Movie Review: Selma (2014)
First, yeah, it screws up LBJ.
Second, it gets almost everything else right.
Let’s start with the casting. I kept going “That’s got to be...” and every time it was: Andrew Young (André Holland), John Lewis (Stephan James), Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson). Nigel Thatch looks more like Malcolm X than anyone who’s ever portrayed him on screen. Wendell Pierce isn’t exactly a dead ringer for Hosea Williams, but he brings that Wendell Pierce “shit is fucked/I got your back” spirit with him. Check out the scene where he calls John Lewis—who put his body on the line during the Nashville sit-ins, the Freedom rides, and as president of SNCC—“young blood.” When it’s announced that Harry Belafonte is coming to Selma, Hosea leads everyone in a rousing version of “Banana Boat Song.” Seriously, who wouldn’t want to hang with Wendell Pierce?
Then there’s Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King (David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo). Screenwriter Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay make them real people again. They give them a sense of intimacy. It’s hard to view a man as a saint when you’ve seen him put a plastic lining in the trash bin under the sink. Watching “Selma,” I had this obvious thought for the first time: “He really did marry up in the looks department, didn’t he?”
We get that sense of intimacy right away. It’s December 1964, and King and Coretta are in their room in Oslo, Norway, where he is about to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s trying to practice his speech but he spends more time fussing with his ascot. He doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like the message it sends back home. She argues for it. It’s the miniscule details of the scene, the subtle tensions, the promises he makes to her that we know (and he knows, and she knows) he won’t be able to keep: about becoming a pastor in a small church somewhere, and teaching a class, and raising their kids in a home they own rather than rent; about leading a regular life rather than leading a movement that brings death threats and the hate of half the country down on them. I was immediately won over.
Eyes on the prize
“Selma” is divided into three basic types of scenes: attempts to undercut movement leaders from outside; attempts to bolster movement leaders from within; strategizing among groups. The strategizing scenes are best.
Undercutting: The FBI spies on King, calls his house, plays sex tapes for Coretta over the phone. It tries to bring down the movement by getting between him and his wife. “That ain’t me,” he tells her, as they listen to two people in the throes. “I know,” she says quietly. “I know what you sound like.” Another humanizing moment.
The most unnecessary bolstering scene involves Coretta. Martin’s in jail, and Hosea and the others are going “uh oh” because Malcolm X just arrived in town. What will they say to him? What will he say? We don’t get that. Instead, we cut to an older black woman walking with and giving advice to Coretta. Aren’t we undercutting the drama here? We don’t even get to hear Malcolm X give the speech he gave, but at least we get to hear Martin and Coretta arguing over Malcolm X. Another nice scene.
The best bolstering scene starts out poorly. It’s after the first two Edmund Pettus bridge incidents: a police crackdown that horrified the country, and the one where MLK led everyone away from confrontation. Had he lost courage? Faith? John Lewis, still scarred from the first bridge incident, talks to him about the beating he took in the Freedom Rides. At first I didn’t buy it. Is John Lewis schooling Martin Luther King on the history of the movement? But no. He’s telling him about how, at that moment, Lewis began to lose faith, and King propped him up with a sermon. “What did I say?” MLK asks quietly. I love that. He’s forgotten, of course. For him, it was just another day; another sermon in 10 years of sermons.
Both of those types of scenes are fine; but the strategizing scenes is where the movie, and history, come alive.
A good reminder: It wasn’t just Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) who didn’t want MLK in Selma; SNCC didn’t want him there, either. Lewis and James Orange (Omar J. Dorsey) had been in Selma two years already, working on registering voters, and the worry—and it was always a worry, of which King was painfully aware—was that MLK would come in and grab the glory and the headlines. Plus SNCC was the younger generation. It was getting tired of waiting and tired of marching. It was moving away from MLK, nonviolence, and the civil rights movement, and toward Black Power. Interestingly, in ’63, Lewis was “young blood.” He was the firebrand, demanding to say use the word “black” instead of “Negro” during his March on Washington speech. A year after the events in “Selma,” Lewis would lose the SNCC chairmanship to Stokely Carmichael for being too middle-of-the-road; for siding too much with King. You see some of this dynamic in his arguments with Orange. The movement is already fraying. Black Power will end it.
I love the way the history of the movement is subtly layered into the strategizing sessions. The protests of Albany, Ga., in 1962 didn’t work because Chief Pritchett kept his cool; they did in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 because Sheriff “Bull” Connor didn’t. So the big question for Selma: is Jim Clark a Pritchett or a Connor? Orange and Lewis admit, reluctantly, that he’s a Connor. So the SCLC stays. So the protests and marches begin.
(Related: In the Obama years, do you think the Republican party has been a Chief Pritchett or a Bull Connor? There’s a good discussion there for the GOP to have with itself; or for Roger Ailes with his self.)
