Read two critical perspectives on Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014), by Sunhui Chang and Ellen Sebastian Chang; and Connie Field. Selma opens Friday, January 9 at Bay Area theaters and nationally. Now available on DVD and streaming from Amazon.com.
SELMA: “We Will Not Wait”—Fortitude and Commitment in the Face of Doubt
by Ellen Sebastian Chang and Sunhui Chang
Mommy didn’t want
Me to go
Neither did my father and I wondered
Would it matter
50 years later I know
We, too, were
I didn’t go
I stayed home
And reminded myself:
We also serve
—”We Too,” by Nikki Giovanni
The history of the civil and voting rights movement is well-documented, with the 14-hour series Eyes on the Prize being an exemplary representation.
And yet, it seems that with each new generation, the history of these rights gets lost and reinvented in the opinion onslaught of the Internet (Twitter, Facebook), Fox vs. Colbert and “what is real news?” We know in the past not all the words printed, or all the pictures—still and moving—have historically told the truth or the facts. Much of it has presented a perspective. We are at an amazing crossroads, so it is important that new perspectives have the potential to reveal both a deeper and more honest history, and one that will allow us all to evolve beyond civil rights into global human rights. What is the future of documented history as we all document history?
Which brings us to the awards season release of Selma , the historical voting rights drama, written by Paul Webb and directed with a confident and dignified tone by Ava DuVernay. Creating a historical drama such as Selma becomes an artistic challenge in the execution of the obvious or the artful recreation of the recognizable. The challenge with such a film is to bring greater insights and clarity to a subject we imagine we know so well already. But Selma has been propelled (like divine intervention) into a volatile present-day historical moment that could not have been manufactured: Hands Up, Don’t Shoot; #blacklivesmatter; I Can’t Breathe.
There can be no traditional criticism of this film at this moment in time because of the prescient nature of each scene:
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. standing in the pulpit, passionately crying out, “Those who have gone before say, ‘No more, no more’ … that means protest, that means march, that means disturb the peace….”
- The image of the marchers kneeling with hands behind their heads before the Dallas County Court steps.
- The Alabama police with helmets, tear gas, guns and horses readied for unarmed citizens.
- The power of media revealed: “There are 70 million people watching this.” Through television, Dr. King is projected into the homes of the newly-educated middle class.
Selma stars David Oyelowo (who also had a role in Spielberg’s Lincoln ), in one of the most brilliant portrayals of MLK, Jr. “There’s a scene in Lincoln where I say the exact same thing to Abraham Lincoln as I say to LBJ in Selma ,” Oyelowo has pointed out. “In January 1865, my character is asking if we will be able to vote, and exactly 100 years later, I am still asking that same thing.” There lies the tension of the film: “still asking that same thing.” Part of “that thing” we are still asking is: When will we as Black people be equally valued as human? We still wait.
Selma is measured and thoughtful. It richly portrays an array of human emotions—those experienced by a people still struggling to have a promise of freedom, rights and humanity honored by a nation-country not of their choosing but of their circumstances.
For us, Selma held a few missteps. It misrepresents the time sequence of the September 15, 1963 16th Street Church bombing and the December 10, 1964 Nobel Peace Prize speech. By starting with the Nobel Peace Prize rather than the bombing, it takes away from the power and effectiveness of the distance between Oslo and Selma. Rev. King’s words while struggling with his ascot— “This is not right”—would have resonated with a deeper layer of profoundness.
And the other odd choice is to place the right hook delivered by Annie Lee Cooper (performed with stoic determination by Oprah Winfrey) to Sheriff Clark on the bridge, during the Bloody Sunday incident, rather than where it actually happened, three months earlier in January, outside the Dallas County Courthouse. Ms. Cooper, along with many others, had stood in line for hours waiting to register to vote. Sheriff Clark prodded the 54-year-old Cooper with his billy club, telling her to go home.
This moment contains the tension of waiting—over and over—for your rights, and the prodding and pressure of: not today, not now, try again, not until I say so. This moment holds the universal truth of what the poor and disenfranchised feel around the world. What is lost in the epic moment on the bridge is that Annie Lee Cooper was an ordinary workingwoman who made the time to wait and wait to register, moving beyond fatigue in the face injustice. This inspirational knowledge is sorely needed in an understanding of collective change. And with the elections looming ahead, it reminds us to not forget Broward County, or the recent voter ID laws. Restrictions around voting and voter registration continue to limit our true democracy in the 21st century.
