Thursday, February 19, 2015

Oscars 2014: Selma

David Oyelowo as MLK and 
Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King
Selma (U.S., 2014) directed by Ava DuVernay, 127 minutes

Two Oscar Nominations
Best Picture
Music (Original Song)

Director Ava DuVernay produces art that inspires, that rekindles that flame of outrage against injustice that many of us feel and want to act on. This film is a phenomenal historical drama and it really is a travesty that it is nominated in only two categories - one of which is best original song. That astonishes me. Stop treating black people as minstrels who are only here to entertain us. David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King (MLK), Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ). All of them should have been nominated as well as Ava DuVernay the director.

I am unsure if the film was shot chronologically but Oyelowo, a Brit, appears to gather strength in his characterization, sounding more and more like MLK as the film progresses. Ejogo perfectly captures Coretta Scott King's particular brand of frosty beauty, cool-headness and refinement.

The South is in turmoil in 1964. As its black citizens attempt to organize and protest for their civil rights, they are increasingly under attack by belligerent, racist whites. The film begins with four small black girls being murdered by a bomb blast in Birmingham, AL. On September 15, 1963, three Klansmen planted nineteen sticks of dynamite outside the church they little girls worshipped in. The explosion killed Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair and injured twenty two others.

King soon meets with Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) seeking legislation to assist black citizens to register for voting without impediments. Johnson stalls, citing other priorities such as the "war on poverty". Wilkinson is impressive here, not so much imitating LBJ, whom he does not resemble at all, but summing up the Southern piss and vinegar attitude that LBJ was reputed to possess. It's not that LBJ is not a racist (he too refers to blacks as "niggers") but he is a pragmatist. Things must change, things will change, but at the appropriate time he seems to imply.

It has been suggested that LBJ's role has been minimized or distorted in the film but the writer Amy Feldman refutes that notion in a recent The New Yorker article.

King travels to Selma, Alabama with an entourage of dedicated activists which includes Andrew Young, future UN Ambassador and mayor of Atlanta. The problem of voter registration is particularly acute there. King and his followers, including Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey, one of the executive producers of the film), march through Selma in defiance of the ruthless tactics of a Sheriff Jim Clark, a vicious racist who resorts to extreme violence to suppress protests. They are beaten and thrown to the ground despite their passive resistance. King and his followers are arrested and incarcerated. They soon begin to organize a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

Alabama's Governor George Wallace (played by a slithery, snarling Tim Roth) challenges King and vows that they will not proceed. Johnson, too, is opposed to the march feeling that King is trying to force his hand to create legislation that would end voter discrimination. Gov. Wallace allows the state troopers to attack the marchers during a night march on February 18, 1965. They brutally assault the marchers and Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), an activist and church deacon, is beaten and shot to death during a struggle. At a eulogy for Jackson, MLK vows to continue the march. 

During the first march from Selma to Montgomery, the protesters face armed troopers on the bridge. The troopers begin to throw tear gas and beat the crowd with billy clubs. I can't tell you how horrifying this re-enactment is on screen. Old men and women, young teenagers, being clubbed, whipped, thrown to the ground, beaten about the face. It's terrifying, absolutely excruciating, to watch. That the troopers (and George Wallace) were foolish and vicious enough to proceed with these fascistic tactics while on camera, which is later broadcast nationally before a horrified public, is inexplicable and demonstrates a pathological hatred of black people. 

There is one image of a young girl, dressed in a white dress, running like a hunted gazelle from a state trooper with a baton, that will be etched in my mind for a very long time.

President Johnson demands that both King and Wallace stop their actions. He sends a representative to meet with King to postpone the march. King refuses and tells him that, instead, he should convince Wallace and Sheriff Clark to be non-violent. Inspired by the vicious assaults they see on television, a number of white citizens come to Selma to join the next march. This time, the state troopers step aside and no violence occurs as the protesters kneel down and exhibit passive resistance. There is some thought that the white marchers have somehow dissuaded the state troopers from attacking. Afterwards, two white supporters are viciously assaulted and one, a Rev. James Reeb an Unitarian minister, is murdered for joining the marchers.

King and his collaborators are soon brought to court over the next march. The judge rules in favour of the marchers. LBJ confronts Gov. Wallace who claims to have to control over voter registration. Frustrated by Wallace's intransigence LBJ announces that he will send a bill to Congress to eliminate the restrictions on the voting of black citizens. The activists gather for the final march. DuVernay intersperses actual footage from the march in the film. The ordinariness of the participants breaks your heart. These are working people, students, the elderly and a few notable ones - Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., etc ...

Five months later, LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Martin Luther King, Jr. was there.

The film ends with an update on the lives of those who participated in the marches:
Andrew Young, former UN Ambassador and mayor of Atlanta.
George Wallace, paralysed by a 1972 assassination attempt.
Sheriff Jim Clark defeated by an overwhelming black electorate in the next election.
Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights activist, murdered by a Klansman hours after the march.
Coretta Scott King established The King Center and campaigned for a holiday in her husband's honor (celebrated the third Monday of January).
MLK, lead the civil rights movement for thirteen years until he was murdered in 1968.

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