Tuesday, January 27, 2015

HOPED FOR GREAT BUT ‘SELMA’ GOOD WITH QUESTION MARKS

By Dominique Paul Noth


David Oyelowo as King and Andre Holland as
Andrew Young in a still from "Selma."
By legacy and belief, every fiber of my being wanted “Selma” to be more than worthy of its subject and to resonate with human lessons even more deeply than what I grew up with in college.

I lived that era, participated in the civil rights movement, was horrified by the newsreels and recognized 50 years ago that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had shrewdly forced America to witness up close not just the bigoted words but the raw and brutal treatment of blacks in Alabama – by whites in power who acted proud of their bestiality.

When TV was young and mass street protests topped the nightly news, that brought support for civil rights and Selma’s voting rights push from across the country. The inescapable spurs were disturbing images of white cops snarling, charging on horseback, clubbing defenseless bodies, the Unitarian minister beaten to death that stirred national outrage, the defiance of federal law by Gov. George Wallace, all stirred up again and close up in the movie.  When the full weight of all that flooded black and white into the living rooms, though the deaths of whites more than blacks drew the gasps in redder states, it engendered near  universal endorsement of  federal action just as King had wanted and the nation sorely needed.

When LBJ used a “We shall overcome” phrase in 1965 to propel voting rights through Congress, that national  speech is dropped into the film as his  cynical political calculation, while King’s sermons urging defiance of civil authorities are treated as a holy moment.  And that stirs the issue of political even-handedness. It has also caused some controversy and deep questions about director Ava DuVernay’s contradictory claims –that she is no documentarian though that is her past and some of the film’s best moments, or that her portrayal of King is nothing more than “an ordinary man doing extraordinary things,” or that her treatment of Lyndon Johnson was simply to avoid any sense of another “white savior” pulling black causes out of the fire.

The truth lies in the middle, as she should know even within poetic license. Every film is entitled to its own fictionalization of history, within reason, and certainly King’s cause was just and blacks were the chief actors in the success.  But the film also fails for good and ill to use the time capsule on hand – 50 years of re-examination – with balanced measure.

Much of the screenplay openly explores King’s tactics in a way that only the passage of time and intellectual analysis would allow -- perhaps a bit of editorializing for current black protesters:

Choose a ripe community, drop in, agitate and force public attention through the violent reaction of bigots. His worst enemy, he suggests, is a tolerant opposition that keeps its head. So the beaten black bodies of civil disobedience, as painful as they may be to the minister, is what he needed, counting on bigots who would make his point visible to the public.

In a way, the film almost draws a road map more for the opposition than the protesters. These days, the opponents of voting rights have clearly learned they can do much damage with nasty words and legal finesse but they know better than to pull out the broom handles. What lessons are being draw for today’s protesters for civil rights? Old time religion or new tactics?  Which path is the film editorializing for? It’s one reason that a film so much aware of the present in its messaging needs balance and accuracy as audiences compare and contrast Selma with today.

LBJ is too big a character to ignore and the always great Tom Wilkinson wraps his own lanky frame around the Texan’s lean-in mannerisms.  But when LBJ is treated as the blitzing blocker against King in Selma, that neglects how he wanted the voting rights act as the feather in his legislative cap, so much so that he encouraged choosing a virulent place like Selma for King to bring his Nobel reputation.  Which means there was interest in achievement on both sides. 

Academics defending the film dismiss painting LBJ as the obstructionist as a side element, but it is built throughout as a central element, and it is not the only historical manipulation.

The FBI tapes to demean King were started under JFK and clearly used by J. Edgar Hoover to pressure not just King but all presidents as a sign of his dark power, and one can easily envision LBJ savoring the more unseemly parts. Except there is no record of that. The film casts those surveillance tapes as a continuing screen typing device -- fair to the context of the times that King was under constant threat and surveillance, but unfair to so cavalierly tie the texts to the LBJ-MLK tactical disagreements. 

In fact, the film deliberately sets up LBJ’s confrontation with the overt racist Wallace as the reason he finally acts, which is over-simplistic.  (Note how America's most repellent power giants, Wilkinson glaring as LBJ and Wallace in the hateful cadences of Tim Roth, are handed to British actors! They just sound so much more rotten.)

The film is pushed along by historic events that weren’t directly connected – the bombing of four black girls in the Birmingham church in 1963, used early in the 1964-65 story to inflame our emotional disgust at Southern attitudes, as if we need such inflaming.

