Selma (2015)

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My dissertation’s thesis is that nonviolence is an overemphasised narrative in civil rights’ movements. About 8 weeks into my phenomenal American history module (the first I’d ever studied the U.S.!) in autumn last year, I emailed my professor to say ‘I always imagined people just became more aware of human rights and basic decency and that was why civil rights movements worked, but obviously that was not enough.’ (Reading back on my questions to lecturers is a mix of hilarious and deeply embarrassing, but I guess I’m here to learn.) And nonviolence is such an elegant fill-the-gap between segregation and the post-racial era — I just don’t think it’s enough. By attributing the victories to Dr King we do a disservice to the staggering courage and drive of the grassroots activists — and more dangerously, we think we do live in a post-racial world (or America), because the Civil Rights Movement finishes neatly in 1968, with King’s assassination and the second Civil Rights Act.

As I’ve been reading and learning more, I’m becoming more wary of what nonviolence really is, and what King did. I would never say he’s anything less than a visionary and a hero — the problem is portrayal. That’s why it’s taken me so long to watch Selma. The poster, King towering over a crowd, seemed like a tell-tale sign of another portrayal iconographic history that might be doing more harm than good.

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Which is why I’m surprised Selma made me cry. Three times. I bawl like an idiot at museums and when reading and in seminars these days, so maybe that’s not much, but I think Ava DuVernay has directed a fantastic film. A big (pseudo?)problem with civil rights’ history is that it’s all incredible — every story carries so much individual and collective bravery, resilience, creativity and wit, it’s hard to believe they walked (or marched) on the streets I’ve walked on. This also means it’s painful to see its victories attributed to one man. When people ask me to tell me about what I’ve studied, I always start with Ella Baker, founder of SNCC and the woman who was the behind the scenes orchestrator of pretty much everything civil rights related for 50 years. Not many people have heard her name.

That’s why I’ve never given Selma or 1954 (Brown v. Board, which theoretically ended segregation in schools–valuable for the precedent it set in court) to 1968 (King’s death and the last major civil rights legislation) much attention. It’s why I can’t yell out, where the fuck is Ella Baker, like I did at the MLK memorial in D.C. I don’t know who was spearheading there. But it sure as hell wasn’t just a crowd following Dr King with his wife Coretta, John Lewis and his buddies and a lady they were standing up for. OK, see, the issue here is that you feel shitty demanding an intersectional history when the story of the events in Alabama as the film tells them are so powerful already. That’s the Big Problem. Women had been the backbone of the movement for over a century, yet the film is about men, and their ability to mobilise the people.

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Oh, Washington. Slaver. Still a hero? How many heroes on this image?

The people were behind the movement, were then and are now. Always. For all the crying, I don’t feel the film conveyed that enough — the story it told was of King, and how he inspired the people and stood up to LBJ, relentless, which is all well and good. Maybe I’ve become desensitised (I did spend two full days at the National Museum of African American History and Culture where, among other things, I learned about the church bombing, and in general, I don’t think it’s fair to hold film against the standards of the unparalleled genius of NMAAHC), but I would’ve liked to see more of the people and representations of their agenda (show us the White House protesters, for god’s sake!!)

Some parts were brilliantly done. Jimmie Lee Jackson’s story was gut-wrenching, and amid the extended scenes of white brutality and the unbelievable bullshit the people in power responded with was really well executed. I don’t know if anyone else felt ready to get up right then and there and travel back to 1968, but I have to imagine it did. The brutality also did a service to the portrayal of nonviolence — and challenged the complacent idea that violence wasn’t integral to the movement.

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Contrasting to that, the weak part was Coretta — the meeting with Malcom X was brilliant, but I didn’t really understand why we needed the relationship drama. It was too brief and isolated to add much to the story, and kind of felt like a ‘relationship’ tickbox. She was a brilliant activist in her own right, and her reluctance about her role as she was next to the all-important Dr King in one of the early scenes conveyed so much, so why did she need to be reduced to a side character, a distraction from The Work?

