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.

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Some Initial Thoughts on SELMA

I was lucky enough to catch a pre-wide release showing of Selma earlier this week, when colleague Anthony Di Lorenzo and I braved Arctic weather to trudge to the multiplex. Overall, with a few caveats, I found the movie an effective piece of history that should have a positive impact on the public memory of the Black Freedom Struggle. I have quite a few thoughts about the film—many half-formed—but here I’ll just stick to a few of the themes that struck me most:

  • The LBJ Depiction: fast and loose with many historical ‘facts,’ but the ends justify the means.
  • Keeping the Black in the Black Freedom Struggle: the ‘white savior’ theme is unavoidable—but challenged; the historians’ age-old dilemma between power and agency is here—but maybe only by accident.
  • Intra-movement Tensions: Valiant focus made possible by the above point, but SNCC is an unfortunate and ill-formed prop; consensus carries the day.
  • A Cast of Thousands vs. the Biopic: ‘Whoa it’s awesome that you have James Orange and Bayard Rustin in there.’/’Why aren’t you telling me more about Orange and Rustin?!’
Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) marching from Selma to Montgomery in the movie Selma. (Paramount)
Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) marching from Selma to Montgomery in the movie Selma. (Paramount)

Continue reading “Some Initial Thoughts on SELMA”