Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Selma [2014]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars) (4 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review

BET coverage
Ebony coverage coverage (D. Green) review

ChicagoTribune (M. Philiips) review (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Rolling Stone (G. Edwards) interview w. director Ava DuVernay (S. Moscovitz) interview w. director Ava DuVernay

Selma [2014] (directed by Ava DuVernay, screenplay by Paul Webb) arriving in time for the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the second of the two most important pieces of Federal legislation that were passed as a result of the African-American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s-60s (and, yes, perhaps coincidentally / perhaps not ... during the early part of the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration ...) reminds the United States (and the world) what life was like for African Americans in the Deep South of the United States prior to the passage of such legislation that finally allowed African Americans unhindered access, more-or-less, to the ballot box.

I say "more-or-less" because there has been steady if mostly thankfully "rear guard" battling over "voter registration legislation" ever since.  And I do believe that the continued shenanigans are real: As I noted in my review of the recent film Kill the Messenger [2014], the 1980s "crack cocaine crisis" gave white racists in this country an excuse to once again disenfanchise MILLIONS of African American voters by making possession of ANY AMOUNT of "crack cocaine" (but significantly NOT powdered cocaine generally prefered by white people...) to be a "felony" giving States permission to take away their Civil Rights, INCLUDING VOTING RIGHTS, essentially FOREVER.  More than a million African American male "crack convicts" in Florida (not / no longer in jail, but with their voting rights denied them FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES on account of their "felony conviction") or ONE THIRD of the voting age African American male population in the State was not allowed to vote in the 2000 Presidential election, an election that was "decided" by a margin of less than a 1000 votes in Florida...

However, even this apparent "crack" (felon) loophole in the application of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 pales in comparison to unblushing systematic denial of African Americans the right to vote that existed in the Jim Crow South prior to the marches / protests in Selma that made such practices no longer tenable and resulted in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 quite shortly afterwards. 

To the film ...

Much controversy has been made with regards to this film's treatment of Lyndon B. Johnson (played in the film by Tom Wilkinson).  I would suggest to readers here to please read the two interviews of the director Ava DuVernay that I list above.  Apparently, the original screenplay (and probably historically more correctly) portrayed Johnson in far more positive light.  However, the director says in those interviews that she really didn't want to make a movie about a "White Savior" (Johnson...), that in fact, the biggest changes that she made to the script was _to add_ BLACK LOCAL WOMEN to the story like lowly, honest / church-going Selma resident Annie Lee Cooper (eventually played in the film by Oprah Winfrey).  

With regards to Johnson, the director sensed (again IMHO almost certainly correctly) that ultimately the Civil Rights movement was NOT his top priority.  Instead, Johnson's TOP PRIORITY was his hoped-for War on Poverty (which would seek to improve the lives of ALL POOR PEOPLE OF ALL COLORS).  Hence EVEN IF HE WAS SYMPATHETIC (and _I_ certainly believe he was ... Johnson did in a year / two in office what Kennedy seemed incapable of doing in pretty much his entire term ...) the Civil Rights Movement was something of a distraction:  SO ... "let's just get the Civil Rights legislation passed as fast as possible (and be done with it)."

AND LET'S FACE IT ... THAT IS THE HISTORICAL RECORD: The Civil Rights Act (which _didn't_ pass under Kennedy) passed RAPIDLY under Johnson in 1964 and the VOTING RIGHTS ACT again passed RAPIDLY after that in 1965.

So ... after 1965, Johnson had three years to focus on what he really believed was important: The War on Poverty.  (Of course, good will there got eaten-up by the concession(s) that he made to the American Right in ALSO allowing American involvement in the War in Vietnam to proceed...)

Was this "War on Poverty" worth it?  Did it even succeed...? Well, it's almost impossible to imagine TODAY what life would be like for American Seniors if not for Johnson's War on Poverty program Medicare (a health insurance "entitlement program" for Seniors that has honestly helped JUST ABOUT EVERYONE).

And truth be told, even Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr (played in the film by David Oyelowo) in his final years was coming around to the understanding that many / most of America's problems were not simply racial but economic -- for progress for African Americans to go forward, progress for poor whites had to go forward as well.

But be all this as it may, progress for African Americans COULD NOT GO FORWARD without more-or-less unhindered access to the ballot box.  And that then set the stage for the Civil Rights actions in Selma.  And this film ...

And yes, a lot of whites watching this film will certainly wince at seeing white police officers (of then still an ALL WHITE Selma police force) wrapping their batons with barbed wire and beating blacks seeking to peacefully march over a bridge ...

Now the film is also a lot about tactics -- Why put so much focus on what seems to be an insignificant (if county seat) like Selma?  Why simply a march?  Why not retaliation for violence inflicted on the marchers? -- and the result is an appreciation of the mind/thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr and the Southern CHRISTIAN Leadership Conference (my emphasis on Christian) the banner group with which he lead the Civil Rights Movement.  After all, there were alternatives -- the more militant Black Muslim Malcolm X (played briefly in the film by Nigel Thatch), and arguably more purely-legal approaches like that of the NAACP perhaps represented in the film by young "Obama-like" "community organizer" Andrew Young (played by André Holland).

The film's director, Ava DuVernay, noted in one of the interviews (given above) that since she was NOT "from the (rural) South" but rather "from Compton (the inner city), California," her own sympathies growing up were more with Malcolm X and the Black Panthers (an excellent if, all around challenging film about the Black Panther Party called For the Cause [2013] played at the 2013 Chicago Black Harvest Film Festival).

The director wished to underline in her film that the tactics chosen by and Martin Luther King, Jr and the SCLC were NOT merely "pie in the sky" but rooted in practicality and potential for success: "One can't fight tanks with beebee guns," a "violent struggle" could not succeed.  However a morally based struggle appealing to the "better (and in this country CHRISTIAN) angels" of the white majority COULD (and did) SUCCEED.  To the director's credit, she did _underline_ the presence of white clergy / religious in the Selma marches:  I PERSONALLY KNOW MEMBERS OF MY RELIGIOUS ORDER WHO WERE INVOLVED IN THOSE MARCHES OF THE 1960s AND I'M IN GOOD PART A CATHOLIC PRIEST TODAY AS A RESULT OF THEIR EXAMPLE.

So what then to say in a final analysis about the movie.  Did it "diss" Johnson too much?  I honestly don't think so, because I do believe that the director _was right_.  This film needed to be ABOVE ALL ABOUT THE PEOPLE like Annie Lee Cooper (played in the film by Oprah Winfrey) NOT "the big shots..."

So good job Ms DuVernay!  Good job!  And if any want to read-up more about the Selma marches, Rev/Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, the Civil Rights Movement, or President Lyndon B. Johnson just do a search on Amazon.  There are plenty of books to read on all of them ;-)

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