One of Selma ‘s greatest insights stems from DuVernay’s and her cast’s success at bringing across the vulnerable nature of doubt that happens in uncharted territory, amid the mystery of what the day could bring. It takes fortitude and commitment to show up in the face of that uncertainty and still make a plan. Placing the fact that doubt was an ever-present figure in the decision process allows the audience to have a deeper understanding of what Dr. King had to psychologically battle in his decision to turn around on Tuesday, March 9, 1965—a decision that was met with much criticism. Oyelowo wears this expression of burden with such honesty and knowing. He reveals King to be an even greater leader due to his humanity. Selma left us wanting more: more of Diane Nash, Annie Lee Cooper, Amelia Boynton, and Richie Jean Jackson. But for now we know that their spirits rise in the current movement, in the bodies of Alicia Garza, Erica Garner, Umaara Elliott and Synead Nichols. Selma should remind us all: “We will not wait any longer.…”
Sunhui Chang is the chef and owner of FuseBOX. Opened in May 2012, FuseBOX’s name aptly conjures up the electric energy generated by its chef and his evolving explorations. James Beard Award-winning writer John Birdsall: “Sunhui Chang’s FuseBOX is one of the best restaurants I know because it’s one of the most honest and human places I know.” Chang and FuseBOX have been honored by the Bay Guardian and San Francisco Magazine, and Diablo Magazine gave Chang its Top Chef Award. Born in Korea, Chang’s earliest memory is a house filled with guests enjoying his mother’s cooking. While his mother, who hailed from a small coastal town in South Korea, was preparing her spicy fish stew, Chang sat in the kitchen watching. But when Chang was seven, the family moved to Guam, where his father found construction work. Guamanian cuisine featured fish, coconut, and citrus, and ignited Chang’s passionate relationship with pickles: “Kids would bring jars of pickles to school for lunch and everyone would fall all over them. The moment I tasted green mango pickles, I fell in love.” While his mother ran her own Korean restaurant in steamy Guam, Chang watched cooking shows like Julia Child and Great Chefs, Great Cities on TV. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Director, creative consultant and FuseBOX owner Ellen Sebastian Chang began her career as a lighting designer and technician. Her directorial work is highly influenced by a love of light and shadow. Sebastian Chang was the cofounder and artistic director of LIFE ON THE WATER, an internationally-known presenting and producing organization at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center from 1986 through 1995. She recently acted as consulting producer for the 2013 HBO production Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley. She has directed and collaborated with hip-hop artists (Aya de Leon’s Thieves in the Temple: The Reclaiming of Hip-Hop ; Dan Wolf, Keith Pinto, Tommy Shepard and One Ring Zero’s Stateless: A Hip-Hop Vaudeville ); and staged large scale music drama (Gamelan Sekar Jaya’s Kali Yuga; Kitka’s The Rusalka Cycle; Philip Glass/Oakland Opera Theater’s Ahknahten) and dance (Amara Tabor Smith/Deep Waters Dance Theater’s Our Daily Bread ; Monique Jenkinson aka Fauxnique’s Luxury Items ) as well as ensemble theater productions (Lynne Nottage’s Fabulation or The Re-education of Undine ; Elsa Davis’ Bulrusher ). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SELMA: MLK Comes Alive
by Connie Field
In Selma , the story of the campaign to bring voting rights to Blacks in America’s segregated South is wonderfully captured by focusing primarily on a brief slice of that history: the historic marches in Selma, Alabama in the spring of 1965, with Martin Luther King, Jr. as the film’s central character, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as the immediate goal. Today, that Voting Rights Bill has been gutted by our current Supreme Court; African-American disenfranchisement is increasing through many nefarious means; and in the wake of numerous murders of young Black men by police or self-selected vigilantes we are in the midst of a potentially new movement: #blacklivesmatter. It is in this context that this film will be received, and it could not have been more timely.
