Selma was officially released in limited theaters on Christmas Day, but the real release was this weekend (has to be released in 2014 to qualify for Academy Awards, but I suspect they wanted the big release closer to the MLK holiday). I went with family to the 9:00 showing at the Broadway last night. It’s probably the most important historical drama released to major theaters since Lincoln. I estimate the attendance, mostly older, was between 10 and 15 people. It’s a great film! But with attendance like that, it may not even last to the MLK holiday a week from tomorrow locally. Unfortunately, I’m starting to wonder if the bulk of the surviving social consciousness around here is limited to fighting science and resisting land regulation.
To be fair, I hadn’t heard about the movie until I read a column published several days before Christmas and written by a whining LBJ supporter who didn’t appreciate the portrayal. The writer, I don’t remember his name, says that LBJ actually invented the Selma marches. Anyway, he felt that the film should be boycotted (the history of the interactions between King and then President Johnson are disputed by various participants, and honestly I suspect that conversations between two professional pols are all very calculated and open to interpretation). So naturally I planned to see it. But for his rant, I might also be among the many apparently unaware of a very strong film. It may be the fault of weak marketing.
In any case, I strongly recommend it. It has a few flaws in my opinion, which I’ll share. But this is a strong film. Maybe too strong for some white people, and yes, I mean to put it that way.
I’m always afraid to watch movies about events of which I’m somewhat familiar, and aside from a few annoying moments, the history was about as good as you can expect for a movie, dramatic art requirements, time limitations, and story flow always being important factors. But the essential truth which makes this probably the best dramatic depiction of Dr. Martin Luther King I’ve ever seen is that this movie seeks to remind us of what nearly five decades of whitewashing has allowed so many people to forget – Martin Luther King was a spiritual leader, yes, and an advocate for transcendence. He was also a left wing activist with a political agenda which was opposed by most conservatives, and resisted by compromising liberals. He was a political tactician who chose Selma because the the Sheriff was a thug who could be trusted to respond in a way which would make national news coverage and shock the country into supporting the Voting Rights Act. The movie is straightforward and unflinching on this point, and at one point King flushes embarrassed as a liberal NY Times reporters asks, “Is it really nonviolence if you’re deliberately inciting violence?” In the film, and undoubtedly in real life, his conscience was burdened by these choices, but they’re choices a leader had to make if there was to be any kind of power shift in the south where voters were systematically barred from voting by literacy tests, poll taxes, and requirements of testimonial from registered voters. It had to end, and King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had to make some grim choices.
And the film narrative doesn’t even necessarily side with King/SCLC on the issue. The film is very candid about the SCLC’s friction with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which had been organizing and registering black voters, but at a pace slower than desirable to King and his crew. And in fact, SNCC actually boycotted the first of the three marches – with the exception of John Lewis who was beaten up among many others on Bloody Sunday – the first attempt to march to Montgomery in which Sheriff Clark delivered what the SCLC wanted. SNCC was resentful that their elders in the SCLC had marched into town and taken over, and they also questioned the tactics which required human sacrifice. And sacrifice it was – First Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed by police when he, his mother, and grandfather were chased into a nearby cafe following a nighttime demonstration broken up by police. Several officers followed, beat the three, and shot Jackson at point blank range before the officers fled the cafe. He later died in the hospital. The officer was prosecuted and convicted – 45 years later.
James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister from Boston died after the second march. Of minor annoyance, though I’m wondering if I heard it right, but I could swear that he was described in the movie as a “priest.” But I’m not finding anything to confirm that, so I will chalk it up to my own confusion. If anyone sees the film and hears the same thing, please let me know (addendum – a friend of mine confirms that she also heard him described as a priest – what would Unitarian communion look like?). He and two other clergy were attacked by locals on Tuesday night.
But here is one issue in which I do take issue with the film and yes, I’m deliberately spoiling it because the movie should have spoiled it. It makes for better drama that King led the group out to the bridge two days after Bloody Sunday, this time a crowd loaded with white ministers, priests, nuns, and rabbis, and knelt to pray, and then got up and turned around and walked through the crowd, shocking and disappointing all the participants. What’s not true is that this was a spontaneous decision, with God telling him to wait for the court injunction. It was a deliberate strategy and all of the SCLC leadership knew about it, but they chose not to tell all of the participants. He asked them to remain in town until the actual march would take place on Thursday, after the court hearing. He wanted to keep the news coverage up and the pressure on, and he probably hadn’t thought he could get as many whites there for a false start march. It is a moment of history which the film distorts for dramatic effect, but really does a disservice.
Other than that, I think the history was accurate on the major points. This review does some fact checking, and the most of the points of contention seem pretty minor.
I suspect that many white people will avoid this movie. It’s not the feel good stuff of our 8th grade exposure to the “I have a Dream” speech. His Gallup unfavorability rating had been 37 percent in 1963, probably taken after the iconic speech (which was far from his best). It did not go down, but up by 1965 to 46 percent. By 1966 it was 63 percent, and that was a year before he took a public stand against the Vietnam War (pissing off the more conservatives elements of SCLC who accused him of “indulging his conscience at the expense of the Civil Rights Movement”). He became involved in union/class politics. He hinted that he was a socialist, or at least anti-capitalist. When he was killed on April 4, 1968 he was preparing a “Poor Peoples March” on Washington and was hoping to shut down the Capitol Building.
White people will avoid this movie because it will remind them of the hypocrisy of pols who would sing his praises once he was safe and dead, but who hated his guts when he was alive and challenging their power. White people will avoid this movie because it will remind them that he was a left wing activist who wanted to change the fundamental class structure of this country, and that is what probably got him killed. White people will avoid this movie because it will remind them that Dr. Martin Luther King was black.
And you’re reminded of these things even as the closing credits are rolling to John Legend’s hip hop song, which mentions Ferguson (had to have been a very late edit!). “One day, when the glory comes / It will be ours, it will be ours / One day, when the war is won / We will be sure, we will be sure. That’s why Rosa sat on the bus / That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up.” You can hear the whole thing here.
Again, I strongly suggest that you make your way to the Broadway to watch it while you have the opportunity. Don’t wait for it to stream on Netflix. The film deserves support.
Photo is taken from an NPR story on a free screening in Selma itself.