Finally, a quick shout-out to all the actors — I almost forgot to write about them because I would’ve forgotten this wasn’t original footage if I hadn’t recognised Wendell Pierce from Suits. Wonderful casting and not a single hitch in my eyes. J. Edgar Hoover, FBI, was portrayed as a right piece of shit, which I loved.

I’ve intentionally not read up on any other reviews or even much on the March on Montgomery as it happened, but I will update this post with any good stuff I come across. I’m really intrigued to know how much truth there was to the LBJ they’re portraying and who the women behind Selma were (note I’m not asking if they were; I want to know who they were!) I think it’s great we had this film for a conversation-starter (even if I am three years late to the conversation) — and I think whatever flaws there may have been, DuVernay has given us something worth watching. And worth discussing.

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Further reading:

I’d really like to know your opinions, about Selma as much as this post. I’ve been wanting to come back to this blog to write about the films I watch for ages, but I’ve always hesitated, so any feedback is really appreciated. (If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s on UK Netflix!)

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9 responses to “Selma (2015)

  1. Welcome back!!! 🙂

  2. This is a really interesting post. It makes me want to give Selma a second chance. I was really underwhelmed overall aside from the acting.

    • Really glad you think that! I think a big issue is that the film is unmemorable whereas the events behind it were anything but. I wrote this out right after seeing it and I’m glad I did, because even then I had a hard time actually recounting the plot. If you do watch it again, I’d love to read your thoughts!

  3. Interesting post! I was a huge Civil Rights buff when I was a teenager, and couldn’t wait for this movie to come out. When I saw it, I felt like the film did a good service to the events in Selma, but like you said, public perception of race and Civil Rights is a lot more complicated than one event. Most people think racism is over but it’s not, and MLK was a central figure in the movement but not the only one. It had so many pivotal moving pieces, I would love to see more Civil Rights movies cover more lesser-known events. Selma was a good start. Loved the cast and Ava’s attention to detail with MLK’s life (the scene with Mahalia Jackson still amazes me), and it would’ve been more interesting for women like Coretta to be utilized better.

    • Thanks Katy! I’m taking the success of Black Panther as a sign there are going to be more opportunities to tell these stories — films about some of the stuff I’ve read for my seminars/dissertation would be BRILLIANT, imho history has stories no one could ever dream up. And holy smokes, the cast was so good! I genuinely forgot I wasn’t watching real footage at one point and only remembered once they started mixing in the original footage… Also, thank you for stopping by!

  4. Whoa. Very stoked to not only see you back, but the fact that this post reads like a well-written lesson in American history is fantastic. Sadly, I haven’t seen Selma yet, but I plan to.

    These movies/stories are unfortunately still impossibly timely, so maybe I can squeak it into class at some point. I’m teaching social studies (only) in the fall, but we’re more focused on ancient cultures…so, obviously I gotta show Clash of the Titans first. And yes, clearly I want to be fired.

    Have you been to the other museums in DC? Or were you too busy at the All-Star game???????

    • I don’t know, my life has been shaped by rebellious teachers – interestingly, they have always been at odds with all the other teachers. . .hmm. What do Others know about culture?! Watch all the Clash of the Titans you want!!

      OMG (and I’m completely gonna ignore the salt here) I went to so many!! NMAAHC I spent two days in, Newseum was the best museum I’ve ever been in, the Native American one was underwhelming but the architecture was beautiful, I went to the Holocaust museum bc it was the closest public restroom (:/) but it was so eerie I never went back, and we went to a lot of other places because I was on a summer course about the constitution and inequalities. On another note, DC is the most incredible place!!

      But baseball…it’s just so…boring…more breaks than in US television and that’s saying something! And $7 for a coke!

      (Also, uh, I saw Hamilton on Broadway. I feel like it’s not gonna be as big as the All-Star thing, but I wanted to drop this just in case…)

      Also, actually – thank you!!

  5. Pingback: Slurped Up: August 2018 | Films and Coke

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