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Ava DuVernay on The Daily Show

 

NPR: 'Selma' Backlash Misses the Point:

 

Selma reminds us to honor not just the heroic figure making speeches, but the collective will of so many who made progress possible. Ultimately, the beating heart of this film rests not with its portrait of LBJ, or even King, not with what group has been left out or ignored, but with the larger truth that the civil rights movement's heroic period reflected our collective strengths and weaknesses as a nation, something Americans are loathe to recognize let alone acknowledge. Selma's greatest gift is that, even when it reimagines some moments of history, it remains unflinching in its examination of America's racial soul.
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Now this is interesting. Oyelowo says in the TIFF interview that the movie was, originally, centered on LBJ:

 

 

DuVernay apparently did a major rewrite on Paul Webb's original script, but because of a clause in Webb's contract, he was credited as the sole writer.

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Saw this again b/c Cindy wanted to see this and so did some friends, including a history prof. at my institution.(FWIW, she thought the criticism of the way the film portrays LBJ was valid.)

 

Pretty much confirmed in my opinion that the LBJ thing is a legit. mark against the film but not a disqualifying one. (It was in my Top 10, but wouldn't be my choice for Oscar winner.) One of my party said she thought the film a bit too expository, and I could see that. Also comparisons were made to Lincoln, which we thought did a better job of showing the political machinations of crafting the legislation. (Selma seems to imply that LBJ could have sent the legislation whenever he wanted and could unilaterally ensure its passage, therefor his inaction comes across much, much more as a *sin* of omission than as any kind of political/pragmatic weighing.)

 

It might bear repeating (or stating) that the film nowhere actually comes out and *says* LBJ ordered the use of the wiretaps to try to destroy the marriage. That's the plain implication. (First scene he is against it, after getting mad he says "Get me Hoover on the phone" and next cut is to Corretta listening to tapes. And she seems to believe the tape she is listening to is phony ["I know what you sound like" so it might be interred that it is *not* the FBI tapes.) But it does remain as an inference--and it does seem to me there is at least the possibility that one could say political underlings do things there bosses are trying to forbid.  Aside from that one plot point, Wilkinson's performance does have a little bit more of white condescension. We see him talking down to MLK about the poverty thing and saying things like "I won't have it!" when protesters sit down in White House. The transition to the legislation speech ("I won't let history put me on the same side as the likes of you") does also strongly imply that LBJ is doing it out of pique/compulsion and that he wasn't a willing ally to the cause. (That is to say, the scene Hornaday gives most emphasis to is there but the interpretation she draws--that he is a politician trying to balance 101 problems and isn't necessarily *against* offering the legislation) is not one that the film as a whole really supports, in my opinion.)

 

The question Steven asked me on FB was whether or not I thought the films portrayal of LBJ was "defensible." The narrow/technical answer to that question is "yes." But I also continue to think the portrayal of LBJ is a legitimate criticism to make of the film. It is not, for me, a disqualifying one, but I do think if you borrow the cultural cachet of historical events than you do open yourself up to a higher (lower?) threshold of criticism for inaccuracies. And yes, Peter is correct, I did say that Andrew Young's testimony carries a lot of weight with me--though not necessarily b/c he was there (lot of people were there who might still have their own agenda, but also b/c I don't see how/why Andrew Young or his interests would be advanced by that criticism--they may actually be hurt some--so I'm a bit more likely to see his comments as being motivated by a generic concern for the truth. (Though I'm, as always, open to other evidence about his motives.)

So overall, I'm in the "this is very good" category, but I wasn't quite as rapturous as some of my colleagues.
 

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Saw this with my wife last night, and we both agreed that this is in the "good movie with some great scenes" category.  Like others have said, I found the use of slo-mo distracting and lacking in art.  I also found DuVernay's direction often more of a liability than an asset - besides the slo-mo, most notably in the scene of dialogue in which we're oddly left staring at the backs of the speakers' heads as they talk.  Some of the overly-talky scenes dragged the film down, too.  And surely I'm not the only one who waits for a crash when dialogue occurs in an automobile, and the driver (MLK, in this case) spends so much time NOT looking at the road?  Also, so many of the characters here are ciphers - we know no more about them than they're black or white folks who are fighting for equality.

