History through a glass darkly
Robert Henderson is simultaneously bored and exasperated by a sanitised depiction of Martin Luther King, Jnr.
David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr.
Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon B. Johnson
Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King
Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover
Tim Roth as George Wallace
Director Ava DuVernay
Selma is the latest in an ever-lengthening list of propaganda films in the politically correct interest. It is Alabama 1965. Martin Luther King is already internationally famous after his “I have a dream” speech in 1963 and the award of the Nobel Peace prize in 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is meeting with resistance and black voters are finding they still cannot register to vote because of the application of local electoral regulations in ways that are comically restrictive. King goes to the city of Selma with a clutch of supporters from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to protest about this thwarting of the law, but their attempts to help blacks register in the city fail. As a consequence a protest march from Selma to Montgomery, the Alabama state capital, is planned. The first march is stopped brutally, the second aborted by King and the third allowed to happen.
That is the skeleton of the film. There is precious little solid dramatic flesh put on the skeleton. To be brutally frank Selma is boring. It is too wordy, too cluttered with characters, too didactic and unremittingly earnest. These are qualities guaranteed to lose any cinema audience. The problem is particularly acute when, as here, there is a large cast. Disputes and debates between King and his supporters or between King and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) are so extended and detailed that anyone not familiar with the story would not know what to make of it and, in any case, as anyone who has ever been involved with an ideologically driven political group will be only too aware, of little interest to anyone who has not been captured by the ideology. Reflecting life too exactly on film is not always the best way to keep people’s attention. Propaganda films do not have to be boring, although they often are. The black director Spike Lee would surely have made a much less sprawling and vastly more watchable film whilst keeping the ideological message.
There is also a woeful and wilful lack of historical context. This one has at its core a vision of wicked Southern good ol’ boys oppressing blacks. White involvement is restricted to racists with a penchant for violence, a few white sympathisers with the civil rights movement who appear peripherally, adorned with looks of sublimely smug unquestioning utopian naivety not seen on film since the initial sighting of a hippy commune in Easy Rider. Lyndon Johnson is shown as sympathetic to King’s views but not interested enough to risk his political future by wholeheartedly embracing the legislation that King says is necessary. There is no attempt to see things from the viewpoint of the whites who opposed integration, unlike, for example, a film such as In the Heat of the Night in which Rod Steiger’s sheriff attempts to explain why whites in the South are as they are because of their circumstances, citing for example, their widely held and not unreasonable fear that a black population which has been suppressed may turn on whites. Instead Selma just rushes in and points the finger of moral shame at any white who does not uncritically embrace what King advocates with a complete disregard of the fact that every human being, morally and sociologically, has to start from the situation into which they are born.
The concentration of the film on a specific time and place is also problematic, because King’s ideological career was a far more complex thing than the film can show. It also removes the embarrassment which would have hung around a straightforward biopic of King, such as the plagiarism which gained him a doctorate and his marginalisation as a civil rights leader which eventually saw him reduced to going to support sewage workers at the time of his assassination. Mention is made of his gross womanising, but only in the context of a sex tape recorded by the FBI that was sent to King’s wife Cora. The fact that some who were close to him said he had a particular liking for white women – which could be taken as evidence of racism in King if his motive was to revenge himself on whites by abusing their women – goes unmentioned. Indeed, it is rather odd that a man as celebrated as King is in the USA and with a worldwide reputation should never have had a full-blown biopic. Perhaps the answer is that King’s private life was too messy to deal with in a film depicting his entire public life rather than a short period of it devoted to a specific subject.
More importantly the tight focus in Selma means that the fifty odd years since Selma go unexamined. No honest person would deny that the position of blacks in the USA and particularly those in the Old South was demeaning at the beginning of the 1960s, but is what has replaced segregation and Jim Crow laws really that much better for most blacks or, perhaps more pertinently, anywhere near what King hoped would happen? Perhaps the answer to the first question is a tepid yes, at least for blacks who have benefitted from “positive discrimination”, but it has to be an unequivocal no to the latter. Segregation by choice has replaced segregation by law. Illegitimacy and crime amongst blacks have rocketed. A fair case could be made for the individual personal relationship between whites and blacks being worse now that it was fifty years ago.
Tom Wilkinson is very decent LBJ but David Oyelowo does not quite cut it as King. It is not that it is technically a bad performance; it is simply that he does not capture the charisma that King undoubtedly had. His portrayal of King keeps a question nagging away at one: why would any one have followed this rather drab character? The rest of the cast do not really have time to develop their roles, although Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King and Tim Roth as George Wallace have their moments.
The insubstantial quality of the film can be judged by the meagre Oscar recognition and its popularity with the public by the money it has taken. The film was nominated for Best Picture and best song but for nothing else, which is a rather remarkable thing. Nor did it win as best picture. A public fuss was made about Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo being left out of Best Director and Best Actor categories, but only in the context of no black actors and directors being nominated. Considering the public political correctness the American film business emits, it is rather difficult to imagine that the tepid response to Selma by the Oscar granting Academy voters was the result of racism. In fact its nomination as Best Picture despite having no nominations in the directing and acting categories suggests that the opposite happened, Selma was nominated for Best Picture regardless of its mediocrity as a sop to political correctness.
The public also responded in less than passionate fashion. As of 16 April Selma had taken $52,076,908 worldwide, which placed it, 57th in the top grossing films of the previous 365 days. Not bad in purely commercial terms for a film which cost $20 million to make, but distinctly underwhelming for a film lauded to the skies by most critics and many public figures. The truth is that people both in the States and abroad have not been that drawn to it, whether because of the subject or the indifferent quality of the film. One can take the browbeaten horses of the Western world to the politically correct water but they can’t make many of them drink.
The pernicious nature of a film like this is not that it casts whites as the villain, but that it gives blacks an excuse for anything that goes wrong in their lives, the prize of an inexhaustible victimhood.
ROBERT HENDERSON is film critic of QR