Directed by Ava DuVernay
Written by Paul Webb
Music by Jason Moran
David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jnr.
Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King
Andre Holland as Andrew Young
Stephan James as John Lewis
Common as James Bevel
Wendell Pierce as Rev Hosea Williams
Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson
Tim Roth as Governor George Wallace
Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover
Stan Houston as Sheriff Jim Clark
Jeremy Strong as Rev. James Reeb
Nigel Thatch as Malcolm X.
Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper
Cuba Gooding Jnr as Fred Gray (lawyer)
Spot the difference: David Oyelowo left, Martin Luther King right
Amongst all the fuss about the paucity of nominations for “black” actors and directors at the various 2015 awards ceremonies, it is interesting to note that the stars of this film about the most prominent African-American of all are both British-born and of Nigerian descent. As with 12 Years A Slave where Chiwetelu Ejiofor was a British star of Nigerian descent. As Ejiofor has said in interviews it all came as a shock to him to act that role, because unlike African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans, slavery is not part of his personal history. So Selma has David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo playing the roles of Dr and Mrs King. You see it immediately – African surnames. African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans have slavery names, the names of masters. These two have African surnames. Maybe they need non-Americans to get a perspective of distance about an iconic figure. Note that Meryl Streep was the one to portray Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Same thing, anyone who lives in Britain was too polarized to step back.
We went to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis in 2014 and found it deeply affecting. When you see all those signs, you see why Benedict Cumberbatch’s inadvertent use of “coloured” when bemoaning the lack of nominations for non-whites in 2015 (if you prefer) caused such a fuss in the USA. “Coloured” has now become non PC in the UK, but it used to be the neutral, or even polite, term here. We never had signs saying “No coloreds” / Coloreds only / Coloreds at the back of the bus. We had no segregation laws. From personal experience of flat-hunting in 1970 London, I can tell you the signs put up by private landlords were invariable and overt: No Blacks / No Irish / No Hippies, and because my hair descended past the shoulders, I fell foul of that triple admonition myself. And “black” was then the insulting one, right as black power and black pride were using the word in America. So Cumberbatch was speaking innocently. In fact, the “all white” complaints ignore the Hispanic writer / director of Birdman.
Many things affected us at the Civil Rights Museum, even though I had studied American 1960s political history in some detail, and shortly after the time. It was at a distance. You never felt the true impact of the violence. We intended to go for a couple of hours but ended up staying for five. It’s a wonderful museum, and built to incorporate the motel room where Dr King was murdered. At the time, reports said on the “balcony of his Memphis hotel” which sounds far grander than “on the narrow wooden access walkway between the rooms of the ultra-budget motel “ for that’s what it was. The cheap, sparse rooms have been preserved. Dr King’s party shared twin rooms to save money. Earlier in the same trip we visited restored plantations in Mississippi and saw the slave quarters.
Room 306, Civil Rights Museum, Memphis (my photo)
The film begins with a spectacular act of white supremacist terrorist violence, when four little girls were murdered by a bomb blast. DuVernay does that all slow motion, collage-like and the sudden effect is stunning. The bomb blast was in Birmingham, Alabama in September 1963, and as well as the four little girls, twenty-two people were injured. Four Ku Klux Klan members had planted fifteen sticks of dynamite. No Federal charges were filed in the 1960s. It took until 2000 to indict them.
DuVernay does the same in the violence on the bridge – slow motion, close ups, collage like effect. It works, though she has been criticized for the bridge scene. DuVernay says it had to be slowed down, forcing the viewer to focus on the horrific detail. DuVernay also explained that she deliberately wanted the bridge as it is now. In 1965 archive film of the attack on the marchers (what I would call a “police riot”) it’s bright and white (it was built in 1940). Now it’s rust-streaked around the lettering “Edmund Pettus Bridge” and she wanted it now to show how the name had deteriorated and degenerated. The bridge was named after a Ku Klux Klan leader.
The central figure is Martin Luther King, and the film creates the man, not the saint with a day named for him. David Oyelowo said:
To limit him to the notion of saintliness actually diminishes what he did. So you see this man not just having the answer but having to find the answer. We felt you had to see the cost emotionally.
The complexity includes King’s reputation for pursuing women. This is a common issue with charismatic politicians. If you’re French (or Boris Johnson) you can just shrug it off. It is a problem in the Bible Belt especially if you’re a preacher, though thev seem as inclined to stray as politicians. It’s not ignored, it’s also not dwelt upon, but pointed in two key scenes. First Edgar J. Hoover (Dylan Baker) saying they had enough on Dr King’s “degenerate” activities to destroy his family life, and second is him owning up, though obliquely, to Coretta King. It probably does gloss over the details somewhat, but that is of course not the story. The story is the march at Selma, Alabama. Period. Another aspect is the second march, when the police withdrew to the sides of the road, Dr King knelt to pray and called off the march. Was this tactically correct? A need to save lives? Was it, as some militant Black Power activists implied, chickening out? Or was it the doubts of the saint in the wllderness?
