[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]
As today is the 50th anniversary of Selma, Alabama’s “Bloody Sunday,” I suppose this is a good day to have a post on the movie, which I saw in the US on precisely January 9th (and which opens in France next Wednesday). Like just about everyone, I thought it was a well done, well acted, even riveting film about this momentous moment in the civil rights movement, and with the climate in the South of the time—of the apartheid/terrorist order under which black Americans lived—impeccably depicted, as were the details of the period. And it was nice to finally see a biopic (of sorts) of Martin Luther King Jr., who, one need not be reminded, was one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century. On this score, David Oyelowo was well cast as MLK, as was Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King (both merited at least Oscar nominations, which they didn’t receive). The casting was indeed pitch perfect all around, particularly Tom Wilkinson as LBJ and Tim Roth as George Wallace.
I have no specific memory of the Selma march—I was nine at the time—but the civil rights movement is a part of my family history. I participated in my first civil rights march in the fall of 1964—with my parents obviously—in downtown Milwaukee WI. I have one memory of it—like a photograph (as youthful memories can be)—and specifically being told by my parents that if people aggressed us or threw things, not to react. I remember the week my father went to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, to give a talk or maybe teach a class, in the fall of 1967, of what a big deal it was and awaiting his daily letters. And I won’t recount the atmosphere at home when the news broke on the evening of April 4th ’68 that MLK had been assassinated (in short, my mother beside herself in tears and my sister joining in; on the day of King’s funeral, my 6th grade class watched the live broadcast on television). So, like I said, the story of ‘Selma’ resonates personally with me.
This said, the film, while good and a must-see, is not without problems. As every minimally informed person is aware by now, director Ava DuVernay’s treatment of President Lyndon Johnson and his role at the time has been vehemently contested, notably by Joseph Califano Jr., who blew his fuses at the film’s depiction of LBJ’s reticence over moving forward on the Voting Rights Act. DuVernay defended herself but the polemic over her portrayal of LBJ’s role has pretty clearly resolved that she gave LBJ a bum rap—and not only over his alleged foot-dragging on the Voting Rights Act but also in the suggestion that LBJ knew about, and even authorized, J. Edgar Hoover’s dirty campaign against MLK.
For more on this, see novelist Darryl Pinckney’s review of the film in the February 19th issue of the NYRB, “Some different ways of looking at Selma” (and the responses to it).
Another point of contention is how the film “airbrushes out Jewish contributions to [the] civil rights [movement],” as this critique by Leida Snow in the Jewish Daily Forward postulates. In this vein, an op-ed in the JTA by Dartmouth College Jewish Studies prof Susannah Heschel explains “What Selma means to the Jews.” But as Jews are always arguing and disagreeing with one another, JDF blogger Katie Rosenblatt had a riposte to Snow’s critique, asserting that “‘Selma’ got it right by leaving out Jews.”
One critique of the film—and not an insignificant one—is that it “ignores the radical grassroots politics of the civil rights movement,” as Princeton grad student Jesse McCarthy argued in TNR. On this score, the most consequential salvo has been fired, not surprisingly, by University of Pennsylvania political science prof Adolph Reed Jr., “The real problem with Selma: It doesn’t help us understand the civil rights movement, the regime it challenged, or even the significance of the Voting Rights Act.” I say “not surprisingly,” as Reed’s academic/intellectual trademark is launching broadsides against movies, books, persons, etc, on the subject of Afro-Americans—of which he’s a leading specialist—broadsides that are always insightful and smart, albeit overly long, when not long-winded (e.g. see his barrage two years ago against Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained). In his critique here (19 pages printed out), Reed takes issue with the film’s “King idolatry,” asserting, entre autres, that there was a whole array of prominent actors in the civil rights movement of the time, some of whom are seen in the film but not accorded their due. The core of Reed’s argument, however, is on the centrality of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the history that led up to this. For the civil rights movement, this was IT (the early scene in the movie of the Oprah Winfrey character trying to register to vote is one of its most powerful). I won’t try to summarize what Reed has to say on this, except that it’s complex, informative, and important (though, as is Reed’s wont, a little long). Definitely worth reading.
To summarize, ‘Selma’ was about one big thing, which was voting rights—and which are under assault today, with the 2013 SCOTUS ruling and the ambiguous posture of the current GOP on the question. As for other current issues concerning black Americans—notably the DOJ’s just released report on Ferguson MO—I’ll come back to this another time.
À propos, journalist Ari Berman—who’s written extensively on civil and voting rights issues—has a piece in The Nation, “Fifty years after Bloody Sunday in Selma, everything and nothing has changed.” The lede: Racism, segregation and inequality persist in this civil-rights battleground.
John Lewis, who was on the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago today, has given the thumbs up to Ava DuVernay’s film. Also doing so is UT-Austin prof Charlotte M. Canning, who has a piece in TAP on “‘Selma’ and ‘The Birth of a Nation’: A tale of two films, 100 years apart.” The lede: A century after D.W. Griffith’s artful abomination, Selma succeeds by telling the true story of everyday people who come together to achieve the improbable.
I’ve never seen ‘The Birth of a Nation’. As this is its centenary and in view of its notoriety—and as it’s available on YouTube—I’ll bite the bullet and watch it. C’est l’histoire de l’Amérique.
UPDATE: That was one helluva speech President Obama gave in Selma yesterday (watch here). (March 8th)
2nd UPDATE: The Über-conservative National Review has a commentary, by staff writer Charles C.W. Cooke (who’s British), deploring “The GOP’s conspicuous absence from Selma.” C’est bien.
3rd UPDATE: The other day I attended a round table featuring Sciences Po prof and américainiste Sylvie Laurent, who discussed her latest book, Martin Luther King: Une biographie intellectuelle et politique. As Mme Laurent is one of France’s leading academic specialists of the US civil rights movement—and her biography of MLK looks first rate—I asked her what she thought of the movie ‘Selma’. Her response: It’s a very good film, portrays the events of the time as they were, and with the depiction of LBJ’s disputes with MLK over the Voting Rights Act largely accurate, i.e. she disagrees with the POV of Joseph Califano & Co. Dont acte. (March 21st)