Friday, January 9, 2015

Despite glitches, ‘Selma’ is powerful filmmaking

By Steve Crum
Selma is a powerful dramatization of events that occurred between white supremacists and voting rights African-Americans led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., among others, in 1965. Recreations of brutalities perpetrated by Selma, Alabama police and many of its citizens upon unarmed civil rights marchers and demonstrators are unsettling and brutally graphic. 
In the process of chronicling those transitional, too often grim days following The Civil Rights Act of 1964, director Ava DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb have Hollywoodized the story to the extent of depicting President Lyndon Johnson as an obstructionist to the African-American cause.  Nonetheless, Selma is compelling cinema. Opening with King’s 1964 acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, a tragic event in Birmingham, Alabama is then shown: the murder of four youngsters in a Sunday morning church bombing. (That terrorist act actually occurred in 1963.) 
Cut then to Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) as she attempts again to register to vote in the Selma courthouse. Once again, she is thwarted by ridiculous regulations like having to recite each of Alabama’s 67 county judges. Faced with a requirement not required for the white population, she leaves defeated and unable to vote. Jump to Dr. King (David Oyelowo in a superb performance) meeting with President John (Tom Wilkinson) at the White House. "We want the right to vote," King says to LBJ's noncommittal ears. "This administration will just have to set that (voting rights) aside," Johnson retorts. According to the film, LBJ later meets with FBI Director J. Edgar Hooever to nullify any voting agitation stirred by King and his followers. Wire tapping King in his bedroom is Hoover's method of choice.

As Alabama's Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) consults with his henchmen, as well as President Johnson, about how to physically deal with Dr. King, meticulously planned, peaceful protests resume. The culmination of that event was the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. incidentally, the movie was filmed in various George and Alabama locations, including the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the Bloody Sunday assault by Selma police actually occurred.
While Selma serves as a heartfelt tribute to the memory of Dr. King, it also documents events that shaped our nation.

Technically, DuVernay uses, maybe overuses, shadows in many closeups of King. Since Oyelowo is not an exact match for King, maybe this was a wise choice. 

Pluses extend to Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King and Bradford Young’s cinematography.

However, the minuses center on a couple of miscasts and a few historical flaws. Why Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth were cast as Southerners is a puzzlement, particularly since neither physically resemble their characters (LBJ and George Wallace). Neither do they exude the necessary fervor nor speak with believable accents. 
Frankly, knowing they are both British got in my way. OK, so Oyelowo is also British, but he is a virtual unknown. Of course his celebrity is now forever changed. 

Throughout the film, I was shocked to see LBJ portrayed as such a racist obstructionist to the Civil Rights Movement. Later I commented to a screening rep that I had no idea Johnson used the n-word when he was president (referencing King and his followers), that he pushed Hoover into wiretapping King, and that he repeatedly refused to compromise in regard to the Voting Rights Act. 
As it turns out, my suspicions were not entirely warranted since there are White House-taped conversations in which Johnson used such racist language. I was shocked to discover (and hear) such after seeing Selma. In order to paint a story picture of good versus evil, even President Johnson had to appear as one of the bad guys. 
Referring to the relationship between King and Johnson, Mark Updegrove, Director of the LBJ Presidential Library, recently said, “They were very much supportive of each other.” Rep. John Lewis, portrayed in Selma by Stephan James, agrees with Updegrove, but dismisses the criticism as “unfair.” Both he and DuVernay consider the Johnson depiction as nothing more than poetic license for the sake of an even better story. 

“I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie,” DuVernay boldly asserts. In other words, the devil with Lyndon Johnson.
With that skewed objective, she should have renamed the movie King
GRADE on A to F Scale: A-


  1. Did you see the same movie? In no way is LBJ depicted as a "racist"

  2. LBJ is not depicted as any more racist than any other White man in the time period. For a White man to use the N-word today is very racist, that is how progressive American thinking has become. What the movie shows is that LBJ had other priorities. He cared enough to meet with MLK and work with him from time to time, but was not passionate enough to do everything that he could or should have to help him. Eventually, he came around and that is his legacy.

  3. I saw LBJ as he was. I don't think he was depicted as racist and he didn't say the N-word. He said Negro which everyone used at a time. Half the time anyone said Negro with a twang or southern accent it can sound like the N-word but it wasn't. You are the only person suggesting this and I think you are just looking for something to complain about.

    1. Please re-watch and re-listen to the scene of LBJ speaking to Alabama's George Wallace in which LBJ clearly uses the n-word. When he said this, I took note (on paper), since I had never heard or read of Johnson using that word. Then or now, the use of that insulting word denotes racism.

  4. The place where LBJ used the N-word was in a private conversation with Wallace. I'm not the only person that heard it:

    Whether he may have used it in the movie or not doesn't detract from the fact that he was known to use the word and has even been noted to use the word from time to time in history.

    To be honest, it doesn't matter. Even Abraham Lincoln did not believe in the equality of Black people. Frederick Douglas eventually altered his opinion, as to how much nobody really knows. And, most liberal abolitionists in history were considered to be racists. However, they fundamentally disagreed with the concept of holding Black slaves captive against their will and denying basic human rights. Most did not feel Blacks should be their equal in society. History is not Black and White like the history textbooks of today may allude to... there are many shades of grey. What is important is the legacy that men in position's of power leave behind and how it shapes the future. That is what LBJ believed in, he did what was right so that's the important thing.