David Oyoweylo (Martin Luther King) and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King
Another discussion issue is Lyndon B. Johnson, portrayed by Tom Wilkinson. Ex-aides have been upset by his ambivalent relationship with Dr King. I remember in American politics seminars in 1968, height of the Vietnam War, Hey Hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today? times where our liberal (and American) tutor spent much time assessing Johnson. Johnson was a pragmatic politician, not an idealist. But as it was explained to us then, an idealist would never have been able to wheel and deal the civil rights legislation through (cf. Abraham Lincoln as portrayed in Lincoln). I found the picture of Johnson credible. He was a two-faced son of a bitch, but he could and did finally make the right decision. Yes, he should have sent in the army to protect the marchers in the first (and second) place and didn’t, but as he alludes quickly, it was not his intent to start another Civil War. It probably has truth in it that one of his primary concerns was America’s image as the filthy violence against its own people was shown across the world. We all knew George Wallace was a slime upon the face of the Earth, but in the Johnson-Wallace dialogue in the White House, Johnson points out that Wallace was a populist, voted into office by poor whites, though he never says po’ white trash. Then asks why Wallace can’t see the injustice. In the story construction, that brilliantly prefaces King’s final speech where he explains how populist Southern demagogues kept poor whites down by persuading them that at least they had supremacy over their black neighbours. DuVernay said:
We don’t talk about the two decades that Johnson voted against desegregation policy before he got into the Oval Office. We don’t talk about Vietnam. We don’t talk about his deep and abiding love for the N-word, captured so dramatically and so often on White House tapes.
(Daily Telegraph, 7 February 2015)
It is glib to say she’s a storyteller not a historian (as she does elsewhere), because this is both too recent and too important. I think she DOES get to a truth about LBJ and Martin Luther King’s relationship. Nevertheless, the key to LBJ’s success is that he was a Southerner. He was only ever Vice-President so as to keep the Southern Democrats on board when the presidential candidate was a rich Boston Irish liberal (dare I say “playboy”?). He inherited the whole thing after the assassin(s)’s bullet(s)0, but he had his own skills. Not least of which, in dealing with fellow Southern Democrats of 1965, was knowing where the bodies were buried in each individual case. Over Civil Rights, I believe history, with a two or three hundred year perspective, will treat him kindly.
The cameos are remarkable – Oprah Winfrey stands out here. Another superb piece of film making is the final and successful march, when they switch to archive footage – it was nice to catch a glimpse of Harry Belafonte. But in a few places thy cut in the actors from this 2014 film in black and white, aged to look as if part of the archive, thus blending archive with the film.
Archive photo from 1965: The real thing
On filming, the camerawork sets a Southerm loping relaxed pace. I will criticize the sound recording: there’s a lot of soft muttering. The colour palette is muted sixties, but some scenes are underlit, and it is not racist to suggest that African-American actors don’t show their full abilities when underlie. Another negative issue is the use of onscreen titles, as if from an FBI surveillance log, to signpost scenes. Camilla Long’s Sunday Times review says she blinked, missed the very fast subtitle explaining that Malcolm X had arrived, and wondered who he was in the next scene. We read the review after the film, and my companion had missed it too, and was equally perplexed. It’s not the only recent film to rely on title signposting to get over insufficient attention to clarity in the basic script. There was a time when a character on screen would have said, ‘Oh, so you’re Malcolm X!’ or whatever.
The music? Often very effective. I had a couple of issues. I really couldn’t see what a thrashy House of the Rising Sun (by Duane Eddy) had to do with it, nor why (well I can think it was permissions) they used a bland cover of Masters of War by Odetta rather than Bob Dylan’s original. The Impressions Keep On Pushing was just perfect though. I appreciated the rap Glory (by Common and John Legend, performed by Common) at the end where he mentions Rosa Parks AND the recent murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
David Oyelowo gives a considered subtle and first rate performance as Dr King, though I suspect even if nominated, he would not have beaten Eddie Redmayne at the BAFTAs and Golden Globes for the incredible physical side of Redmayne’s role in The Theory of Everything nor beaten the wildness of Michael Keaton in Birdman, and that’s because Oyewelo is conventional great acting here, rather than something new and unexpected. Selma is nominated for the Oscars as Best Film, and apparently a “review of reviews” shows that its ratings add up to “best reviewed film.” I doubt that Selma will walk too many awards in (for me) a strong year, but it is definitely good enough to get a slew of nominations.
It’s an important story that leaves you angry about the state of the world fifty years ago … and considering what has improved, but also what has not. Voter registration was the key issue in Alabama in 1965.
Let’s just say, google: Jeb Bush / Florida / 2000 Election / voter registration / voter intimidation / inability to get to a voting booth … it all put his brother in the White House.
Or just check:
Under orders from Governor Jeb Bush (Bush Jr.’s brother), state troopers near polling sites delayed people for hours while searching their cars. Some precincts required two photo IDs which many citizens do not have. The requirement under Florida law was only one photo ID. Passed just before the election, this law itself posed a special difficulty for low-income or elderly voters who did not have drivers licenses or other photo IDs. Uncounted ballot boxes went missing or were found in unexplained places or were never collected from certain African-American precincts. During the recount, GOP agitators shipped in from Washington D.C. by the Republican national leadership stormed the Dale County Canvassing Board, punched and kicked one of the officials, shouted and banged on their office doors, and generally created a climate of intimidation that caused the board to abandon its recount and accept the dubious pro-Bush tally.
Oscars: Best song