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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