 

That being said, there are scenes of great power here:  the funeral at which MLK preaches, the scene in the morgue, the non-slo-mo scenes of violence, the marches across the bridge are all unquestionably powerful stuff.

 

I can also appreciate why this film would appeal so strongly to Christians.  In an era of homophobia and the nastiness of the Religious Right, it's refreshing to see a mass of clergy gathering for a cause on the right side of history.  I hope it inspires many; it certainly challenged my silence on contemporary U.S. race issues (and of course, ugly racism remains alive and well in my portion of the American South, not to mention among the NYPD).

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
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My take on the LBJ characterization. I'll grant there there is legitimacy to the complaints. After I posted above my thought that I'd really like a way to have "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" made into film, it occured to me that in large part, that is the role LBJ plays in the film. He is the one giving voice to the idea of waiting and dealing with other issues first. Now that may not be historically accurate, but it does bring in a key part of the struggle for voting rights. Historically "Letter" was a response to white clergy. The film prefers to keep clergy on the "good" side, so LBJ gets to be the bad guy.

A foreign movie can't be stupid.

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I also found DuVernay's direction often more of a liability than an asset - besides the slo-mo, most notably in the scene of dialogue in which we're oddly left staring at the backs of the speakers' heads as they talk.  Some of the overly-talky scenes dragged the film down, too.

Man, I couldn't disagree more. On the contrary, this essay on "Selma and the Act of Listening" highlights the way the film captures the sense of a national dialogue in the act of unfolding, in which the players don't know in advance what others will say: 

 

"Selma" both is and isn't the kind of historical drama favored by Oscar voters, and the differences are key to why it doesn't seem as ossified or safe as "The Imitation Game" or "The Theory of Everything," this year's biopics-by-numbers. Where those films treat Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking as Noble Figures Meant to Do Great Things™, "Selma" always feels in the moment, and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s doubts and troubles never feel like preordained script beats. That's because DuVernay and her cast foreground something that's rarely a part of the biopic game: historical figures listening rather than speaking.

 

Early in the film, King (David Oyelowo) meets with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to discuss the need to push the Voting Rights Act to the top of his agenda. As Johnson talks about the hundreds of different issues on his plate, DuVernay and cinematographer Bradford Young focus on King, leaning in and listening to Johnson, and, notably, pausing before speaking. King has to weigh the information Johnson is giving him to know how to proceed with what he needs to tell him. It's a simple bit of directing from DuVernay and acting from Oyelowo, but it's crucial to "Selma's" success. Instead of marching into the room with a flowery speech about human rights, King is shown as a man who has to think diplomatically. This shows him not only as a shrewd political negotiator, but as a man rather than the righteously embalmed figure that the near-universally respected King could have been (for an example of that, see last year's "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom").

 

This isn't the last time the act of listening is highlighted in "Selma." When one of the members of King's march is killed, he meets with the dead man's father, and DuVernay gives enough time to both men taking in what the other is saying in order to show the sincere connection he has with his followers. A mid-film scene shows King confronted by his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) after allegations of his extramarital affairs catch up with him. Both actors are shown listening to each other, Coretta to King's apologies, King to Coretta's frustrations, and it has the effect of fleshing out their marriage, making it feel like a living and breathing thing. It also gives the scene a greater impact, showing King as a flawed man without diminishing his accomplishments, which makes it feel like an essential part of the story rather than a moment that DuVernay feels compelled to get out of the way quickly.

 

Furthermore, King isn't the only major historical figure who's constantly shown weighing information in the film. In that first scene between King and Johnson, the latter comes into the room with a pre-prepared spiel about how the drive for voting rights is going to have to wait. It's when King objects and says that it can't wait that Johnson shifts, and DuVernay lets Wilkinson show that quick shift from LBJ's diplomatic side to his more hard-edged one as Johnson quickly realizes that he can't just buy off King with a dream deferred. Wilkinson gets an even better moment late in the film when he meets with Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) for a similar political meeting. At the meeting's outset, he plays the diplomat, trying to convince Wallace to just let King have what he wants. DuVernay cuts to Roth, and he is, notably, not fully listening, giving Johnson a line of prepared bullshit. When she cuts back to Wilkinson, there's another brief pause of Wilkinson taking it in and shifting to his more aggressive side, asking, "Are you trying to shit me?" It's a brilliant bit of acting on top of being a moment that makes one want to cheer for Johnson in the theater, as he's finally becoming the kind of president that King and his supporters want and need him to be.

