“If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all. And so today I still have a dream.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was brought to vibrant life at the AFI Film Fest in Ava DuVernay’s extraordinary new film, Selma, about the civil rights protest that ultimately led to the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Too many black men killed today; too many black men killed in 1965. Spike Lee wrestled with the opposing movements of the 1960s with “militant” Malcolm X and pacifist Martin Luther King, Jr. That conflict is also present in Selma, as it would have to be in an era that almost demanded violence be answered with more violence. But King had a dream. His dream was bigger than the small minds that bound it. His dream is alive today, a wavering flame always threatened by hot air from stupid people who have way too much airtime in 2014.
That dream was a dream for equality — that all men (and women) are created equal, with the same rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness regardless of the color of their skin. Many Americans probably don’t even know about the march on Selma. Indeed, when it was announced that DuVernay was making this film few even knew why it would be called Selma and what that represented in King’s legacy. The film dramatizes those very dramatic events as they unfolded. Like now, after Hurricane Katrina and Ferguson it took live TV cameras to show Americans what the racist authorities were doing to black citizens who were engaged in peaceful protests.
The irony of watching Selma last night was that it was featured preceding Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper the same evening. (more on that in a separate piece). In Eastwood’s film, insurgents were brutally murdering Iraqis who so much as spoke with Americans. In Selma, white protestors were beaten and murdered for standing alongside black citizens during the civil rights protests of the 1960s. The militant racist whites were as much terrorists as the insurgents and yet our government, our presidents, continued to look the other way until TV cameras brought it to America’s doorsteps.
In David Oyelowo, DuVernay has found the embodiment of her inspiration. His portrayal of King is not only one of the best performances of the year, but certainly the definitive portrait of the charismatic civil rights leader. Oyelowo said in the Q&A afterwards that he knew if he was going to play King he would have to “bang out a great speech,” and indeed, he delivers them ferociously. You can’t underplay what happened when King hit the mic — he isn’t considered one of the greatest orators in history for nothing. DuVernay and Oyelowo capture the man — the husband and father who found himself struggling with internal conflict of Christian pacifism and the growing fury at the obvious injustices unfolding daily in the South.
DuVernay, working from Paul Webb’s screenplay, gives us enough information about what was going on then, what was most important — the right to register to vote, which means the right to sit on juries, which means the rights to help legislate laws to help their own communities. Attempts to preventing the black vote was a huge problem in the 1960s, and led to many protests, beatings, murders — countless deaths and ongoing intimidation. Incredibly, shamefully, it is still a problem 50 years later.
Selma is an important film but more than that, it is a great film. DuVernay directs with confidence, not trying to emulate anyone but trusting her own instincts as a visual director who really invests in character and story. She takes her time and never gives any character the short shrift.
If you’ve seen Middle of Nowhere you are already familiar with how DuVernay directs — she captures electrifying expressions on faces, puts the camera in places you don’t expect. When King speaks her camera is not aimed downward from up on high the way Orson Welles filmed Charles Foster Kane – rather, King is shot eye level as a way of demystifying the historic icon to bring him down to earth. DuVernay’s sensuality is evident in the ways she films men, but also in how her characters are not robbed of their sexuality, the way so many are in today’s films. This is not a sanitized look at King’s life – DuVernay was after authenticity and she surely gets it.
Indeed, the house was alive with good cheer when DuVernay’s film screened. A standing ovation, prolonged applause and even fan cheers for DuVernay afterwards was a good sign that this was no ordinary director screening any ordinary film. This was an historic moment and everyone knew it, particularly since all we’ve been seeing an Oscar season brimming over with stories about white men doing important or unimportant things. Not only is Selma full of women but here is a woman who has made a film that does not shy away from the feminine in her directing and surprise, surprise, it never lapses into fantasy or imaginary fairy dust. It is a great story brilliantly told by a director who is just starting to hit her stride.
If you look at who King was, how he was brought up and who he became, and contrast that with the piece of shit who took his life you will see the irony of how Americans viewed black men back then and how they viewed white men. One was clearly a “wrong one” and a right one who couldn’t have been more white is the kind of story that haunts our American history again and again. King’s bravery in the face of death threats are addressed in Selma, as is his infidelity and internal conflicts with other civil rights leaders at the time. DuVernay was not interested in whitewashing his story or making him better than he was. His life needs no embellishment.
The right to vote, the right to be viewed as equal in cities where black citizens held the majority, was what Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for before his life was taken at the age of 39. We are woefully now without our Martin Luther Kings as the age of apathy has drowned us in our own excess. But Selma shows us a different time, when there was still hope for change, a belief that black children could grow up in a country that judged them “on their content of character and not the color of their skin.” That was King’s dream.
