Intermission: Selma: social

Selma takes us to the promised land with a very human portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr.

Social media has its issues, but an unexpected benefit of a culture where people are launching what we used to call “brain droppings” semi-permanently into the digital aether is that every once in awhile something fairly poetic happens. Case in point: During one of the summer’s police-brutality/civil-rights protest blowups, a particularly obnoxious set of memes were circulating juxtaposing photographs of protesters led by Martin Luther King (suits and ties, “Sunday best” dresses) and “under-dressed” present-day protesters; the point being made (sometimes with accompanying text) that the difference in attire was also a difference in the seriousness/effectiveness of the protests.

It’s a crude point, and was roundly-deconstructed once it slipped from its native habitat on the Facebook timelines of aging cranks and into the Twittersphere. In fact, I only myself caught sight of it in the form of another user’s brutally succinct dismissal of the memetic premise:

“MLK was wearing a suit when they SHOT HIM, too.”

Dr. Martin Luther King has to be one of the most mis-appropriated figures in history, perhaps second only to Gandhi in terms of the “popular idea” of what they meant to their moment in history being grabbed up and repurposed to make points they never signed on to make or for comparisons one would doubt they’d find appropriate or flattering. “Where is the _______ Gandhi??” is invoked ad-nauseum to deride the efforts of revolutions that don’t adhere to a clean-hands approach to the revolutionaries’ own detriment, while the media tends to wax nostalgic for MLK whenever it’s felt that a protest doesn’t live up to some Hollywood standard of gentility.

There’s seldom an inherent malice to this kind of misappropriation, just the usual problems that come with distance from events — the way history tends to get its edges sanded off to flatter the sensibilities of those asked to remember it. King is the most memorable/effective Civil Rights leader with the least “baggage,” so his popular, simplified image becomes the unrealistic standard by which his successors are judged: “Why can’t YOU just make racism disappear by making a lovely speech about dreams, huh?”

Ava DuVarney’s film Selma is being pitched as THE long-awaited Hollywood biopic of King, but that description does the film and its ambitions a great disservice. This is no mere Academy Awards fishing expedition, it’s nothing less than an attempt to set the record straight on King. Selma aims to give him and his movement due credit for the radical, revolutionary spirit they embodied and — though the confluence of events couldn’t possibly have been known to the filmmakers — to remind the world that the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement had a lot more in common with both the fist-pumping folks fighting back on the ground in Ferguson (and New York, and… you get the idea) and the so-called “agitators” using social media tools to turn local flashpoints into fuel for national outrage than they do with the talking heads tut-tutting “uncivilized” protests on cable news.

As the title implies, the film zeroes in on King taking up leadership of a coordinated protest against voting restrictions in Selma, Alabama in 1965. The event, capped off by a protest march from Selma to Montgomery, is remembered as one of the iconic highlights of the movement. While the film is concerned with granting audiences a humanizing glimpse into the man behind the soaring speeches, it’s also concerned with exploding the idea that “iconic highlights” are made by history and happenstance, instead of by people.

In the film’s version of events, King (David Oyelowo) is bound and determined to see then-President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) push the Voting Rights Act — a bill that would, among other things, bring the hammer of Federal force down on specific Southern states with a history of using both “murky” and outright-illegal methods to prevent black citizens from registering to vote. When LBJ balks, fearing (in part) a backlash among white voters/lawmakers otherwise opposed to bigotry but overly-wary of Federal power expansion (sound familiar?), King decides that he’ll need to bust out the only weapon in his arsenal more effective than rhetoric: His media-savvy. And that means going to Selma.

This is where the mythology-exploding comes in: King and company don’t choose Selma, then notorious for the racist violence both perpetrated and tolerated by its police force against “uppity” black citizens, purely out of noble Christian obligation to do right by those most in need. Instead, they go there because it’s the perfect staging ground for what was by then a finely tuned machine of media management. Righteousness and moral dignity are all well and good, Selma argues, but at the end of the day controlling the narrative, crafting tableaus and tugging on heartstrings is often what gets the job done.

Cynicism? Maybe. Oyelowo’s heroic but shrewd, profoundly human King seems like he’d call it “realism” (or pragmatism). He’s painfully aware, after a lifetime of building the Civil Rights playbook, that the only way to “move the needle,” nationally, is for mainstream America to see the bloody reality of racism and be outraged by it — and that means marching waves of ordinary, decent-looking folks into direct confrontation with their oppressors while his own celebrity draws the eye of the media onto the result. It’s a twofold calculation: That Americans’ horror at the sight of racist brutes using police powers to brutalize innocent/nonviolent marchers will force the government’s hand, and that Selma’s political leadership is both brutish and ignorant enough to give him that reaction.

This is the King that secular sainthood has stolen from the history books: No “simple man of God” just doing the righteous thing, but a sharp, smart operator who knew how to get things done, knew how to use the media to accomplish his goals, and did so with gusto. In that respect, it resembles Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which took tremendous delight in holding up the devious arm-twisters and scheming backroom-dealers as the “real” heroes of political progress — “The Ends Justify The Means: The Movie.”

DuVarney’s humanizing touch doesn’t just extend to King. Coretta Scott gets several powerful scenes centered on her own view of the proceedings, and the film is very much enamored of sequences where the small army of Civil Rights stalwarts who travel with King drop their public solemnity to celebrate, argue and remind us that they were people before they were icons. Even Malcolm X turns up, briefly, offering to help with the theatrics of the The March by playing the part of the “meaner alternative” should Selma reject MLK’s more gregarious version of civil disobedience. Even the “villains” get a certain amount of nuance, most of them having resigned to the inevitability of Civil Rights’ victory but still insistent on gumming up the works to appear “strong” to their constituents.

Selma is powerful filmmaking, but also vibrant and immensely watchable. We shouldn’t have had to wait this long for a great film or an honest film about Dr. King, but since we did it’s nice to get them both in one package.

Bottom Line: Powerful filmmaking, but also vibrant and immensely watchable.

Recommendation: One of the best films currently playing.

[rating=4.5]

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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