While there were contentious debates in the White House and Congress about voting rights language, which is still coming back to haunt US courts, the only argument shown is a fabricated intense debate in King’s headquarters. It's dramatic compression but still one-sided. Political hesitations in D.C.  are put under a demeaning microscope but the film ducks whether King’s decision to abandon one bridge march was out of fear for the lives of his followers or because the white police were clearly pulling back and he wanted a more intense confrontation to echo the previous horrific “Bloody Sunday.” The film should be credited with raising the possibility, but if this were a White House ploy it wouldn’t be left hanging.
Carmen Ejogo and Oyelowo as the Kings.

DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb were also constricted by the lingering larger than life reputation of Martin and Coretta King. Even their private encounters are constrained, though King’s unhappiness about wearing an ascot to accept the Nobel was a wonderful way to start the film. This King is allowed to be casually congenial with followers but largely soberly uncommunicative with Coretta. Only in pregnant pauses after a clearly concocted FBI tape do we suspect King of adultery, which he eventually denies to her, and only in her response to others do we sense the steel that Coretta had to possess in the face of death threats and white hatred. She is allowed to believe Malcolm X while he is still disturbed by that black leader calling him an Uncle Tom – but that’s dramatization of public record. Nothing much beyond is revealed in a movie about the extraordinary actions of an ordinary man.

Granted, King was a far more noble character and LBJ was a rampant self-promoter, but both were expert strategists in this chess game of voting rights. The black and white pieces on the board have been rearranged so that one side’s gambits are honorable and the others are bluntly self-serving, which does not take on either side as honestly as an exploration of racism and social strategy should. 

Some fictionalization is inevitable and even welcome, but these voting rights issues are still so hot and the tactics so intense that missteps are magnified.  There are imagined scenes of King confronting private doubts – a fine one in jail with Colman Domingo as the Rev. Abernathy that rings believable and a car ride with a young John Lewis that doesn’t.  

That screenwriting approach doesn’t give room to the charisma and technical chops of David Oyelowo as King, though he is magnificently alive in the three-quarters of the part that is actually King’s words, words that every actor in America would die to sink their teeth into.

Similarly, I would rather see the elegant beauty and dignity of Carmen Ejogo as Coretta in the Oscar race than the inexplicable presence of Reese Witherspoon for “Wild,” but it is a well-executed role of respectful reflection rather than cutting a fresh path to the heart.

On the Selma bridge in particular, the editing contrasts and tensions speed into climaxes. At such moments the film truly soars and tears of compassion flow -- and what faces and presence! To signal a few out, Andre Holland as Andrew Young, Lorraine Toussiant as Amelia Boynton (the 103 year old guest at the 2015 State of the Union), Wendell Pierce as Hosei Williams and Stephan James, forced to take in events and react as John Lewis.

Oprah Winfrey does a cameo as a Selma woman but her main purpose for the film since has been to promote it -- vital for black education and excellent in all regards, she has said.  The trouble is, Oprah pumped the same last year for what turned out to be a mediocre film, “The Butler,” and while she is more right this time, the whole argument over “Selma” has been riddled with exaggeration.  On all sides.

Despite excessive claims, capable is the correct word for the direction with moments of thoughtful tableaus and editing.  But DuVernay has a world class topic – one that most directors would do well with and more would exercise better balance of elements and more finesse with the screenplay.  I think the belief that she was snubbed in the best director race, as were Oyelowo and Ejogo in their categories, may result in an Oscar for “Selma” as best picture, certainly an honorable choice  even from that much maligned 63% white Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. 

But hold on here. While there are Koch-like money figures in the studio system, these film artisans have over the years championed civil rights causes with money and prestige despite their whiteness and if anything the actors I know agree overall that their established industry organizations lack diversity for either women or ethnic minorities. (They just may not be ready to abandon their own jobs to give way.) All this may make them vulnerable to accusations of prejudice, which would be a poor reason to vote for “Selma.”

There are other films out there that touch our minds and souls with creativity in less immediate or sensational topics (Alzheimer’s, a wrestling setting, a fantasy of fame, a comedy of manners and greed).  If films are going to be measured by the importance of their topic as opposed to the genius of their vision, the Oscars and other awards will become even more a promotional pimping game than they are now.

Other notable end of year reviews: Into the Woods, Theory of Relativity, Whiplash, Wild,  Unbroken, Boyhood,  American Sniper,  Birdman,  Imitation Game, Foxcatcher, and a new look at American Sniper controversies. 


Film and drama critic for The Milwaukee Journal for decades, Dominique Paul Noth began his journalism career in the 1960s, first as international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then an editor at the Green Sheet, then combining criticism with stints as arts editor and later senior features editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combined Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and to serve as the first online news producer. He left voluntarily to run online seminars and write about Internet journalism and online newspapers, then served from 2002 to 2013 as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and its online portal, milwaukeelabor.org.  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.