Monday, January 12, 2015

Zaki's Review: Selma

David Oyelowo (center) leads the stellar cast of Selma
Early last week, a video crossed my Facebook feed of a young-ish African-American male beating up an elderly gentleman. The discomfiting vid was posted by someone claiming the aggressor was Michael Brown, the black teen who died in a police altercation last fall under circumstances that are, at best, opaque, and was accompanied by the following declaration: "Riots over this man. Demonstrations for this man. Dead policemen for this man. Disgusting." Of course, a simple Google search -- literally three seconds of typing -- revealed that not only wasn't Michael Brown the "this man" in the video, but it had no connection to Brown, and wasn't shot anywhere in his vicinity.

Nonetheless, the narrative was already set for this person, and that was that. Maybe because it was so fresh in my mind or maybe because one can't help but make these connections, I kept thinking about that video and that comment as I sat in my screening of Ava Duvernay's Selma. Arriving in the midst of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and "#blacklivesmatter", the docudrama about Martin Luther King Jr.'s role in bringing voting rights to the African-American population of the deep South, where systemic racial prejudice endured long after it was made illegal, once again asks us to not just remember the ongoing struggle that's brought us to this point, but to recognize the inherent humanity of those who've fought for it.

And if there's one thing Selma makes clear, it's just how many parts had to be working in concert for the slow, fitful movement toward progress to occur. Further, it illustrates just how much of that fight happened on the fringes. The great strides for civil rights ultimately happened when those sitting on the sidelines, watching history unfold on their television screens, were forced to take a side. What was at stake wasn't merely the right to vote -- for as important a thing as that is. Rather, it was about what came with that. Knowing you have a voice. Knowing you matter. That's something that can never be undervalued, and it's very much the center-of-focus here.

What Duvernay (working from a script by Paul Webb) does so masterfully is to lay out the stakes on the micro level, and let the macro take care of itself. By focusing on the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches, just one piece of the larger civil rights struggle, it allows us to share in both the joys and the heartaches of a few key participants. Indeed, the film is elevated by an exemplary supporting cast that includes rapper Common, Niecy Nash, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Oprah Winfrey (also a producer), among others. Of course, it also helps that the antagonist of this story (as he was in real life) is someone like Alabama governor George Wallace (played with boo-hiss precision by Tim Roth), who campaigned on a segregation platform, and is thus using his office to keep his thumb on the scale and allow racism at the local level to continue unchecked.

While King (played by David Oyelowo in a career-making role) staunchly encouraged non-violent protest from his allies, he was just as acutely aware that eliciting violence (on-camera, natch) from those bound-and-determined to preserve the status quo was the only thing that would garner attention. That's a pretty tenuous tightrope to walk, and it illustrates a degree of calculation in King that, far from diminishing his legacy, only makes more real the difficult decisions placed in front of him -- as well as the tragic consequences of being wrong. Yes, the entire movement had been made to be about him, but as a scene where wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) confronts him about his infidelities illustrates, King was indeed just a man, with real frailties and real failings.

The middle man in this whole narrative really ends up being President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who sympathizes with King, but worries about how much political capital he can expend on this Southern thing when he's got that Asian thing to worry about as well. While the depiction of Johnson as being sort of wishy-washy on the issue has come under criticism for making him seem less enthusiastic about aiding King than he may actually have been, I'd argue that his inevitable shift toward action (spoiler warning for those who haven't read a history book) makes for one of the film's strongest emotional through-lines, and makes Johnson a particularly effective surrogate for the electorate he represented.

As the anecdote up-top about that supposed "Michael Brown" video illustrates, we're still a long way from seeing King's dream fully realized. No doubt, we've made a lot of strides, but unfortunately we still live in a world where the color of one's skin tells some folks all they need to know about their character. And while it's easy when we're being bombarded with news about racial bias and racial resentment to think we'll never reach that hoped-for place, Selma serves as a pointed and poignant riposte to our current historical moment. It's an important film about an important story. It deserves to be seen, shared, discussed, and, like the events it depicts, never forgotten. A

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