I’ve seen the film twice, and it riveted my attention both times. Central to its power is David Oyelowo’s portrayal of King. I can think of no harder role to play than that of an international icon whose voice is still being heard on our radios and in our classrooms and who continues to mean so much to so many people. In contrast to several less successful portrayals of Nelson Mandela (whose story is very close to me after having directed the documentary series Have You Heard From Johannesburg? , on the global anti-apartheid movement), Oyelowo does a brilliant job portraying King with all his faults and strengths. It is the caliber of this performance that gives this film so much gravity. In addition, it is with real grace that the film presents the marital conflicts between MLK and Coretta Scott King over his infidelities. The director and scriptwriter also do a formidable job capturing the essence of King’s words—words that they were forced to create, because the King Estate did not give them permission to use any of his speeches. However, this actually works in the film’s favor, making his speeches fresh and immediate.
As central and important as Oyelowo’s King is to Selma , the film accurately sets his role as part of a movement, situating him in relationship to the other famous players who were part of his inner circle. This is not just the story of “the great man,” but of King as a fellow activist among the many who were fighting to gain their rights. As someone who knows this history and is familiar with all the characters, I was pleasantly surprised at how well they all came across. I could actually identify them when they first appeared on the screen: there is Andy Young, Bayard Rustin, Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis. In many other historical films, brief supporting characters often appear like cardboard backdrops in roles so minimal that one cannot feel their presence or influence. The only ones who did not have a “ring of truth” for me were James Foreman and Jim Bevel; Foreman because, to my taste, he was miscast, and Bevel because the character did not project his importance.
Some have criticized the film for patronizing SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], but I did not feel that it did. According to historian Josh Zeitz’s Politico piece “How Selma Diminishes Dr. King”: “Early in the film, SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] staff members James Bevel and Diane Nash warn King that he will face sharp opposition from SNCC activists who had been on the ground for over two years. The script would have you believe that these three adults considered the kids a well-meaning nuisance—teenaged hotheads who were committed to the cause but lacking in political savvy. The scene is almost as patronizing as the fatherly dressing-down that King delivers to SNCC’s national chairman John Lewis several frames later.”
Personally, I did not experience the quoted comment by Bevel and Nash as condescending—I received it as just an announcement that there would be conflict coming from SNCC. Incidentally, the person who stops by King’s room at night to tell him that there will be problems with “the kids” is Ralph Abernathy, who was a good 15 years older than John Lewis—a very big age difference. SCLC members were the elders of this movement while SNCC workers came out of the colleges and, when one is young and in the middle of a rapidly changing and growing movement, even a five-year difference feels like a generation.
The inclusion of tensions between King’s SCLC and John Lewis’s SNCC is important. Among other things, it reveals to the audience that King was not considered “god” by all activists in the civil rights movement—an important point to make to those who idolize King today. Nevertheless, the film could have gone deeper into the conflict—and James Foreman could have been given a few more lines—without affecting the dramatic flow. SNCC was focused on community organizing with the objective of empowering the Black community as actors who could shape their future. On the other hand, SCLC’s focus was on changing federal legislation, through nonviolent public confrontations with local authorities that would put the issue squarely on the front pages of major newspapers and, therefore, affect what the federal government would do. Many in SNCC felt that this was self-serving on the part of King and SCLC, and that the confrontations with local authorities would only endanger the Black community while failing to build a self-sustaining grassroots movement.
But the most serious critiques of the film in the press target the film’s rendering of Lyndon B. Johnson. To those who view LBJ as the foremost government champion of civil rights, who worked together with King to achieve that goal, Selma ‘s portrayal of him as an adversary is a historical sacrilege. When I was working on the 1994 documentary Freedom on My Mind—the first film with a major focus on the voting rights campaign in Mississippi and Freedom Summer of 1964 (the wonderful Eyes on the Prize had a chapter on this story before we made our film)—I had to choose what story to tell, from whose perspective, and where the major conflict would be. I chose the main battle as that between SNCC and the federal government, rather than between SNCC and the white racist establishment of Mississippi. While, indeed, daily fights were waged in Mississippi to get Blacks registered to vote (much as they are waged in Selma ), the key conflict was to make the feds enact national laws that would uphold the principles of democracy. One of the key strategies at that time was the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) that included Black Mississippians, and to have them seated as the true representatives of Mississippi at the Democratic National Convention of 1964, instead of the all-white official delegation sent by the state. This was a direct ”Which side are you on?” challenge to Lyndon Johnson. Johnson’s response was to deny them that honor, but allow two delegates from their group to sit as members at large on the convention floor. Johnson desperately wanted to hold on to the “Democractic” South (a vestige of Civil War history waged under the Republican administration of Abraham Lincoln), while still being supportive of civil rights. But his refusal to seat the MFDP delegation had wide-reaching repercussions: young members of SNCC from all over the country witnessed firsthand the betrayal of democratic principles for political expediency. It was this fundamental alienation from the Democratic Party that built the generation known as the young activists of the 1960s–LBJ had betrayed them.
