Friday, August 28, 2015

Selma (2014)

UK / USA, 128 minutes
Director: Ava DuVernay
Writer: Paul Webb
Photography: Bradford Young
Editor: Spencer Averick
Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Andre Holland, Omar J. Dorsey, Alessandro Nivola, Giovanni Ribisi, Colman Domingo, Oprah Winfrey, Common, Keith Stanfield, Dylan Baker, Tim Roth, Lorraine Toussaint, Wendell Pierce, Cuba Gooding Jr., Martin Sheen

Late in 2012, days or even hours after the election of Barack Obama to a second term as president of the United States, it became apparent very little was going to be done in the coming four years. Opponents of Obama, never that inclined to accept the legitimacy of his constituency, simply refuse to accept the legitimacy of him. And though they uniformly and indignantly deny it, even as they hit the forward button on the latest email collection of watermelon jokes, their decision to continue criticizing and obstructing Obama at every turn has much less to do with the content of his character (let alone the policies, which all too often originated with them in the first place) and everything to do with the color of his skin.

Just so, the second half of Obama's presidency has morphed inevitably into a long and painful stasis of enforced meditation on race relations in America, focusing on issues such as gun violence, police brutality, drug laws, and the persistent racial inequities of the criminal justice system. Hollywood has chipped in too, churning out an informal trilogy on the subject in the form of Oscar-bait: first there was Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, which focused on the enormous difficulties of putting a legal end to slavery. Then there was 12 Years a Slave, which provided a useful profile of exactly that slavery. To nitpick a little, I think 12 Years should have come first, not just because an honest movie about slavery was so grossly overdue, but because it puts into appalling relief the urgency of ending slavery as an institution, and thus the shame of the politicians in Lincoln who resisted it even for a minute, let alone more than two centuries to that point. Last comes Selma, advancing the timeline of this narrative a full century, for a look at how slowly and insignificantly anything is changing. This little snapshot of progress is exactly what Martin Luther King meant when he said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Emphasis on long.

Lincoln is a feel-good movie, intended to shout huzzah! and shore up our internal belief as a nation and a loosely knit people that we are capable of doing the right thing. That's another reason it should be second in this trilogy, as it provides a kind of breather in the struggle, a brief moment of hope or faith. In many ways, Selma is even harder to watch than 12 Years, if only because of the painfully long perspective it provides—and, on a personal note, because the events it shows happened in my lifetime, which in the context of race relations today, 50 years on, is more depressing than I can say. But if there is one thing we have learned during the presidency of Barack Obama, it's that you can't tell a racist anything. Racists inevitably think you must be talking about somebody else, because racists never believe they are racist. At its furthest extreme, they don't even believe racism exists at all, or ever has.

Thus, sadly, much like Obama's presidency itself, these movies are by and large preaching to the choir—or, more optimistically, to the majority of Americans who know these problems exist and are real, know they are wrong, don't know what to do about it. The people who need to see them won't, or they will but will deny them. We all have that uncle. The lines of division are as sharp now as I can remember since the '60s. Barack Obama, playing by the Jackie Robinson rules (never complain, never get angry, always be better than your opponents in all things), did not ever intend his presidency to be about race, but in retrospect that was a piece of pious naivete. That's the only thing his presidency could be about, given this country's history and temperament—the miracle, as we should never stop reminding ourselves, is that he won the office in the first place (and in the second).

Selma is a thrilling rollercoaster ride of event, a rich and sweeping bigger-than-life story of hope and inspiration, eyes on the prize and moving into the headwind of resistance with conviction. It's easy to tell the good guys from the bad, and the moral certainty alone is exhilarating, and so is the shrewd strategizing not far behind. It has star power to spare. It's easy to get caught up. The cause is good, the opposition unconscionable but powerful and implacable (do not miss Tim Roth as George Wallace). It's pitched early and often at the highest levels, crosscutting at the open between Martin Luther King's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four young girls.

Because, historically, those two events actually took place more than a year apart, I should note that various distortions are found here. The most controversial, of course, has been the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson as a reluctant supporter of voting rights legislation, when the truth is he made it a priority and got it done. I don't find the movie's treatment of him problematic, however. I guess I could do without one scene that implies LBJ set FBI director J. Edgar Hoover on King. But the movie has also made more than plain by then that Hoover was already on him, and the scene can equally be read as LBJ manipulating Hoover. For the most part my sense of LBJ is still as affected by Vietnam as by the civil rights advances, so I don't think any portrayal of him that makes him out a shifty wheeler-dealer is ever that far from the truth. Unlike other Oscar-bait controversies—Zero Dark Thirty, looking your way—the LBJ problem here strikes me as a tempest in a teapot, too often sounding like complaints lodged by aggrieved white-men's rights advocates.

Formally winning voting rights is the focus. That's the specific story here. The violence is shocking and brutal, but it never feels exaggerated and it's only part of the crazy quilt swirl of incident. As imagery, Selma fits knowingly with currents of the early 21st century. The epic scenes on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, with the confrontations between Alabama troopers and African-American demonstrators, don't look very different from images we see today in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, or in Los Angeles 23 years ago, or during the "long hot summers" that began to follow the events depicted here.

Even the issue Selma chooses to focus on, voting rights, is piercingly relevant today. Everything the people in this movie were fighting and dying and getting beaten up for was gutted a few years ago by the Supreme Court. The legislative tactics deployed by Republican majorities on overly strained legal grounds to limit the ability of certain constituencies to vote, which have only increased since that decision, are transparently intended to deny voting rights and they are going on right now.

Obviously, I'm the intended psychographic for Selma, but even for popcorn movies I think you could do a lot worse.

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