By Stephane Dunn |
@DrStephaneDunn | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)
Tuesday, December 30, 2014.
independent features I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere introduced director
Ava Duvernay as a promising filmmaker; With her first big time motion picture Selma,
the introductions are over. Duvernay is making history herself as the first
African American woman to receive a Golden Globe nomination for best director.
Written by Paul Webb, Selma offers a poignant portrait of one of the most
memorable events of the mid–twentieth century Civil Rights Movement, the
infamous Bloody Sunday, on the first day of the Selma march to Montgomery on
March 7, 1965. As long and rocky as the film’s path to its upcoming release has
been, it’s coming out at a strikingly apropos moment.
In the wake
of the recently well-publicized killings of black men by police officers, the
turbulent relationship between African Americans and the police is a subject of
national discussion. Selma historicizes this relationship in offering a mostly
unflinching portraiture of the brutality directed at African Americans in the
Jim Crow South and the federal government’s desire [as we know even before Lyndon
B. Johnson became president] to attempt to stem the unrest rather than
legislate aggressive change. Selma will remind some and teach others that the
problem of unequal treatment under the law and a pattern of systemic police
violence against black people has indeed long been a part of the story of the
struggle for freedom and not a recent phenomenon.
notable too for the able performance of David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther
King, Jr. and for daring to imagine the pressure that the great weight of the
civil rights struggle exerted on the interior domestic life of Dr. King and
wife Coretta Scott King [Carmen Ejogo]. The FBI dogged his every move and J.
Edgar Hoover’s infamous tapings, real and manipulated, provided ammunition in
trying to undermine the Movement and King.
But the FBI
is not the only challenge to King’s marriage and possibly to his leadership in
the movement; Selma delicately or rather subtly and bravely – given the still
uncomfortable taboo of the discussion within the saintly public shadow of King
post his death – alludes to his infidelity and treats Martin and Coretta with
some complexity without detracting from or destroying the admirable moral
integrity of King’s commitment to the freedom struggle and nonviolence or
making him an other worldly deity. He disappoints his wife and is
disappointed in himself as the people are in him at turns; he questions,
agonizes, and with the companionship and courage of his closest comrades such
as Reverend Ralph David Abernathy [Colman Domingo], and the passion of the
younger activists like SNCC’s John Lewis, he persists.
Scott King, Ejogo manages to imbibe the stoic, unfailingly loyal, and dignified
public aura of Coretta Scott King and humanize her beyond that narrow
dimension. Seeing her conflicted as she reacts to feeling her husband’s agony
in a letter he writes to her or as she directs a killer one line response to
one of the infamous FBI tapes she receives that is supposed to be of King
having sex with another woman. “I know what you sound like’ as King protests
the tape’s validity or as she speaks of the ‘fog of death’ that hovers over the
family’s life constantly is important in not relegating her to merely being the
self-sacrificing, noble wife of the Civil Rights leader.
avoids sensationalizing those elements of the famous couple’s relationship
while going for a rare more nuanced truthful story than previously enabled.
King, of course, is ‘the Man’ in the narrative, no doubt about it, but
the film confines to the background far too much folk like Diane Nash [Tessa
Thompson] – more eye candy than feisty activist – and Bayard Rustin [Reuben
Santiago-Hudson], the savvy strategist.
players are merely a catalog of names. At the end of the film, there is a
curiously distracting roll call offering notes on the lives of some of the
important figures in later years, Andrew Young [André Holland], John Lewis
[Stephan James], Sheriff Clark [Stan Houston], Governor Wallace, [Tim Roth],
etc., but this highlights some troubling glaring omissions - no footnote for
Reverend Abernathy, arguably King’s closet personal friend and comrade in those
years or Reverend Hosea Williams [Wendell Pierce] despite his prominence in the
Bloody Sunday scene even within the film and his notable work in the years
succeeds in staying focused on the intertwining purpose framed by three
establishing initial scenes [no spoiler here]: to offer an unflinching
representation of the racial violence directed towards African Americans in the
Jim Crow south, epitomized on that Bloody Sunday, and to honor the people’s
courage in continuing the march in Selma and towards gaining the rights of
citizenship in the midst of horrific violence.
the film, the white supremacist brutality enacted on black bodies as well as on
people of different races and religious backgrounds who dared to visibly
support and participate in the Selma protests and the Movement is painful to
watch as it should be and none more so than the rendition of the violent
encounter on Edmund Pettus Bridge. Duvernay utilizes a range of long and close
shots and slow motion to dramatize the sheer terror inflicted upon the peaceful
protesters and the overdue awakening of people across the nation and the world
as they witness the bloody rampage on their television sets.
Oprah Winfrey as hopeful Selma voter Annie Lee Cooper on screen and as a
producer off screen, Brad Pitt as an executive producer, a largely well-placed
ensemble cast, and award buzz. If these factors encourage diverse audiences to
go out and see the film, then perhaps it can be more than a glimpse into the
past. Selma really isn’t just another good historic movie. It’s a good film
that absolutely speaks to right now.
Stephane Dunn, PhD, is a
writer who directs the Cinema, Television, & Emerging Media Studies program
at Morehouse College. She teaches film, creative writing, and literature. She
is the author of the 2008 book, Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black
Power Action Films (U of Illinois Press). Her writings have appeared in Ms., The
Chronicle of Higher Education, TheRoot.com, AJC, CNN.com, and Best African American Essays, among others. Her recent work includes
the Bronze Lens-Georgia Lottery Lights, Camera Georgia winning short film Fight
for Hope and book chapters exploring representation in Tyler Perry's films. Follow
her on Twitter: @DrStephaneDunn