Monday, January 12, 2015


Don't be reluctant to go see the new film, Selma, because you're afraid it's going to be on of those serious, historical (boring) biopic movies that's "good for you," like broccoli.  Selma isn't broccoli, it's a full feast. Rich, interesting, exciting, dramatic, suspenseful, heartbreaking, powerful and quite splendid.

Having lived through those terrible times, I remember well the compelling press photos and TV coverage of the Civil Rights era  -- the attack dogs, the fire hoses, Bull Conner, the pinched, mean faces of Southern racists in a fury that their Jim Crow world was being changed before their eyes by astoundingly brave black citizens who, in the face of often lethal retributions, had, one by one, stood up.

Selma  focuses in a the few days around a planned protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to demand voting rights for black Americans.  Dr. King (brilliantly played by the British actor, David Oyelowo) had brought his organization to Selma to join with the SNCC and SCLC groups that had been organizing there.  The movie does a particularly good job at portraying the various political strategies and choices that were needed to accomplish King's goal, including using the terrible events -- those awful images of black citizens being brutalized by state troopers -- to awaken the conscience of white America and to put further political pressure on President Johnson to push voting rights further up on his civil rights agenda. 

The film is also particularly powerful at humanizing King.  Instead of the usual cardboard cut-out biopic hero, this King is fully realized:  powerful, faltering, agonizing over what his dream was costing his followers, but relentless in moving forward.  The issue of King's unfaithfulness in his marriage was so subtle, quiet and masterfully done; no getting getting bogged down in salacious details, which made the betrayal between King and Coretta that much more powerful.

Director Ava DuVernay also assisted with the script, written by Paul Webb.  The production was  forbidden from using any of King's real speeches (copyright issues with the King estate) but instead of being a handicap, it was a saving grace.  DuVernay had to write new versions of King's speeches, and that prevented the often deadening effect most biopics run into when the movie stops cold and actors and audience alike all inhale and start to lip-sync The Famous Speech. Here, King's most noteworthy and oft-repeated famous phrases were interwoven throughout as regular dialogue (a nice touch) and the one big official speech at the end was brand new to the audience and so allowed them to actually listen to what was being said.

I can only hope this film will be widely seen.  First, because so much of the history that the film portrays seems to have been forgotten by a white smiley-faced America that blithely thinks we now live in a post-racial world.  Recent events involving black communities and police remind us that ghosts from our past are not yet past.  And that we forget our history at our own peril.

And second, this film should be widely seen simply because it's so good.

For a great overview of the march, see the link below.

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