People Power and Sacred Cows: More Thoughts on SELMA

I agree with much of what my colleague Devin Hunter has written, but am still struggling with my reactions to Selma. Something about it just didn’t entirely connect with me — which was unexpected. Reflecting back on my own discussions of the Movement in the classroom, I realized, Martin Luther King Jr. is far from my central focus. Although I do find it quite valuable to discuss his philosophy of non-violent resistance and the ways in which his tactics were implemented on the ground. Selma does some of this work as well, in fact it strikes a lot of the right chords, but still seems somewhat out of key — a bit too much swelling music here — too many contrived slow-motion shots there. But my main gripe isn’t about aesthetics. Much like the mainstream narrative of the Civil Rights Movement, the movie is just too focused on Dr. King.

David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King, Jr., in SELMA
David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr., in SELMA

This may strike many as odd, because King is not a fixture on the silver screen. Perhaps thought of as a sacred cow, a man so mythologized in American culture as to appear daunting to directors, King, like Abraham Lincoln, has rarely received the full Hollywood treatment. And to her credit, like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), director Eva DuVernay’s film values depth over breadth and avoids some of the most problematic conventions of the biopic genre. Both focus, in procedural fashion, on a single historical event (albeit wrapped up with a series of others) in order to provide a window into the private as well as public lives of their respective central characters. Though even within these confines the thick veneer of hagiography associated with these figures presents enormous challenges for the filmmaker.

I found Selma, much like Lincoln, to get it only half right. While I admired Spielberg’s craftsmanship, it lacked the emotional power and stark realism of last year’s Academy Award winning Twelve Years a Slave (2013). While a powerful exploration of the politics of war and slavery, Lincoln insulated the audience from the harsh realities of slavery by focusing on the President’s towering political presence and moral acumen. King similarly dominates the screen and the narrative in Selma, even as some effort is made to widen the lens. Spielberg was criticized by some for presenting Lincoln as a great white savior (although a complicated one) and I expect DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb will receive some push-back for presenting King as the center of the film’s moral universe (again, albeit a complicated one). Neither director presents their protagonist as a perfect human being — they are flawed and often these shortcomings are revealed through their intimate family relationships. Both attempt to humanize their subjects but balk at truly bringing them down to earth. Lincoln and King often speak even privately in a grandiose manner which reflects their stature in American memory. Lincoln in parables, aphorisms and elaborate jokes — King in sermonic cadence and nearly faultless precision.

These were, undoubtedly, immensely powerful figures in their time, revered by some and reviled by others. We shouldn’t expect them to behave just like everybody else. But we should avoid lionizing them, especially when it obscures the actions of the multitude of agents who made change possible. In the words of Bayard Rustin, King’s most accomplished adviser (who unfortunately receives only a few lines of dialogue in the film), “the people of Selma, were ordinary, working-class blacks many of them unorganized… that’s where the money and the energy for the movement came….. It came from the ordinary people. That was its strength.” Martin King was a powerful man, but the marches in Selma weren’t really about him. They were the culmination of a long movement in the South. I believe DuVernay intended the film to reflect this complexity, but too often she relies on convention.

Women singing in a Selma church, 1964.
Women singing in a Selma church, 1964.

While it was exciting to see portrayals of Civil Rights leaders in King’s circle such as Rustin, Ralph Abernathy James Bevel and Andrew Young, these characters were thinly drawn at best. Even more troubling, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which laid the foundations for the voter registration campaign in the South, is portrayed as a group of impetuous, if noble and hardworking, youth. James Forman is a case in point. Forman, who was the same age as King and a veteran leader in the southern campaign, is depicted as young, naive and overly headstrong. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council (SLCC) did indeed have disagreements with SNCC on tactics and organizational structure, but these important fissures are explored only on the surface. Leading members of SNCC such as Diane Nash and John Lewis get some screen time but not enough development of their unique perspectives to do them justice. Even Lewis, who has a major dramatic arc in the film, is forced, in part, to choose between Forman and King with scant explanation of what divided the two philosophically and tactically.

