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By Stephane Dunn | @DrStephaneDunn | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)




Tuesday, December 30, 2014.



The 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.


Selma’s 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.  


As Coretta 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.


Duvernay 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.


Other key 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 after.


Yet, Selma 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.


Throughout 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.


Selma has 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


Ava Duvernay’s Selma: A Bridge Between Past & Present

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