A few weeks ago, shortly after the movie came out, I tried to go see the movie Selma, but failed to do so because the tickets were sold out. Meanwhile, I forgot about it. Then, with the announcement of the Oscar nominees, suddenly it was all over the news. Although it was nominated for best picture, many people felt that it should have been nominated in more categories, specifically for actor, director and original screen play. On top of that, there was a secondary controversy brewing regarding the depiction of LBJ, for my foreign readers that would be Lyndon Baines Johnson, the president at the time.
If I were a professional reviewer, I’d probably want to see movies cold as the best way of evaluating them, write down some initial impressions and then, perhaps, do any background reading or research. However, I am not a professional reviewer and I went to the movies wanting Selma to be a great picture. After a week of being told online that I was racist or Islamophobic for thinking that shooting cartoonists and (let’s not forget) grocery store shoppers fell into the “bad thing” category rather than the “perfectly understandable,” I was kind of hoping to redeem myself by being able to whole heartedly scream about how the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was racist.
Well, let’s get the LBJ stuff out of the way since my opinion on that will keep me getting invited to cocktail parties. The criticisms are overwrought. Like a lot of historical movies, and even some fictional ones, the audience has to be informed of the background. The LBJ character winds up representing well-intentioned whites in the establishment. In order to inform the audience of the historical factors involved, he and Martin Luther King, Jr. have conversations in the movie that included very basic information that it is unlikely the two men would have to have said to each other in real life about a political movement that had been going on for years, one could say decades, at that point. It is for our benefit that these conversations are taking place. The movie was accurate enough that they did not forget to include Lee White, an adviser to both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. In his obituary a year ago, Todd S. Purdham wrote:
He was a quiet man with a thankless job, and he never became a household name or famous Washington face. But Lee C. White, who died at 90 this past October, played a crucial and effective behind-the-scenes role as White House civil rights adviser for both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, at the height of the movement to make America live up to its founding creed. (source: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2013/12/lee-white-obituary-101421.html#ixzz3PYM2Udm9)
I don’t think very many people will be turning to a movie when considering the insider political workings that had to happen in order to get the Voting Rights Act passed. In terms of leaving people with an accurate or inaccurate view of history, Selma does a far better job than another of this year’s nominees, The Imitation Game, which was just a travesty of historical inaccuracy. I don’t feel that people who are not already well-informed about the events surrounding the march from Selma, Alabama to the state’s capital, Montgomery, to bring attention to the widespread disenfranchisement of black voters will be in any significant way deceived by this movie. It was far more impressive in its accuracy than many other recent historical films.
Which brings me to the writing award. In terms of the amount of research that must have gone into it, the huge cast of characters whose portrayal had to do justice to the real people on whom they were based, the script is damned impressive. In fact, the more I think about it, the more impressive that task seems. At the same time, the script felt workmanlike to me. The conversations needed to establish background could have been done a little more skillfully. There were too many scenes that were of people making speeches. It was certainly well written and, considering the demands for historical accuracy and the degree to which many of the important figures of the time are acknowledged, it was clearly no easy piece of writing. How do you weigh that against an inventive and fictional piece of writing like Birdman? That is a judgement call. I certainly prefer the accurate, if occasionally stilted, writing of Selma to the socially damaging fictions of The Imitation Game. The writer has, at least, been respectful of the audience and done us a service, rather than serve us up a fist pumping concoction that derives its effects from lies. I will try to see a few of the other nominees before the Oscars, and Boyhood is high on my list of ones to view, but looking at the list it seems to me that the nominees for original screenplay favor the inventive. At some level, it strikes me as a matter of taste. I don’t think the screenplay for Selma was so brilliant that we need to put down the fact that it was bypassed for a nomination to racism alone. If it had been an adapted screenplay where there are fewer inventive movies and three of the nominees are based on true stories, the comparison would be easier. (If The Imitation Game wins for best adapted screenplay I’m going to gnash my teeth and start a twitter hashtag, #OscarSoBullshit.)
