Gemma: Selma on MLK Day!
Rasha: Let’s each take a moment and name what we think is the most important thing we can say about this movie. There’s a lot, and I’m wary of losing something major and remembering afterwards.
G: I feel more the social significance of it than anything else. A major mainstream film helmed by a Black woman, centered entirely on Black characters and history. And Ava DuVernay’s wonderful choice not to attempt to take anyone’s history on “fully.” She was trying to capture the dimensions of this moment in time, and even if some people who were minor characters in the film had later and greater social significance than they did in this particular story, she didn’t try to shoehorn that in.
R: Someone asked me on the way out of the theatre how the movie was, and I said “People ought to watch that like the news.” What I think I really mean is that people should watch it to understand an emotional translation of the news, which feels so f*cking disconnected when you get folks who see the same reports on TV, in the paper, or events in real life, and take the impact in completely opposite ways depending on their race, class, gender, geography. Two years ago, I was organizing an event in Lowndes County, and I’ve met some of the people–particularly organizers with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)– who had organized in Selma and in Lowndes County before, during, and after the time of the march to Montgomery. This is when people were being evicted from their homes for registering to vote and moving into tent cities.
G: That must have had an impact on the way you engaged with the movie.
R: Even though I long to see more of those folks lifted up, and even though I could hear their commentary as I watched the film–there’s definitely a much deeper and wider history– I was really grateful for the emotional immediacy of the way the movie tells the story.
G: Yeah. I find the biopic an inherently limited genre, and I think DuVernay really pushed it to its limits the right way. Trying to take on the historical moment that included but was in no way limited to The Great Man.
R: My viewing companion pointed out: it’s not called King, or even King at Selma. This is a story about events and the people moving through those times, heartbroken and outraged and determined.
G: Right, exactly. But I will say that David Oyelowo as a performer brings a LOT.
R: Damn, the whole cast! Bringing it. It was just water, oasis in my heart, to see so many fine Black actors and actresses get parts of tremendous subtlety even where they were not large. Because of that, I think Selma works well in a way that a lot of other films that try to tackle the Civil Rights era don’t. I should say, the Freedom Riders documentary that aired on PBS is a valuable companion piece to this movie.
G: Haven’t watched it, but will. The whole cast indeed! A lot of whom were not American. I was interested in that as a choice. I just saw Oyelowo in A Most Violent Year. His star has exploded over here in the last year or two. I did not know Carmen Ejogo before this, and she really delivered.
R: Well, I think for folks who are not organizers but love people who are, many of them left feeling Coretta’s position.
G: And I loved that the film chose to make that position real without making it A Movie About Their Marriage.
R: Coretta’s line about “I know what you sound like” got the laugh it should from the theatre I was in.
G: Yes, that was a fantastic line! The project has been through a lot of iterations in the last several years, and from what I’ve been reading, DuVernay herself did a great deal of rewriting that for contract reasons she couldn’t get credited for. I found myself wondering how much of that Coretta scene could be attributed to her. Lee Daniels was slated to direct originally, and forgive me but I’m so glad he didn’t.
R: To me, there is a lot in here that feels like a story about strategy and about organizing, and about how people who put their lives in that path make lives and make struggle and put those two together, not always certainly or easily.
G: Yes, that makes sense. I loved that it portrayed a man of faith, making decisions that way, without making an argument about faith. (One more quick add on the actors: Stephan James playing John Lewis, whom I loved, seems to be Canadian. Really a lot of non-American actors in here.)
R: You know what else was really subtle, very menacing, and widened the lens beyond the excerpt of the Civil Rights story that is Selma? The surveillance logs that served as the establishing titles for scenes. Whew.
G: Yes. And in the hands of a more ham-fisted director, like Lee Daniels can be, those would have been forced. DuVernay just let them sit there and had us take them in.
R: Tim Roth as George Wallace is another non-American who shows up. Does it take courage to play such a rightly villified racist? Does it take a good actor to make him distasteful and yet not foaming? I’m uncertain. I really enjoy Tim Roth (RIP, Lie to Me), and there is something stony about what DuVernay decides to show. This is the guy in history who said: Segregation today, Segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.