The act of listening is a seriously undervalued part of film. Too often we remember the big speeches or monologues without remembering the moments in between — or, worse, we recall bad examples of cutaways to inspired faces at moments where a director doesn't trust the audience to be inspired by themselves.

Edited by SDG

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

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My take on the LBJ characterization. I'll grant there there is legitimacy to the complaints.

 

Another defense of the film's characterization of LBJ: Why Selma's Critics Are Wrong About Civil Rights History

 

[The critics] attacking Selma do far more to distort the reality of King's relationship with Johnson than the fictional film does.

Take the idea that Johnson was never less than an enthusiastic partner of King in pushing for voting rights. Cultural historian Louis Menand described their actual relationship as a complex one, rooted in a Cold War context:

 

No elected official relishes having to deal with a charismatic popular leader; the usual forms of leverage are not effective. [John] Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson did not especially like dealing with King. But they needed him, because they needed a hero whose vision the democratic system could realize. The triumphalist narrative demanded it.

 

Menand's account of LBJ and MLK's conflicting priorities will sound familiar to anyone who has seen the film—and jarring to anyone who took Updegrove and Califano's op-eds at face value:

 

Johnson recognized the need for additional voting-rights legislation, and he directed Nicholas Katzenbach, soon to be his attorney general, to draft it. “I want you to write me the goddamnest toughest voting rights act that you can devise,” is the way he put it. But then progress slowed. Johnson had the most ambitious legislative agenda of any President since F.D.R. (his idol), and he explained to King that he was worried that Southern opposition to more civil-rights legislation would drain support from the War on Poverty and hold up bills on Medicare, immigration reform, and aid to education. He asked King to wait.

King thought that if you waited for the right time for direct action (as nonviolent protests were called) you would never act.

Nor are the sometimes bitter tactical divisions an invention of the filmmakers. Here's an account by Bruce Hartford in The Selma Voting Rights Struggle & March to Montgomery, which notes that the attempt to lead a voting-rights march from Selma to the capital in Montgomery was happening at the same time Johnson was first sending ground troops to Vietnam:

 

Behind the scenes, President Johnson pressures Dr. King to cancel the Tuesday march. … But … news stories and images of Marines wading ashore to “defend democracy” in Vietnam clash with images of real-life American democracy in action on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Johnson is furious, and he wants no risk of any repeat violence on Tuesday that might compete with his public relations strategy, or continue to give the lie to his “freedom” rhetoric.

 

If Johnson was actually the architect of the Selma strategy, as Califano asserts, you might wonder why civil rights activists were staging sit-ins at the Justice Department and the White House to protest the Johnson administration's failure to protect marchers. These sit-ins were not invented by the filmmakers, nor was the anger LBJ expressed in response to them. Here's Johnson afterwards telling his aide Bill Moyers what should be said to King—not from the movie script, but from a tape made by the White House recording system:

 

I would take a much tougher line than we're going to with him. I think that it's absolutely disgraceful that they would get in the Justice Department building and have to be hauled out of there. And I don't care if we never serve another hour. They're going to respect the law while they do. He better get to behaving himself or all of them are going to be put in jail…. I think that we really ought to be firm on it myself. I just think it's outrageous what's on TV. I've been watching it here, and looks like that man's in charge of the country and taking it over. I just don't think we can afford to have that kind of character running. And I'd remind him what he had said and take a very firm line with him.

 

Threatening to throw Martin Luther King in jail—that's rather “contentious,” wouldn't you say? The words of someone who is “at odds” with King?

The part of the film that seems to have most riled Johnson's defenders is the film's suggestion—not directly stated, but implied—that Johnson authorized FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to use secret tape recordings of sexual encounters against the civil rights leader. Cohen calls it a “profoundly ugly moment” that “a bevy of historians say … never happened.”

