Protests and activism is a messy affair. This is probably the biggest lesson I took out of the unrest in Ferguson and the actions spawned all over the country over the deaths of black people at the hands of police. Before, when you only read about it in school or watched documentaries on the civil rights movement, you could imagine that it was a unified call to arms by all black people in the country to fight for their rights; it’s only as you delve deeper that you uncover that things more or less unfolded with a similar messiness. Selma is a very-carefully directed, well-lit, strong film that really moves with determination. Every shot is treated with importance, and though not without its flaws, what the movie does right, it does very right.
Selma is a movie about the messiness in protest and the great weight of being looked at as a leader: whether you’re a leader of a race of people fighting for their rights or a leader of the country as a whole. Selma recounts the story of the events leading up to the march from Selma to Montgomery that culminated in President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The film, directed by Ava DuVernay, features Martin Luther King, Jr., Hosea Williams, James Bevel, Diane Nash and the SCLC’s plan to organize the march and their attempts to work with SNCC. It is a film focused on people who ascribe themselves as nothing more than that. They are humans who want to do what’s right but also are concerned with what’s in other people’s best interests.
David Oyelowo as MLK is weary. He’s a man who’s been doing marches, protests, getting arrested and called nigger for too many years and it’s taken a toll on him as a man and a toll on his family. His wife loves him but is now at a point where the constant fear of death for him and her family has worn her down; that and his own infidelities has strained their marriage and you feel that dark cloud around them throughout this movie.
This, along with the actual marching on the highway, was the most readily identifiable link between the events depicted in this movie and what has been taking place today. From Trayvon to Jordan Davis to Ferguson and so forth, people have been exhausted. They are exhausted from the marching, the screaming, the organizing, the fighting with police, the being talked down to by the media, the racist trolls on the internet and, more importantly, they’re exhausted from the constant prospect of death that lives in the recesses of their brains. To go through this throughout 2014 would take a mental toll on anyone, so the idea of doing all this in a much more hostile environment during King’s time would be punishing. In America’s need to turn its martyrs into superheroes we lose this understanding that King was a man with fear, with hopes and with frustrations.
In the same vein, Tom Wilkinson’s LBJ is boisterous and flustered with the job he has; it’s clear that, as any politician in that situation, he’s trying to do just enough for everyone in order to get through his term. He is any other president that wants to appease his constituents. King has serious requests that need to be met but Johnson has constituents to appease and an out-of-control war to deal with, that he doesn’t feel the same urgency as King. King is nuisance but Johnson is not malicious in his tactics to downplay his influence, instead he’s just insistent on being in control of every situation and sweeping things under the rug for later. It is only until he’s finally backing into a corner that he relents and gives his State of the Union address that announces the Voting Rights Act. Johnson is also a weary man with his own flaws and the supposed backlash over how he’s depicted comes off not as a corrective but as the petty grievances of a liberal think tank more interested in congratulating itself than evaluating history critically.
The articles and thinkpieces taking Selma and DuVernay for task for what is seen as an undermining of LBJ’s contribution to the fight for voting rights is littered with the typical whitewash of historical events as well as a need to make LBJ more admirable and heroic as opposed to what he actually was, which is a politician. The critiques lobbed at the movie have consisted of anger at the idea that LBJ was not 100% onboard with getting the Voting Rights Act done, upset over the idea that LBJ allowed the FBI to try and “break up the home” of MLK and Coretta and they’ve even gone so far as to assert that march from Selma to Montgomery was LBJ’s idea–as a way to put enough attention onto the issue in order to get the law passed.
The last assertion is easily the most offensive. Ignore the work of Diane Nash, James Bevel, SCLC and SNCC, it was all about LBJ and his quest to fight for human rights in order to make the world more of a wondrous melting pot. Aside from this being untrue, it’s implausible to perceive that a president would put it on MLK to rabble rouse and create a climate for him to pass more civil rights legislation. This involves a loss of control and a president cannot relent control to a leader and situation that could lead to any numerous things happening because it would be irresponsible.
There is plenty in the movie that may have been stretched. The nature of LBJ and J. Edgar Hoover’s relationship isn’t completely known, neither are the direct conversations between King and Johnson, but it’s a movie and movies tell a story that captures an essence of the time it’s telling. The idea that this movie of all movies is under heavy scrutiny is comical when we’re less than a month removed from a film about white ancient Egyptians and a couple years removed from a film about Abraham Lincoln that was sweeping, big and romanticized; yada yada-ing over the more uncomfortable aspects of his beliefs on Black Americans.
The biggest takeaway from all of this for me is that none of these complaints are really about keeping Selma honest, it’s about thinning the Oscar herd and also about who gets to tell history and how they tell it. Selma seemed to come out of nowhere to the Oscar conversation; full of contentiousness and elitist attitudes over what movies get to join the conversation and what movies don’t. Movies that are late to the party always cause problems because they come with intense momentum in a country focused on the new conversation and not what happened months ago. If a movie like Selma can be undermined it will be and, as you can see, it could be.
You can’t help but notice the other side of this coin too: in this backlash there is a thick sense of “what-about-me-ness” that fog up whatever valid complaints one could have about the film. LBJ seems to be the stand-ins for white liberals to air their grievances of “not all white people” and hoist him in an effort to get some sort of credit for their support of the movement. One wonders if DuVernay were a white male instead of a black woman, and the film had its requisite white interloper, would the film have gone down easier. Maybe that’s not it either; maybe the issue really does come down to how we view president’s that have been redeemed by history. Perhaps we only want to see Johnson and King as the God-like geniuses that time has turned them into, and in this feeling, perhaps we do want to give our leaders more credit then they need. As much as I like him, I shudder at the thought that 50 years from now when the story of Ferguson is being told, Obama will be given credit he didn’t deserve.
Men become Gods every day due to how we process history: without gray areas and without blemishes. History has always belonged to the winners because winners are the only ones we can respond to. Selma took that idea away from us, perhaps that was the real crime.