Based on this background knowledge, I take a different attitude to the portrayal of LBJ in Selma . Since the film needs to be a strong drama, King has to have a clear adversary. Johnson basically represents “the government’ within the battle to get the Voting Rights Act proposed and passed. Selma is not a documentary, and the rules that we have for creating our stories in that form do not apply in an ironclad way to dramas that have a license to “adjust” the facts in service of the power of the story. To create a story where Johnson and King were working together as a “team” in the struggle for civil rights, Selma would need to represent them as equal characters waging their battles in separate worlds—King on the ground in the segregated South, and Johnson in the halls of Congress. Such equal roles would have produced a very different film. By putting the central focus on King and the movement’s fight for voting rights, a different story is emphasized: one of people organizing and changing government policies, and of Black people being the agents of their own liberation. This is as true to history as a nuanced portrayal of the role of LBJ would be.
To be clear, I am not denying LBJ’s historical role in the struggle for civil rights. He was a consummate politician, and no one but Johnson could have gotten Congress to pass the two historic bills, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Indeed, he was an important player. Selma may have “gone too far” by depicting LBJ as wanting to stop the march in Selma, and therefore instructing Hoover to discredit King (which leads to the FBI sending Coretta Scott King a tape recording supposedly of King in a tryst with another woman). Hoover actually instigated many of these attacks on MLK on his own volition. But it is historically clear that LBJ was well aware of Hoover’s quest to destroy MLK and did not stop it.
Other details in the film also do not exactly mesh with the historical timeline: for example, the FBI tape was actually seen by Coretta Scott King in January, 1965 and not during the Selma march; and King missed the first march because he had a long-standing speaking commitment at the bequest of his father, not because he had to stay home and appease Coretta. However, such historical liberties heighten Selma ‘s drama and make the movie stronger.
All in all, director Ava DuVernay has made a powerful movie, one that—thanks in part to Oyelowo—sets the bar high for any future film dramas on King and on the Civil Rights Movement. Don’t miss it!
Emmy-winning and Academy Award-nominated director Connie Field has made a number of high-profile documentaries. She recently completed Al Helm: Martin Luther King in Palestine, winner of the Justice Matters Award at the DC Film Festival. Al Helm follows a National Theater of Palestine production of MLK scholar Clayborne Carson’s play Passage of Martin Luther King as it tours the West Bank. The Emmy-winning seven-part series Have You Heard From Johannesburg focuses on the global movement that ended Apartheid in South Africa.
The Academy Award-nominated Freedom on My Mind is a history of the civil rights movement in Mississippi; it won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, the Erik Barnouw Award of the Organization of American Historians, the John O’Connor Award of the American Historical Association, and the Distinguished Documentary Award of the International Documentary Association. She directed the feminist classic The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter, a history of working women during WWII, and ¡Salud!, on Cuba’s role in the struggle for global health equity, which won the Council on Foundations’ Henry Hampton Award. Her work has been broadcast in over 30 countries. She is the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim grant, as well as numerous grants from the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the MacArthur Foundation; and she is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She’s currently in production on My Lai , the creation of a contemporary opera (involving the Kronos Quartet) on Hugh Thompson, the soldier who discovered and exposed the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War; and on Welcome to Orbanistan , an expose of the “mini Putin” Viktor Orban and his mafia government in Hungary amidst growing protest that aims to topple him and bring back democracy. For more, go to www.clarityfilms.org.