What about Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Nick Kotz, who wrote Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws that Changed America? There he quotes from a memo written to Hoover by one of his top aides, Cartha DeLoach, who had just delivered a summary of a particularly incriminating tape to Johnson's chief assistant, Walter Jenkins. DeLoach said Jenkins told him he would pass on the material to the president, adding, “Jenkins was of the opinion that the FBI could perform a good service to the country if this matter could somehow be confidentially given to members of the press.”

The thing about the attacks on the film Selma is that they not only distort the actual relationship between King and Johnson, they distort the film's portrayal of the relationship. LBJ is not the villain of the movie; the movie presents him as a complicated figure who under prodding accomplishes something great…

Johnson is the character most clearly intended for white audience members to identify with; no doubt like many of them, he starts out admiring King but not really understanding him, and over the course of the film he comes to realize on an emotional level why King says he cannot wait for political justice. In other words, he's a white man who has something to learn from a black man. Fifty years after the events portrayed in Selma, that's still evidently something some people don't want to see.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

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So... no reckoning with Andrew Young's opinion on the film's portrayal of LBJ, then?

 

And that bit about Jenkins is stretching things, to say the least. Well of *course* Hoover's assistant would tell him what he thinks Hoover wants to hear Jenkins say, and of *course* Jenkins might have said things in a way that Hoover's assistant could have spun that way, but neither of these things take us any closer to knowing what Johnson himself would have said or done.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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So... no reckoning with Andrew Young's opinion on the film's portrayal of LBJ, then?

I see where Andrew Young's opinion has been alluded to in earlier comments, but not where it has been set forth as such. Has Young had more to say about the portrayal of LBJ than this? Nothing here strikes me as a particularly damning bit of behind-the-scenes insight on Young's part. 

 

And that bit about Jenkins is stretching things, to say the least. Well of *course* Hoover's assistant would tell him what he thinks Hoover wants to hear Jenkins say, and of *course* Jenkins might have said things in a way that Hoover's assistant could have spun that way, but neither of these things take us any closer to knowing what Johnson himself would have said or done.

 

It's not dispositive, certainly, but if Johnson's chief advisor said what Johnson's chief advisor is alleged to have said, it might be a little too strong to say it doesn't "take us any closer" to knowing what Johnson would have said or done.

 

At any rate, what Johnson did or didn't sign off on concerning the MLK sex tapes (which we're told he did listen to) is open to interpretation, both as regards history and as regards the film. We don't have any clear evidence that Johnson didn't authorize the release of the tapes in fact, nor is it entirely clear in the film that he does.

 

At the end of the day, it strikes me as a legitimate point of criticism, but not a big deal. 

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

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This is a powerful film.  It is playing almost everywhere now so those of you who have now seen it yet should, especially if you're one of those who makes Top 10 lists for the year.

 

One of the most powerful parts of the film for me was how it showed King worrying, rethinking his decisions, unsure whether he was making the right decisions and desperately trying to balance his tactical and calculated political moves with the human costs that they were increasingly seeming to require.  And yet, as human and as unsure of himself as he is, he can walk into a room of civil rights activists arguing with each other, silence them, and suddenly give them both inspiration and direction.  The film does an incredible job at showing how articulate King was.  His ability to articulate what mattered, what specific goals could be accomplished, what specific reforms they could ask for within the law (and the ironclad reasoning with which he would back up what he asked for) was impressive, increasingly so in a modern world where we now seem to lack such leaders.

 

Today we still have protests and people wanting to stand up against injustice.  The injustice is there.  They see it.  They want to stop it.  But we are seeing more and more examples of when such protestors are asked what they want, they cannot explain themselves - they cannot even begin to articulate specific or practical measures that could achieve justice over injustice.  It makes King's charisma and intelligence in this film seem like a Godsend.  He is able to explain what is needed clearly and he is able to appeal to the moral sense of anyone who will listen.  How valuable he was and how much we need more leaders like him today.  If only the occupy movement or the scattered protests after the events in Ferguson could have had an articulate leader like King.  (They could have even focused their demands on the very same legislation, currently being dismantled, that King asked for!)

