' ' Cinema Romantico: Selma

Monday, January 19, 2015


In the midst of the famous march giving “Selma” its title, the march that made it all the way to the Alabama state capital building in Montgomery, director Ava DuVernay suddenly cuts from her filmed version of the event to black & white footage of the real one in 1965. It is an audacious decision because it portends the possibility of backfiring. It could be the moment when the filmmaker brazenly advises that our thoughts and feelings on the film itself don’t really matter because, hey, this was real and if you grade the recounting of it an F+ or just say “eh, it was okay” then you’re a lousy human being. At the same time, by placing the actual and the fictional side by side it could be the moment granting allowance for a litany of “that’s not how it happened in real life” accusations (which is exactly what happened anyway because of course it did). But it’s none of these things. Instead it copies in spirit the marvelous decision of Spike Lee to conclude his marvelous “Malcolm X” with footage of Nelson Mandela reviving one of Brother Malcolm’s most famous orations. It blends what happened with what’s going on. It brings the movie into the now.

Of course, mixing the historical with the re-creation is not always enough to add that necessary air of immediacy. So many films recounting the stories of towering historical figures have been rendered with reams of such reverence the entire production feels like its set in a mausoleum, desperate to remind us at every turn THIS IS OF GREAT IMPORTANCE. But DuVernay makes “Selma” live and breathe, and she pumps oxygen into it from the get-go, right in the very first scene that finds Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and wife Coretta Scott (Carmen Ejogo) in a hotel room preparing so he can go accept the Nobel Prize. It’s not so much their conversation, their whimsical wonderings of an alternate life, a smaller life, a private life, as it is the weary pall cast over them. This is a film that only briefly addresses their home life not, and not from an indifference to it so much as a desire to show how his responsibilities as a leader of so many came to be such a heavy burden.

“Selma” follows the storytelling roadmap of “Lincoln”, meaning it’s about a particular event as much as it’s about a person. Then again, the respective titles betray a crucial difference, and if “Lincoln” was about Abraham Lincoln trying to repeal slavery than “Selma” is about the efforts by many to attain the right to vote. Though, to be certain, Dr. King is seen here as the organizing force, one who can verbally bend influence before stepping behind the pulpit to preach with all the nobility he can muster. And rather than trying to force references to all the real-life people who aided in the many protest maneuverings, DeVurnay simply lets them be, lets them exist, in or around the scenes. We feel their presence whether or not we “get to know them”. It allows us to feel the full weight of the movement rather than just the presence of any one individual.

That brings us to President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) whose role in Selma as told by “Selma” has been poured over by the requisite legion of “What X Gets Wrong About Y” truthers. If facts can be disputed, and they can (correctly), and they have been, and they will be again, what “Selma” gets right about its movie-ized LBJ, I think, has less to do with the empirical than the emotional. He allays himself with MLK and opposes MLK, and has to finesse the ol’ Governor, George Wallace (Tim Roth), and all while trying to advance his own agenda. He is, in other words, a politician. What we know and what we don’t know, what has been spun, left out, added, embellished, manipulated, “forgotten”, only works to underscore this very idea, the film shaping itself to fit the very politicking that it illustrates. (And if you toil under the impression you know every last detail about a President's administration and what it did or didn't do, well, okay, fine, but I have 18 1/2 minutes of tape to play for you.)

All this scheming in the backrooms, of course, manifests itself on the front lines, most notoriously on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, looming on the route from Selma to the state capital. These sequences are captured by cinematographer Bradford Young in a manner that is sobering, not simply shocking, evoking how an interlocked and overwhelming mass of people can be reduced to a lonely if large island when marooned in front of a smaller armed force. And it is these moments, protestors vs. the police, when “Selma” pulses with urgency.

It’s reductive to simply anoint films as “important”, and “Selma” eclipses simple “importance” on account of being a good film in a genre that so often elicits middlebrow consommé. But movies also belong to their own era. “Selma” is set in the racially charged 60’s but belongs just as much to the racially charged now, speaking as much to modern day America as its just as screwed-up predecessor.. And when the police lower their riot masks and take up their clubs in the face of a large-scale though diplomatic and weaponless gathering, it puts a discernible lump in your throat. It does so because you think those people went through that and it does because you think people today are still going through this.

It’s been 47 years since Dr. King said his people would get to the promised land, yet his struggle has never felt closer, his vow never further away.

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