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Film Review


For most of us, the civil and voting rights struggles of the 1960's are only faintly remembered, usually eclipsed by the Vietnam War. The Confederacy surrendered at Appomattox, but won in the long term, in a larger sense. Although the Civil War put an end to slavery, Reconstruction ended in 1876 (as part of a political deal) and whites soon regained absolute control over the south. Widespread violence by the Klan and by local governments made it difficult and dangerous for blacks to vote. By the early 20th Century the Klan was riding high, in every sense, and Jim Crow laws made black life miserable. Many counties with high black populations had no registered black voters at all. White supremacy and black poverty remained little changed. Lynchings became common, attended by large crowds, who made no attempt to hide their faces from the camera, with many gleeful. Historians estimate that 3500 black men were lynched from the end of the Civil War until 1968. Black poverty was as stark in the south as anywhere in America. The prospect of jobs in the North plus less overt prejudice spurred six million blacks to migrate north (between 1910-1970) in what became known as the Great Migration. Millions of other blacks, still living in the South, suffered, and in the late 1950's the push for civil rights became more visible. The civil rights movement emphasized nonviolence, whose model was Gandhi. A black boycott (Rosa Parks) of the Montgomery Alabama bus system in 1955 succeeded in integrating buses, and various sit ins began. The reaction from many southern whites was predictable: violence. Killing, was condoned and usually overlooked by local authorities, such as the murder of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi and the killing of four black girls in a church bombing. Momentum was gathering, and in 1963, the March on Washington attracted 250,000 people, 75% of whom were black. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his now famous "I have a dream" speech from the Lincoln Memorial. President Lyndon Johnson, although from Texas, was sympathetic and in 1964 pushed the Civil Rights Act through a recalcitrant Congress. This was a huge step because it made segregation illegal, but did not explicitly address voting rights. Many southern blacks continued to be unable to vote. It is at this point that Ava DuVernay's film, Selma, begins, and ends just a few months later in 1965. It is a period of American history as intense and vital as any, when the televised behavior of white racists and southern law enforcement agencies succeeded in revolting the American conscience as millions of people watched peaceful marchers clubbed and beaten. White clergy from the North responded to King's call of help, and hundreds went south to march and register voters. Some paid with their lives.

Selma opens without any titles as Martin Luther King is rehearsing a speech and getting dressed in very formal clothing. We discover that it is his acceptance speech in Oslo in 1964 for the Nobel Peace Prize. Next we see the interior of a church, with a group of young black girls in Sunday best dresses, walking down a staircase. An explosion, bricks and bodies fly around in slow motion, and then we see the closeup of shattered masonry and timbers, with several bodies in the debris. Then we watch a well dressed black woman, Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey), attempt to register to vote in the Selma courthouse. Despite her being able to answer the registrar's difficult questions, he humiliates her and refuses to register her. He says that he is going to tell her nursing home boss that "one of his gals is stirring a fuss". King meets with President Lyndon Johnson in an attempt to persuade him to help, but Johnson, who is very involved in trying to pass his War on Poverty program and trying to deal with a deteriorating situation in Vietnam, says "that voting thing will have to wait." King says that it cannot wait, that the black man in the South is suffering terribly. Johnson is sympathetic, but unhappy that King doesn't agree with his priorities. J. Edgar Hoover meets with Johnson and tries to convince him that King is a "political and moral degenerate" and probably a Communist. Hoover also says that the FBI has been recording King's calls and doing extensive bugging which has revealed that King has been having affairs. Hoover wants to use these recordings to hurt the King family. As each scene involving King screens, the actual FBI summary of the event is typed on the screen, complete with time stamp. So in just a few minutes of screen time, DuVernay, has shown us how unlikely it seemed then that real gains on voting rights in the South were possible in the short term.

All the major characters in Selma are black with the exception of political leaders like Lyndon Johnson and Governor George Wallace. Many will become famous leaders in the civil rights movement. All are magnificent with outstanding acting, even minor characters. It's noteworthy that the four principal characters are played by English actors. David Oyelowo, a fine English actor (The Butler), plays Martin Luther King Jr. He doesn't just play King, he becomes him. His words, cadence and power all make him seem like King reincarnated. He shows the determination, courage and savvy, coupled with the black preacher traditions that formed King. He is always deliberate, and at times is a haunted, exhausted man. Coretta Scott King is played by Carmen Ejogo, a beautiful English actress, who had played Coretta King in an American television docudrama, Boycott. The other actors who play black leaders are convincing as we see some of the dissension and conflicts about tactics. King is a unifying element whose judgment seems vital to their success. When King turns the marchers around at one point, there is a heated post mortem about the rightness of the decision. King, acknowledging that he was uncertain, says "I would rather be hated than to have the blood of others on my hands". King's most important speeches are not here, in part because of the 1964-65 time frame, but principally because the King Estate has copyrighted all of his speeches and writing, and refused to permit DuVernay to use them in this film. But the dialogue is largely historical, with the original speeches recognizable despite changes forced on the director. It does not detract from the film. An example of this is a private discussion with a deputy attorney general, who is supportive of King's efforts, trying to convince King not to expose himself on the march because they have very credible threats on his life. King says he must lead: "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life…….." But this is actually taken from a interview in Memphis just before he was killed. It is heartbreakingly prescient: "Longevity has its place but I am not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land…." Like so much of King's oratory, it is grounded in Biblical text, in this case alluding to Moses not being permitted to enter the Promised Land. So appropriate, because King was surely a black Moses, leading his people to freedom. When you read or listen to King's speeches, you feel his power to change society. King was only 39 years old when he was murdered. Like John F Kennedy (who was killed at 46), imagine how different our country would have been had one or both assassins missed.

DuVernay's film has extraordinary scenes of the marches, shot on location in Alabama, interspersed with archival footage of the actual marches. The very site of Bloody Sunday, the Edmund Pettus Bridge (named for a Grand Dragon of the KKK) in Selma, was used with mostly local extras. Selma is rich with a fascinating story, fast paced and riveting. We all know, intellectually, how terrible and shameful that era was in the South, but DuVernay depicts the struggles and real costs, and the importance of King's leadership. The scene of King comforting a grieving father whose son has just been shot by the state police is as fine as any I have seen on screen. A coda describing the lives of the principal characters after the march is perfect, although sometimes sad. And then we fully understand why a white mother from Detroit is often shown. I loved and was profoundly moved by this film. It recalled an old memory, as a young lieutenant in 1964, taking my clothes to a laundry just outside of Ft Polk, Louisiana, and seeing two doorways, each with a sign: "White" and the other, "Colored". I was shocked and ashamed. Selma is a great American film, powerful, unforgettable and important. It is a fine start to the new year's crop of films. See this on the large screen.

Selma just opened here at the Kabuki and is screening widely throughout the Bay Area. Running time: 128 minutes. It opened in NY and LA in December to be eligible for the 2015 Oscars. This film will surely be a winner is several categories: definitely best actor and possibly best picture and best screenplay. Apologies for the length of this review, but there is much more to this film, left unsaid here.

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