Thursday, December 25, 2014


Ava DuVernay’s Selma could be subtitled “behind the scenes of a hagiography.” Apart from the stock footage of the famous march from Selma to Montgomery it’s not cinema verite in the style of say The Battle of Algiers. Despite the graphic depictions of violence, it’s just too slick; DuVernay’s paints her Guernica on Selma's Edmund Pettus bridge and it’s almost beautiful. But the strength of the movie lies in its depiction of nonviolence as strategy. “Our lives are not fully lived until we are ready to die for those we loved,” King (David Oyelowo) says. He possesses a sculpture of Gandhi, yet it’s plain non-violence is as much a weapon as a principle for him. Jim Clark (Stan Houston), the sheriff of Selma is a perfect foil for the protests as Bull Connor was in Birmingham. In Albany, Georgia the sheriff, Laurie Pritchett, had removed the demonstrators on stretchers and that was not what King wanted. It didn’t create either sympathy or headlines. Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), making a cameo appearance, tries to employ the idea of another kind of strategy. He’ll incite violence in order to make the authorities regard King as the lesser of two evils. It’s a form of gamesmanship that King isn’t ready to buy. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to let history put me in the same place as the likes of you,” Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) tells George Wallace (Tim Roth). But it’s not surprising to see one of the greatest politicians of the 20th century or all time adding to the chorus of realpolitik that’s the movie’s recurring leitmotif. Neither the tensions in King’s marriage nor his infidelities are glossed over and they in turn are exploited by yet one more power player, J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker)—who unsuccessfully tries to use them to throttle King’s charismatic drive. The real march of the movie is towards the passage of the Voting Rights Act of l965 with Lyndon Johnson lamely proclaiming “we shall overcome.” Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), the conflict between John Lewis’s (Stephan James) SNCC (Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee) and King’s SCLC (South Christian Leadership Conference) are all part of the tableau—which, on the basis of recent headlines, poses the troubling question of whether much has really changed?

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