As King and the movement strategizes, so do—separately—Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) and his deputy (Stephen Root), and President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and his (Giovanni Ribisi). The former is interested in defeating King, the latter in deflecting him. LBJ is the voice of restraint here. He’s the institutional voice saying “Wait” on voting rights.
Which I suppose brings us to the LBJ question.
A change (is gonna come)
I’ve read less about Selma than other civil rights hotspots (Montgomery, Nashville, Birmingham), but I know that when Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 he told an aide, “We’ve lost the South for a generation.” Not only was he right, he was optimistic. (It’s been two generations.) So if anything, Johnson wanted blacks in the South to vote. To give the Democratic party a chance there.
Here are two excerpts from “Eyes on the Prize,” the companion book to the seminal documentary on the civil rights movement. The first backs up the movie’s portrayal; the second doesn’t:
- “In his State of the Union address, President Johnson articulated the goal of eliminating ‘every remaining obstacle to the right and the opportunity to vote,’ but voting rights came seventh on his list of domestic priorities.” (pg. 258)
- “On the day of Malcolm X’s speech [early February 1965], President Johnson held a press conference. ... It was his first direct response to Selma and a welcome surprise to the activists. ‘I should like to say that all Americans should be indignant when one American is denied the right to vote,’ said Johnson. ‘The loss of that right to a single citizen undermines the freedom of every citizen. That is why all of us should be concerned with the efforts of our fellow Americans to register to vote in Alabama. ... I intend to see that that right is secured for all our citizens.’” (pg. 262)
At this point in the movie, DuVernay actually implies that LBJ was silently conspiring with J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to undercut MLK via the FBI sex tapes.
Here’s DuVernay herself on the subject:
The script was the LBJ/King thing, but originally, it was much more slanted to Johnson. I wasn't interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma. ... Johnson has been hailed as a hero of that time, and he was, but we're talking about a reluctant hero. He was cajoled and pushed, he was protective of a legacy—he was not doing things out of the goodness of his heart.
Goodness schmoodness. Let’s ask the Watergate question: What did the president say and when did he say it? What did the president do and when did he do it?
Here’s a transcript of LBJ strategizing with MLK on January 15, 1965, before most of the events in the movie. He hardly seems the reluctant ally DuVernay makes him.
The greater insult might be how dull she makes him. For all his faults (and there were many), LBJ was still one of the gladhandingest, craziest, talking-your-ear-off-while-he’s-sitting-on-the-crapper control freaks to ever occupy the Oval Office. He dominated rooms and people and the world. He went out of his way to control inflation. Color TVs too expensive? Talk to RCA. Egg prices up? Tell the Surgeon General to issue a warning on high cholesterol. But for most of the movie, he’s back on his heels, fretting in silence over newspaper headlines, taking guff from George Wallace of all people. George Wallace! Every report I’ve read of their meetings ends with Wallace as soft putty in LBJ’s giant hands—at least until he gets back to Alabama—but here Wallace stares down the President of the United States and doesn’t blink. Was Wilkinson wrong for the role? Was Roth? Should Southerners protest that they’re constantly being played by Brits? Maybe DuVernay just doesn’t know how to direct white people? They’re certainly the weakest part of her movie.
We shall overcome
Look, I get it. Hollywood’s been awful on the civil rights movement. It’s made heroes of historical obstructionists: the FBI in “Mississippi Burning”; southern whites in “The Help.” “Selma” is actually the first theatrical release to feature MLK as the main character. How awful is that? That it took more than 50 years to get him front and center and in the theater?
I also get that LBJ’s reluctance to go along with the Selma campaign gives the movie its dramatic structure. We spend most of the movie waiting for two things to happen: the march from Selma to Montgomery to go forward and the Voting Rights Act to get pushed through Congress. The march is stymied by troops first, and MLK second, before Judge Frank Minis Johnson (Martin Sheen) declares it lawful; then it goes. The Voting Rights Act is stymied mostly by LBJ’s reluctance; but then he has a change of heart (somewhere), gives the big speech in front of Congress, and appropriates the movement’s signature phrase: “And we shall overcome,” So: happy ending. But I think there are better—and more honest—dramatic structures. I think more could have been done, for example, on why King led the march away from the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
(Sidenote: According to movement leader C.T. Vivian, when Johnson said “We shall overcome,” Vivian looked over at Dr. King and saw a tear running down his cheek. In the movie, King is dry-eyed. Because DuVernay didn’t believe Vivian? Because dry-eyed is more dramatic? Because that’s the way DuVernay wants it to be?)
I do think some of DuVernay’s choices weakened the movie. I suppose she’ll just have to settle for directing the best film about the civil rights movement ever made.