 

I can also repeat what has already been said earlier in this thread.  If there is such a thing as a "Christian film," Selma is it.  It is a story of faith and Christianity practically applied to the real world.  And it is a story told with the highest caliber of direction, acting, writing and power.  It may not be perfect, but it does not stereotype or exaggerate any villains.  It does not unduly propagandize for one side against another.  Instead, it shows how some believers and ministers decided to sacrifice for others because of what they believed.  And it does so with reverence and graciousness.  Johnson comes out of this film looking just fine, as far as politicians go.  Wallace (who was something of an exaggerated stereotypical character in real life and is played by an actor who has hammed up villains in the past) comes out of this film looking sad and human.

 

King comes out of the film looking like a fallible leader with the power to inspire great things in others around him.  I'm thankful this film exists.

 

Edited to add: (On a little side tangent, if anyone still thinks there is something "cool" or honorable about the Confederate flag, this is a film that can help disillusion them.  A flag is, by definition, a symbol.  It is used as a symbol in this film because it was used as a symbol during the Civil Rights movement.  What it symbolized is not something anyone should ever want to associate himself or herself with.  Arguing that it symbolizes something different for you and your ancestors personally than what it symbolized to everyone else is history is nonsense.  The Confederate flag has always symbolized some very specific principles from the very beginning, and it kept symbolizing those things even in the 1960s, and it still symbolizes them now.)

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Today we still have protests and people wanting to stand up against injustice.  The injustice is there.  They see it.  They want to stop it.  But we are seeing more and more examples of when such protestors are asked what they want, they cannot explain themselves - they cannot even begin to articulate specific or practical measures that could achieve justice over injustice.  It makes King's charisma and intelligence in this film seem like a Godsend.  He is able to explain what is needed clearly and he is able to appeal to the moral sense of anyone who will listen.  How valuable he was and how much we need more leaders like him today.  If only the occupy movement or the scattered protests after the events in Ferguson could have had an articulate leader like King.  (They could have even focused their demands on the very same legislation, currently being dismantled, that King asked for!)

 

Everything you said, but I want to especially single this bit out. I'm suspicious of the "Great Men" view of history, but if ever there was a great man, King's in the running and for precisely the reasons you point out here. The tremendous melancholy of the film's latter half owes to the fact that these sorts of injustices--not this scale, everywhere, but this sort--are still very much with us. There was a time when leftists, particularly, looked back to a "brief shining moment" that was Camelot, but for my money this is the brief, shining moment--a time when people came together to fight an injustice that was so blatant that it demanded to be addressed. Here's a moment where people come together and manage to enact change--and the tragedy of Selma is that the change came to be seen as "good enough." 

 

--which was, of course, precisely what King himself saw in Where Do We Go from Here?

 

Edited to add: (On a little side tangent, if anyone still thinks there is something "cool" or honorable about the Confederate flag, this is a film that can help disillusion them.  A flag is, by definition, a symbol.  It is used as a symbol in this film because it was used as a symbol during the Civil Rights movement.  What it symbolized is not something anyone should ever want to associate himself or herself with.  Arguing that it symbolizes something different for you and your ancestors personally than what it symbolized to everyone else is history is nonsense.  The Confederate flag has always symbolized some very specific principles from the very beginning, and it kept symbolizing those things even in the 1960s, and it still symbolizes them now.)

 

 

A-yup.

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Just got back from seeing it. And now I'm even *more* mystified by the fuss people have kicked up on this film's behalf.

 

12 Years a Slave, to cite last year's Best Picture-nominated, Brad Pitt-produced movie about African-American history, was a work of art. This... is not. Nowhere near that other film's league, at any rate. It's an okay docudrama, and it has a lot of good points (the strong religious elements, its portrayal of how MLK was able to "articulate" things as J.A.A. noted above, etc.), but I'm frankly surprised it got as many Oscar nominations as it did.

 

The film's characterization of LBJ didn't even make sense to me on *its own* terms -- LBJ wants MLK to lead the civil rights movement, so he... undermines him? -- and now that I've seen the infamous edit, i.e. the one that clearly implies LBJ was complicit in J. Edgar Hoover's efforts to undermine the King marriage, I find it almost laughable that Ann Hornaday tried to explain it away as an unfortunate thing that only *accidentally* seemed to imply such complicity because there was no other way for the filmmakers to take the story from one location to the other.