G: I would question the assertion of courage, but I definitely think it takes a good actor to make him distasteful without creating a caricature. And again, I think the skill of the movie was just to show a slice. No bludgeoning of This Is Who George Wallace Was, These Are All The Horrible Things That Were Said and Done Ever. Take this moment, take its depth, and trust your portrayal of that to offer context. Things like Oprah Winfrey’s performance, for example, were crafted the same way. It didn’t have to be Oprah’s Performance, and I was impressed with her ability to make it not so.
R: Cheers in the audience when she hits Sheriff Jim Clark. I was waiting for the scene they’d shown in the trailers where Oprah is in the pew giving praise all like “that’s that beautiful movie I paid for, yes!” but it looks like it was cut.
G: Yes! And the production team could do that!
R: I know the shadow play in much of the mainstream press involves drummed up outrage on behalf of President Johnson, with some folks going way too far out there to assert that the March from Selma to Montgomery was LBJ’s idea…which, no, children, sit down. In watching the scene with Johnson and Wallace, what struck me is how valuable to movement a well-stoked ego can be.
G: Wilkinson, too, as LBJ, is not American, although he does a lot of work here.
R: Someone like Johnson was capable of being shamed into action, whatever his personal beliefs and intentions about when and whether he would take action. I think of it in contrast to leaders who can’t be shamed, like Bashar al-Assad in Syria. As a student of social change, it’s valuable enough when there’s someone in a position of decision-making who can be shamed.
G: Well, my impression of Johnson is that he did have some genuine and sincere strong political goals, and so he could be shamed into others. But I am not particularly well-researched on him. Being able to be shamed implies a conscience and a level of engagement, even if it’s not developed at the level we dream of. The outrage re: Johnson is ludicrous. A) it’s a desperate flailing to defend a White Hero, and B) even if we were to grant that the movie was “inaccurate” about him, to call a biopic on its inaccuracies is … c’mon. It is always a fictionalization.
R: Dude, I really wish Olivia Pope were wrangling with more of LBJ style president than a Clinton style. and also that she wasn’t having an affair with that president. [Ed: Ava DuVernay has already directed an episode of Scandal, so we aren’t so far away from such possibilities.]
G: OMG, I totally want to know the story of Johnson’s Black female political fixer, even if she weren’t Olivia Pope. Shonda Rhimes, your first feature film is calling.
R: I imagine them more as opponents, but I suppose that’s also how Fitz and Olivia play out.
G: Yeah. Being someone’s fixer does not in any way eliminate adversity
R: I have to name that moment early in the film when we see the bombing of the Birmingham church. Damn, that was devastatingly played, DuVernay.
G: F*ck. Seriously.
R: That set the tone for the whole film for me, and it fucking winded me, even though I know to be ready for it.
G: Yes, I had read about it in the reviews, and so it’s to her credit that it still genuinely took it out of me.
R: You’re right that my real-life connections to the people who lived and made this history and to the places where this history happened, filter my read on the film. I’m hesitant to heap upon it untempered praise because I hope that folks will go beyond this buoyant moment. I hope that this film might be an emotional entry for some people to the history if they didn’t know it or don’t feel it quite so urgently. One, this isn’t just Civil Rights History– it is our history as a whole society. And two, it isn’t history! When we see debates about renewing the Voting Rights Act come up in Congress or test cases in the Supreme Court, that sh*t is as serious as Selma. When we see Ferguson, or Cleveland, or Detroit, or Atlanta or Chicago or Brooklyn, or or or …that sh*t is as serious and as urgent as Selma. I also take this film in the category of Art that reminds me to Be Brave and Get Braver.
G: Overall, I see the film as mostly making the best artistic choices one could make in creating a portrait of that moment in history. It’s limited by means of being a film, and I found a lot of the exposition in the first half quite clunky, though my viewing companions didn’t and said they thought I “knew too much” and that it was stronger for newer viewers, for the folks you mention who are taking it as an emotional entry. But without being untempered, my praise is deep and genuine. This was not an easy task for anyone involved. I saw such discipline in all the choices by director and actors, which allowed it to do a lot of what you mention.
R: Y’all need to watch that movie like the news. And then go watch the rest of the news. Stay woke.