John Lewis, SNCC President, on the march in 1965
John Lewis, SNCC President, on the march in 1965

At times the depiction of events in Selma occur almost as if in a historical vacuum. Less than two years before the first Selma march it was Lewis who was encouraged by Dr. King at the March on Washington to tone down the fiery speech he had planned. Of course, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has entered the pantheon of American oratory in subsequent years while Lewis’ speech (even in its edited form) and other more radical speeches by A. Phillip Randolph, Rustin (who organized the event) and others are all but forgotten in the mainstream culture. There are references throughout the film to the Freedom Rides, Mississippi Freedom Summer and other touchstones of the movement but they seem oddly distant. Part of the reason may be that King was less directly involved in these efforts which were spearheaded and implemented by the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and SNCC. Similarly, a brief scene featuring Malcolm X does little to advance the plot or inform viewers as to his philosophical differences with King (Spike Lee’s Malcolm X is far more effective in this regard). Malcolm was also a target of F.B.I. surveillance, a topic the film handles with provocative style but stops short of revealing the extent to which J. Edgar Hoover and the government went to destroy the Movement’s leaders (eg. the letter requesting King to commit suicide to avoid public humiliation, etc.). Focusing on the events in Selma had the potential to serve as an appropriate site for exploring the broader movement, but the filmmakers squandered a number of opportunities to make these crucial connections.

Ultimately, it’s the decision not to move further beyond King that limits the films poignancy and utility for today’s movement. Book-ended by King’s acceptance of the Noble Peace Prize and his triumphant speech following the final march from Selma, the movie leaves one with the impression that King was the indispensable man. Perhaps he was, but it was the collection of ordinary people willing to risk physical violence who were most certainly indispensable. As the credits roll a song written for the film by Common and John Legend plays, “Freedom is like a religion to us… That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up…” The lines would have resonated with me more had the movie focused on the grass roots activism that made the final march in Selma a triumph. Nevertheless, if a movie is going to glorify a single individual, Martin Luther King isn’t a bad choice. We could use more leaders with his moral clarity in the Movement today. Like Spielberg’s Lincoln, I admire Selma for its attempt to seek out the humanity in a historical figure all too often viewed only as an icon. I hope it will inspire viewers to move beyond the charismatic leader and to appreciate the diverse set of activists and ordinary people, King included, who put everything on the line for progress.

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5 thoughts on “People Power and Sacred Cows: More Thoughts on SELMA

  1. I’ve been thinking more about that general sentiment that you expressed as we walked out of the theater, which you start to sharpen here: that there was something a little ‘off’ or ‘too smooth’ about the film. I think we were both missing the unevenness and messiness of the Black Freedom Struggle. And when the filmmakers do address that theme, we get an unhelpful and deceptive depiction of SNCC (and I want to double-down on my opinion that the SNCC liberties are more egregious than those taken with LBJ). But short of a six hour epic, I don’t know of any simple cinematic fixes. Hopefully we’ll see a dramatic film about the Black Freedom Struggle that is based on a moment when the “Head Black Men” were on the perimeter. We could also start on our screenplay about King in Chicago.

    You also have me thinking about the parallels with Spielberg’s LINCOLN. Both culminate in the liberal ideal of justice by way of lawmaking. We can talk more about that later.

    1. I may have mentioned this already, but I found the PBS documentary “Freedom Summer” very effective at conveying the grassroots movement and capturing the emotional gravity of the period. I realize comparing a documentary with a feature like this one is not entirely fair, but it gives you an idea of what can be accomplished in two hours on the screen.

  2. Pingback: Selma and the decline of history | elizabeth lambert

  3. Anthony, I really like your comments. I think that I am not planning on seeing the film (I don’t go to the movies a lot anyway) because I am afraid that I will come out with the same feeling you have expressed. I tend to hate the way that major Hollywood pictures, especially historical films, bow to the altar of American individualism. Sometimes, I say that this is just a convenience that reveals the limitations of the medium of film, but other times, I just think filmmakers don’t care (and aren’t supported) to do the hard and messy work of exploring history in all its complexity. They are also cashing in on a name that is extraordinarily marketable for mass consumption. Audiences will recognize it, studios can get behind its salability, and filmmakers can convince themselves that they will be able to use the biopic format to tackle the hard and meaningful questions (though, many times, they never get to it).

    I’ll be honest, I don’t really care to learn about King anymore. What I fear is that sometimes it feels like black history (in the mainstream) is holding on to King as its last hope. Like he is being pushed on the public so heavily and so regularly because there is a fear that if he is forgotten, then there really won’t be anyone else that can fill his void in the public memory. That to me is very sad.

    1. It’s definitely worth seeing, Devin. I just felt there were opportunities to engage with some crucial issues and they were too often missed. Would be curious of your impressions if you do see it. I think part of my trouble connecting with it was that I had just taught this material recently and ended the class with some really stirring discussions of The New Jim Crown which connected to Ferguson, etc. This film just felt somewhat flat after such passionate exchanges with my students on popular protest. There were some powerful scenes though and I still recommend people see it.

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