and the corruption of the local police and sheriffs, the latter of whom feared they would lose office once blacks could vote (and they did). For example, the name and address of any black who even tried to register to vote was publishes in local newspapers so that local Klansmen could come after them.  It was a kind of domestic terrorism.

I visited Selma myself this year on Friday, May 23, 2014.  I visited the museum and its film on the road from Montgomery.  To me, most of the state still looks economically backward.  The film appears to be filmed on location in Alabama, as the river and main street areas of Selma are exactly what I saw.  I found it hard to find an appealing place to have lunch after walking the Pettus Bridge area. 

Other cast in the film include Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King (MLK’s wife), and Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper.

The official site is here. The film has the look of large independent film with Pathe (a European production company for festival-ready material) and Harpo Films (Oprah) but is distributed on the main Paramount brand.  Harpo also usually works with MGM.  I could easily have imagined this film coming from TWC.
This one should get on the Best Picture list for the Osca, alongside “Lincoln”.

Scenery pictures are mine from the May 2012 visit.  The BW photos are from an iPhone, the color from a Nikon and a Casio.  

Update: Jan 3.

There is controversy, in the way some say that the film unfavorably portray's LBJ's hesitancy, CBS story here.

Update: Jan 13

Tim Lee on Vox Media explains Paramount's decision not to quote MLK's "I have a dream" speech directly, but to rewrite it, out of a very conservative use of copyright law and fair use, because of the possibly catastrophic result of a lawsuit from an estate known to be litigious, link here. There's an argument here to strengthen fair use or to shorten copyright terms. 

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