The right-wing propaganda machine that is Fox News, and even some of my liberal brethren are engaged in a long, slow high-tech lynching of our first black president, who has been obstructed, intimidated and treated with unforgivable disrespect, it is clear that King’s dream still requires a long hard fight, even if intolerant white supremacists in the deep south are a dying breed.
King in Selma is a player who leads the nation to a much bigger victory – voters rights. America has much to atone for, even today, with voter turnout a pathetic 36% in mid-term elections, the lowest since we were at war in WWII. Watching Selma might start to knock some cold hard sense into Americans that our democracy requires that we vote. Insidious powerful forces conspire to prevent us from doing just that – from apathy (“who cares, it doesn’t matter”) to illegal suppression, oppression and subversion.
The battle to uphold the Voting Rights Act continues to play out today. John Roberts’ Supreme Court recently undermined key provisions to immediate and devastating effect. Voter suppression continues unabated. Black citizens continue to be robbed of the right to have any power even when they are the majority of citizenry, as we’ve just seen play out in Ferguson, Missouri.
As a director, DuVernay has worked more intimately in the independent world. Middle of Nowhere won the Best Director prize at Sundance yet no amount of advocacy could earn DuVernay a screenplay nomination. But the publicity around Middle of Nowhere was enough to boost DuVernay’s profile — she’s now an Academy member. That was one of the reasons she was approached by Plan B to make Selma, a film on a much bigger scale than she had been accustomed or allowed.
Early word about test screenings on the internet was mixed. Someone on Facebook incorrectly told me the following, “Selma is not good in any way.” He later wrote: “Note, though, that the film has been re-edited, re-scored, color corrected, and had additional sound work since the version I saw.” After the first trailer appeared a week ago, the prevailing winds online shifted dramatically.
With a film like Selma, perspective is everything. That’s okay – whatever brings us to the trough is worthy grounds for debate. Still, trying to sell some viewers on a film like Selma is futile. It’s not wrong to say that some people have the disadvantage of being born into privilege. The film industry often revolves around and caters to their tastes. Perhaps they never felt the strong arm of oppression. They’ve never had a woman clutch her purse when they enter an elevator at the same time. They’ve never had to live down a legacy of being bought and sold like property. And they’ve never been unilaterally prevented from voting or registering to vote. They just choose not to. So forgive me if I mostly disregard the opinions of people like that.
The Oscar race is a silly game that purportedly honors the ‘highest achievements in film” but when critics and bloggers watch a film for consideration these days they are watching it with a quibbling eye, looking for any “flaws,” looking to be wowed out of their cynicism. That kind of criticism forgets that movies are made for audiences. Not critics. Not Oscar voters. That dismissive midset has led to bland Oscar watching that says no more than it says yes. Vanilla product inevitably emerges in the wake of it.
DuVernay is smart enough to know that she is coming up against the sort of groupthink that prefers, quite frankly, the white male narrative. As a one-woman film movement, DuVernay has started her own production company that promotes black filmmakers but she is also committed to bringing black audiences to the art house. DDuring the AFI Fest — and, frankly, every festival or screening I’ve been to in the Oscar race so far — white-centric viewership has been unified and dismally dominant. How refreshing to sit in the Egyptian amid so many black audience members. At the end, it was no surprise that the poker-faced mostly white media sat there while the rest leaped to their feet to cheer the film they had just seen.
I know what’s coming next. I hope I’m wrong. It’s a dirty game. The stakes are too low for anyone to care much but there’s a reason our political leaders today are so bland. When you become too critical of the little things you lose sight of the big things. Selma is a big thing for film in 2014. Maybe the biggest, or close to it. It is now up to film critics to establish its rightful place in the Oscar race. And if critics won’t, I bet Oscar voters will.
Every so often I’m so deeply moved by the courage some people have to tell stories when all odds are against them. You see, women do matter. We matter in life, in art, in film. When doors are opened to us, we walk through those doors with style, strength and grace. That DuVernay’s film was such a success at last night’s premiere turned me into a soggy mess and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I am woman therefore I cry. I am so proud to be alive to witness this moment of hers, alive to see a black woman auteur succeed — and I know I’m not the only one.
I have three favorite films this year. I’ve written plenty about my admiration for Boyhood and Gone Girl. Selma now joins them, one of the best films I’ve ever seen period, and one of the best film about civil rights ever made. You can’t watch Selma and not think about 2014. The drumbeat of change could once again be upon us. We have the tools because we have the vote. What we need are more leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. to help light the way. We lost Dr. King far too soon but his spirit is with us forever, as long as we have filmmakers like Ava DuVernay to bring him back to eternal, shimmering, unwavering life.