 

The film's casting of LBJ as a consistent antagonist -- until it needs him to change his mind in the final reel -- is just one of the movie's weaknesses. The whole thing felt "small" to me. The Oval Office and MLK's apartment felt like movie sets, not real places. And the fact that many of the major characters are played by essentially unknown actors just creates weird take-you-out-of-the-movie moments when, say, the movie suddenly cuts to never-before-seen characters played by Cuba Gooding Jr and Martin Sheen having a conversation.

 

Knowing that the filmmakers had to invent all of MLK's speeches because they didn't have the rights to the real ones does make you wonder to what extent they're imposing their own ideas on MLK. It was also distracting how the final speech coincides with a bunch of title cards telling us what happened to half-a-dozen characters or so; I, at least, could only take in one source of verbal information at a time.

 

I'm also surprised that the film's theme song won the Golden Globe and is considered a frontrunner for the Oscar. And not just because one of the first things it mentions is Ferguson, which is so *not* what MLK was about, at least not the MLK presented in this film.

 

Oh, weird. I'm watching The Daily Show as I type this, and they've got a segment in which they just showed the Alabama state legislature, which is where Selma ends. And no, the segment isn't about Selma.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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SDG wrote:

: Has Young had more to say about the portrayal of LBJ than this?

 

Possibly not. But I was thinking of this bit: "King ally and confidante Andrew Young, in a three-way phone conversation with himself, Tumulty and Selma director Ava DuVernay, 'lavished praise' on Selma but said its 'depiction of the interaction between King and Johnson "was the only thing I would question in the movie…everything else, they got 100 percent right."'"

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Just got back from seeing it. And now I'm even *more* mystified by the fuss people have kicked up on this film's behalf.

 

12 Years a Slave, to cite last year's Best Picture-nominated, Brad Pitt-produced movie about African-American history, was a work of art. This... is not. Nowhere near that other film's league, at any rate.

 

FWIW, a lot of smart critics who dished up 100s at Metacritic and/or who put it on their top 10s (A.O. Scott, Stephanie Zacharek, Owen Gleiberman, Tasha Robinson) strongly disagree, obviously, and I'm with them. 

 

12 Years a Slave is an artier film, certainly; in fact that was one of the criticisms against 12 Years, that it was too arty, too in love with its own aesthetic, subliming the ugliness of slavery into the unreasonable beauty of its mise-en-scène.

 

Selma's accomplishment is quieter and less showy, but it has a great virtue that many (most?) historical dramas don't: It creates a sense of history unfolding in the present tense; of a political and cultural climate as complex and undetermined as the world we live in; of characters who share a common goal but have understandable differences in opinion about how to get there, and other characters who have different goals but are not movie villains. 

 

It offers an iconic protagonist whose way forward is not always clear, who must sometimes make it up as he goes, guessing and wondering if he's guessing right. It makes LBJ's frustrations understandable, and even George Wallace's glib defense of the racist status quo sounds entirely plausible, not an evil speech in the mouth of a villain. 

 

To a greater extent than many historical dramas, it nuances the Great Man narrative, emphasizing the contributions of many and indeed the baggage that the Great Man brings with him. The MLK Way is not the only way; not only is there also the Malcolm X way, even the nonviolent SNCC activists aren't automatically on the same page as Dr. King. It's also worth noting that, being directed (and significantly written, screenwriting credits issues aside) by a woman, it gives a female perspective that many historical films don't. 

 

The early scene with Annie Lee Cooper trying to register to vote is a brilliant exercise in oblique, economical storytelling that is typical of the movie's method. Before she even speaks a word we understand that that Cooper is proud, uneducated, terrified, trying desperately to maintain her dignity. She has made a number of attempts already — her practiced responses to the initial questions may well have been looked up and memorized after prior humiliations — and she doesn't know from the outset that the clerk will just keep asking harder questions until she fails again. Yet the clerk can't simply throw out; he has to find an excuse. 

 

And that scene not only tells us who Cooper is (so when she socks Jim Clark we have some idea where that's coming from), it dramatizes for us what's happening throughout Alabama and throughout the South. When LBJ opens his mouth in the Oval Office and starts to say "Technically…" we understand exactly what he's going to say, and exactly why it's bullshit. 