For instance, the movie portrays two members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee who have been working in Selma on voter registration. One member, James Forman turns to the other and tells him that SNCC wouldn’t support the march and if the other went he’d have to go, not as a representative of SNCC but as “John Lewis.” At that moment, the audience knows that they will see John Lewis, who suffered a fractured skull during that march, badly beaten by the police. Lewis has gone on to become a prominent congressman. James Forman would also continue to work in Civil Rights, but would advocate more radical tactics.
In 1961, Forman joined and became the executive secretary of the then newly formed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. From 1961 to 1965 Forman, a decade older and more experienced than most of the other members of SNCC, became responsible for providing organizational support to the young, loosely affiliated activists by paying bills, radically expanding the institutional staff and planning the logistics for programs. Under the leadership of Forman and others, SNCC became an important political player at the height of the civil rights movement.
In 1964, Forman, expressing his frustration with the gradualist approach of some Civil Rights leaders, made one of his best known quips: “If we can’t sit at the table [of democracy], let’s knock the fucking legs off!”
The scenes in which the two SNCC members, John Lewis and James Forman, have discussions with Dr. King and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference carry the burden of having to show the dynamics that existed within the Civil Rights movement and disagreements about tactics. These scenes at times feel more like docudrama than drama.
Which brings me to the thing that I think saves the movie. Almost all the actors turn in strong, solid performances. Even the smaller roles are well acted, as in the horrifying scene in which Jimmie Lee Jackson and his mother and grandfather take shelter in a cafe. They had been at a protest march where the state troopers started beating the marchers. The state troopers burst into the cafe. The police begin to beat the grandfather, Cager Lee. When Viola Lee Jackson tries to defend her elderly father, they being to beat her. Her son then tries to protect her. He is thrown up against a wall and is shot.
Jackson’s death led James Bevel, SCLC Director of Direct Action and the director of SCLC’s Selma Voting Rights Movement, to initiate and organize the first Selma to Montgomery march to publicize the effort to gain registration and voting.
If Jimmy Lee Jackson appears to be a small role in the movie, the real life Jackson did not play such a minor role in historical events. He had been trying for four years to register to vote, and when the SCLC began organizing people in Selma he began attending regular meetings held in Zionist Baptist Church. (In the movie, Jimmie Lee Jackson appears to die in the cafe. I real life, he fled the cafe after being shot, was beaten more by the police, collapsed and died several days later in the hospital. This is the sort of simplification of events I take as almost a matter of course in a movie.)
When a movie features collectively solid acting rather than one or two outstanding performances, I’m inclined to credit the director, which brings us to another nomination that was not received. Unlike, the screenplay category, I am less ambivalent about the fact that the director, Ava DuVernay, did not get nominated. Despite a story with inherent drama, the movie feels sluggish. The scenes between Coretta Scott King and her husband are especially boring. Showing marital tension because of Dr. King’s infidelities is supposed to humanize him and show his flaws. Instead, it just weighs down the movie. At one point, she asks him if he loved any of the other women. In the yawning length of time it takes him to answer she could have had a divorce lawyer on the phone. In the end, I just don’t find it as shocking a some people do that she didn’t get a nomination.
As far as the acting nominations go, I’ve only seen two of the nominated performances. I happened to love Birdman and would not be in the least bit disappointed if Michael Keaton wins. Regarding the nominations, however, I do think David Oyelowo turned in a better performance than Benedict Cumberbatch’s godawful emotionally vacant genius schtick.
One nomination that it would have made sense for Selma to receive was for costume design. That strikes me as an inexplicable oversight, especially in light of the fact that Inherent Vice got a nomination. I can barely remember the characters even wearing clothes.
In the end, I felt that Selma was a good, but not great movie. It certainly could have gotten a couple of more nominations than it did, but the fact that those nominations went to other films is not shocking to me, nor am I convinced that it is solely due to racism. I will be surprised if it wins best picture.