Selma and the Struggle

Selma isn’t just a great movie. Its sense of history and justice is deeply politicizing.

Martin Luther King Jr and other civil rights activists during the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March.

There are sections in Selma that I treasure. They deal with strategy and the tactics involved in the struggle to secure the vote for black citizens that ultimately resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Scenes with Martin Luther King Jr (strongly played by David Oyelowo) and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) aides-de-camp evaluating whether Selma is an advantageous staging ground for the next phase of the Civil Rights Movement; scenes about negotiating the hard feelings with the local Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which isn’t happy to see King sweep in and take over their turf; scenes about managing the surprise appearance in Selma of King’s severest intra-movement critic, Malcolm X; scenes about King’s contentious attempts to persuade Lyndon Johnson to take swift action on voting rights legislation.

I wish such scenes had been twice as detailed and twice as long. I want to see intelligent political activism modeled in films, old and new. Popular films so often provide us with representations of what we lack in our culture — that’s what makes them popular. And Selma is doing very brisk business in American theaters.

One of the best scenes in Selma features King doing a vivid postmortem on a largely failed anti-segregation protest campaign he helped lead in Albany, GA, in order to make sure the same mistakes are not made in Selma, AL. One of the big errors? Tactics — lots of marches, innumerable arrests — but no goal-reaching strategy, just the amorphous aim of desegregating the city through protests on many fronts. (This is a disputed interpretation of the Albany Movement, by the way, though King’s assessment of it in the film reflects his assessment in his autobiography.)

I realize that most people aren’t going to see Selma, or any mainstream film, as a tutorial. This is too bad, because commercial cinema has served tutorial purposes from its beginnings. We don’t just look at formally designated “educational films” to consider how to think about things, and how to do things. Using film to figure out how to be an effective activist is an excellent idea.

It is precisely because we are so far from the levels of political activism of an era like the 1960s — when educative and radicalizing Third Cinema aided revolutionary struggles around the world — that we need to gobble up every cinematic crumb we can get and then demand more. We need political film groups just as we need political reading groups.

So let’s say we’re starting with Selma.

Selma is clearly intended to resonate with the current moment, in particular the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Even without the closing credits song “Glory” — which ties explicitly what happened in Selma to what happened in Ferguson — the film’s immediate relevance would be recognizable.

Some critics have marveled at the almost uncanny synchronicity of the film’s timing, and even director Ava DuVernay has acknowledged the shock of seeing variations on scenes from the movie replayed in the streets today. But even if the timing of Selma was fortuitous, its consciousness-raising aim is intentional and explicit.

The shrewd decision to structure the film around securing a vital piece of legislation seems pretty clearly borrowed by screenwriter Paul Wells (and, though uncredited, DuVernay) from Tony Kushner’s script for Lincoln. I loved big chunks of Lincoln too, for its unusual interest in the nitty-gritty difficulties of politics, the factionalism, the infighting, the horse-trading, the ugly compromises, the absolute impurity of it.

The two films arguably share some of the same flaws, such as a conventionalized “prestige film” approach to historical subject matter that preserves raw, bloody events in amber with handsome, stately production values. They also showcase their “cast of thousands” in ways that makes a diverting game out of naming all the famous performers that turn up in sometimes-unlikely roles.

With Selma, it’s a constant series of “Oh look!” recognitions: Oh look! It’s Tim Roth as George Wallace . . . Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon Johnson . . . Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover . . . Common as civil rights strategist and organizer James Bevel . . . Oprah Winfrey as a downtrodden Alabama woman radicalized by the demeaning voting process under Jim Crow . . . Giovanni Ribisi . . . Cuba Gooding Jr . . . Martin Sheen . . . Stephen Root . . .

But never mind. Let’s focus on the benefits of films dealing with topical politics — which are rare in American cinema at any time — becoming popular at a time when we need huge numbers of people to get politicized, and fast.

Selma puts a laudable emphasis on a very practical problem in modern political activism: the absolute necessity of gaining media attention favorable to your cause, and the complexities of trying to engineer in advance how any given action will be framed. Obviously, sufficient media attention of the right kind can put pressure on law enforcement and the local, state, and federal government. But getting that favorable attention is a tricky rhetorical problem with new wrinkles in every campaign.

The film shows King possessing a keen awareness of these complexities, and the sheer risk and effort involved in working them out in extremely hostile circumstances. He is portrayed as a man acutely conscious that he has taken the leading role in a drama that he himself is staging — and must keep on staging — in order to struggle for civil rights.

The opening scene of the film might seem an odd one if you miss the way it sets up what follows: King is shown fretting over the tie he’s going to wear to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo. It’s an ascot, and he’s wary of appearing ostentatious with his largely impoverished Southern black community back home.

There’s a key scene later — my favorite scene — when King explains that the success of the Civil Rights Movement depends on generating “drama” for the public, the media, the government. The anti-segregation campaign in Albany, GA is regarded by King as a relative failure because of the absence of an intelligent strategy and the failure to achieve concrete goals — largely because Sheriff Laurie Pritchett treats the protesters humanely, unlike the brutish Sheriff Bull Connor of Birmingham, AL.

“Is your sheriff Bull Connor, or is he Laurie Pritchett?” asks King, and upon hearing that Sheriff Jim Clarke is in the mold of Bull Connor, he confirms that Selma is the proper stage.

“Drama” in these terms involves avowing nonviolent protest while deliberately provoking the most shocking violence from those more than inclined to provide it. It involves making manifest the latent coercion of the Jim Crow system. Drama is heads cracked open by nightsticks, nice old ladies shoved to the ground, elderly gents beaten without mercy, screaming girls chased down by mounted police, young men shot down by the police in cold blood.

