Sunday, February 8, 2015


On March 7, 1965 ABC news interrupted its Sunday movie, Judgement at Nuremberg, to show footage of peaceful American citizens being gassed, chased down, and beaten by newly deputized white male citizens of Dallas County. Incidentally juxtaposed with what were still fresh, but by then also historic, crimes against humanity (the film included real footage from inside the concentration camps), the rightness and wrongness of the reach for and denial of civil rights in America must have appeared all the more stark to TV viewers. Present ambivalence must have seemed all the more repugnant in the sudden context of the results of past ambivalence. Here was history, the type of thing they make movies about years later, happening in real time.

Of course, violence was to be expected when civil rights activists from Selma, Alabama attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge (named for a US Senator and popular Grand Dragon of the KKK) en route to Montgomery. It was tragic that it had to happen, but, through the lens of history, necessary that it be witnessed by a nation that had seen and supported changes in the laws, but were mostly (whether willfully or not) ignorant of how little impact those improvements had made. When the footage of the unprovoked brutality was supplemented with news of the murder of a white Unitarian minister, James Reeb, the nation's hackles were suitably raised. The stain of ancestral, systemic racism will probably never been full scrubbed out, but the greater moral transgressions in Selma and all over the country seemed, at least for a time, to trump - or, sadly, amplify - personal prejudice. "There is no Negro problem," President Johnson was compelled to declare. "There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem."

Selma zeros in on this national tipping point, focusing on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s role in both boots-on-the-ground assistance in Alabama's micro struggles while orchestrating that strife in a way that could be understood and diagnosed, in a macro way,  as what Johnson would afterwards call an American Problem. The film doesn't delve into so much as portray this important place, this important period, and these important people of history. Most historical films - especially portrayals of American history, it seems - tend to supercharge their stories with the bombast and certainty of hindsight, will limn every action with the confirmed importance of its outcome. But there's a realist, history-not-yet-written tone to Selma that makes it feel unique. It's not a depiction of an historical event so much as it is a depiction of an event becoming history.

David Oyelowo's Dr. King feels especially human, frangible and fallible - a hero in his own time, living at once in history but also in the everyday minutiae that gets sloughed off with time. His countenance is not constantly sturdy - the way real characters often are in histories where we know the end - but instead is open to the nuances of doubt and worry as he tries to both assist the personal goals in Selma and urge forward the national ones.

Because not many films have resulted from this decade of change in American history (I'll bet more movies have been made about the 30 seconds of gunplay at the OK Coral), it's difficult not to compare Ava DuVernay's Selma with Spike Lee's Malcolm X. Both films tell their story under the contemporary pall of ongoing struggle. Malcolm X opens with footage of Rodney King being furiously beaten by the LAPD. It's a troubling context to begin in, morally as well as narratively. Beginning with that violence tethers the progress made by Malcolm X and other civil rights pioneers to ongoing setbacks. Effectively, a story of steps taken forwards opens with steps taken back. Selma of course arrives after half a year of confounding and heartbreaking fruition, with our cozy culture gobsmacked by the fact that what so many thought was a self-evident truth that Black Lives Matter needs to be pointed out and fought for still. In Selma, the past and present similarities don't need to be stressed. The near-mirror image of the Bloody Sunday clashes in Selma and those in Ferguson are not a choice of the filmmakers, but a troubling byproduct of how little has changed. The tone of Selma is never triumphant. The film knows that it's the story of battle won, and a war ongoing. Things are changing, but nothing has changed. 

Maybe the most troubling anecdotal parallel between that battle of 1965 and the one we're in now, forty years later, is that when ABC delayed Dancing with the Stars to cover the not guilty verdict in the death of Michael Brown it did so not with the certainty that this was a story that demanded we drop whatever we were doing and pay attention, but with an apology and an assurance that the show about washed-up celebrities dancing would start shortly. What's that if not an American Problem?

- Andrew

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