And then the funeral oration over the dead, invaluable for scourging the consciences of different groups all over the nation — the government, the clergy, quiescent members of the black community, and the majority of the white population witnessing these horrors through the media.

The psychological toll exacted on King for pursuing this strategy is addressed at some length. When the film starts, King is presented as already embedded in his central role, rarely unaware of his own performance before multiple audiences at any given time.

He and his aides are aware they’re constantly being monitored by the FBI, for example, and joke about it (we in the audience are alerted to it when the FBI logo appears on the screen, along with the date and time of the photographed, bugged, or wiretapped event taking place).

But King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, is portrayed as offering a pained resistance to the bitter theatrics of the movement. She doesn’t confer with him over the uncomfortable symbolism of the tie, for example, but simply helps him put it on and reassures him that he’ll “look distinguished” — displaying traditional wifely behavior that suggests her persistent attempts to secure a more regular domestic life for the family, safely removed from the movement.

The “tie scene” ends with King filling an awkward silence by describing a tranquil future, house and all, that they both know they’ll never have. Later, Scott King will protest that their children “don’t have what they ought to” because of his concern with “how it might look.” As Scott King, Carmen Ejogo hovers tentatively at the fringe of the action for most of the film, looking fragile and beautiful, expressing tremulous doubts about ever feeling “ready” for the challenges of the movement.

Though I assume Wells and DuVernay have done thorough research and know more about her than I do, this seems so at odds with the real-life Scott King that I was baffled by their choice to present her this way. This portrayal seems to me a far more controversial choice than the portrayal of LBJ as intensely resistant to King’s push for the Voting Rights Act, which has sparked so much high-profile criticism.

As Scott King biographer Barbara Reynolds argues in the Washington Post, she was an activist before she ever met her husband, worked valiantly side-by-side with him during his life, and continued civil rights work long after his death. But here Scott King is perilously close to the matronly figure we’ve seen in so many fiction films, fretting from the sidelines about her heroic husband’s dangerous endeavors because they imperil domestic happiness and prosperity.

In Selma, Scott King seems so removed from the main work of the movement that it’s a slight shock when she’s the one meeting with Malcolm X after his arrival in Selma. Who would send this hothouse flower to confront the man who scorned King as an Uncle Tom, and who’s so feared in America that he can offer himself up as the nightmarish alternative to King (in the imaginations of white politicians)?

Though regrettable in most ways, Scott King’s portrayal makes sense in terms of exploring the implications and complications of the “drama” of the movement. She is depicted as the guardian of their private, “normal” life, up against the forces of the FBI as they aggressively monitor every aspect of King’s existence, with a view to curtailing or even destroying his ability to function on behalf of the movement.

Her strongest scene is the one in which she plays the FBI tapes sent to her that purportedly includes the sounds of his sexual encounter with one of his girlfriends. He’s reduced to stammering, “It’s not me,” while she stands over him and scornfully replies, “I know — I know what you sound like.” But the threat is clear: they will have no private life. Everything will be made part of the public drama.

The most deliberately dramatic part of the movie follows this scene, depicting events as if they had become to conform to theatrical structures that sweep King along with them: the “three act” attempts by the protesters to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge as part of an epic Selma-to-Montgomery march.

As an act of penance for the “drama” he’s brought on his family, King stays home from the first attempt to cross the bridge and misses the “Bloody Sunday” beatings and tear-gassings that electrify the nation. This dusty, sun-scorched sequence of terror is shot with tremendous visceral impact by cinematographer Bradford Young, and the audience views with trepidation each additional attempt to cross the bridge.

King’s participation in the second attempt, the ranks swelled by reinforcements of activists and clergy from across the country, ends in a mysterious stalemate when the amassed police force appears to clear the road for the protesters. But King hesitates, prays, and turns back. Does he suspect it’s a trap, or can he no longer summon up the will to “go on with the show?”

The third attempt succeeds, bolstered by national media coverage and another influx of new protesters, including a planeload of Hollywood stars flown in by singer-actor-activist Harry Belafonte. It’s the ultimate security, marching in the company of celebrities, lives that truly matter in America! “Daaaaay-O!” sings one of the SCLC leaders when they hear the news, both in tribute and mockery.

At this point the film dissolves into a montage of the marchers, blending into black-and-white shots of the real-life marchers, and then to newspaper headlines verifying the success of the campaign. It has an “and the rest is history” quality that is conventional yet striking if viewed as King’s full transformation from man staging drama, to man absorbed and overwhelmed by drama, to “great man” of American myth.

But it’s a bit disturbing as well. Ending on the triumph of the voting rights campaign in Selma might be experienced as soothing closure, with the reaction, “See? The system works. There’s LBJ announcing the Voting Rights Act. It just takes perseverance!” Even the haunting awareness throughout the film that King is only four years away from his assassination, even “Glory” playing over the closing credits, may not be enough to remind people of the crushing load of unfinished business that ought to land on our shoulders as the theater lights go up.

Certain scenes in the film are stronger than others in reminding us that this film ought to be a call for strategic, concerted action. One scene designed to be recalled is the jailhouse discussion between King and one of his fellow SCLC leaders on the economic underpinnings of black second-class citizenship in America. Referring to the successful Birmingham lunch-counter sit-ins, King laments, “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?”

That, though it’s still not as widely known as it should be, was King’s next and final fight: he was deeply involved in the struggle for economic justice when he was killed. This should be the subject of the next film about King, charting his last days of life and advocacy. Such a film’s lack of a triumphal ending would be its great strength, because it would so clearly pass the torch on to us.