 

And the scene in the church with the four little girls, the way the incidental dialogue about Coretta King's hair lulls you into complacency and the explosion catches you even if you were braced for it, oh my God. The same goes for the deaths of Jimmie Lee Jackson and James Reeb: There's nothing inevitable about them; Reeb is relaxed and thoughtful moments before the attack begins, and nothing about the scene says "A man is about to die." 

 

Among many clever storytelling touches, the use of FBI surveillance logs to double as scene-setting titles is a shrewd one, obliquely ratcheting the tension and conveying a sense of ubiquitous unease while also conveying information in a way that normally involves an authorial intrusion. 

 

And Oyelowo gives the year's best performance, dammit.

Edited by SDG

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

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And Oyelowo gives the year's best performance, dammit.

 

Let me gingerly inch out onto a cold, barren limb here and register a contrarian opinion on this point. I love MLK, and have listened to as many of his recorded speeches as I could find, and I couldn't help but feel that Oyelowo, while poised and graceful and meticulous in terms of physicality, barely taps the vast reserves of personal charisma that King was known to have possessed.

There's a sparkling brilliance and daemonic energy in those original orations (and King was a great writer as well as speaker) that's crucially lacking in Selma. Perhaps it's the weight of glory, or the premonition of his own impending death, but Oyelowo's MLK moves as if enshrouded in a fog: solemn, morose, and even dismal at times. Two of my favorite scenes deviate from this in interesting ways: the sweetly intimate bedroom scene with Coretta at the beginning, and the one where he and his fellow agitators congregate and break bread together, laughing and joking like old friends. I also love how the film shows King's wiliness in staging the protests, like a general deploying his troops. Perhaps it's that the film, being a historical recreation of an event rather than a sweeping biopic, can only demonstrate a small fraction of what King was able to do oratorically, and why so many people loved and followed him in the first place. When we finally do get a speech at the end, compromised as it is in terms of accuracy, it gives us a glimpse of this magnetism, but then the movie is over. 

 

But I'd encourage everyone to look at some more footage of the real life MLK. He had that amazing ability among preachers to reach you where you lived and lift you up to heaven by degrees--a gift that Oyelowo, refined and elegant though he is, only hints at.

That still doesn't explain the lack of a nomination. I figured he was a shoo-in!

Edited by Nathaniel

"A great film is one that to some degree frees the viewer from this passive stupor and engages him or her in a creative process of viewing. The dynamic must be two-way. The great film not only comes at the viewer, it draws the viewer toward it." -Paul Schrader

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And Oyelowo gives the year's best performance, dammit.

 

Let me gingerly inch out onto a cold, barren limb here and register a contrarian opinion on this point. I love MLK, and have listened to as many of his recorded speeches as I could find, and I couldn't help but feel that Oyelowo, while poised and graceful and meticulous in terms of physicality, barely taps the vast reserves of personal charisma that King was known to have possessed.

Why be ginger about this? The film's partisans can wail about this all they like, and it won't change the obviously widely shared opinion that the performance, which is fine given the restrictions they had to work with, doesn't quite rise to the level of "best of the year," much less assure the top ranking!

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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FWIW, I agree with SDG. 12 Years a Slave leans "artsy," and Selma feels like every decision is purposeful, proportionate, nuanced, and yet characterized by restraint. And I don't rate Oyelowo's performance by how much he can mimic MLK; I rate it based on how persuasively human and complex his character becomes through performance rather than through suffering beatings that produce easy sympathy.

Edited by Overstreet

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It's not a question of mimicry. In fact, Oyelowo is quite diligent in his recreation of King's gestures and intonations. (Wonderful how he hangs on to the last syllable of "president" when addressing Johnson.) I take issue with the performance only because I believe it affects the rest of the film, which is similarly accomplished but also somewhat lacking in vitality. 

Edited by Nathaniel

"A great film is one that to some degree frees the viewer from this passive stupor and engages him or her in a creative process of viewing. The dynamic must be two-way. The great film not only comes at the viewer, it draws the viewer toward it." -Paul Schrader

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Selma's accomplishment is quieter and less showy, but it has a great virtue that many (most?) historical dramas don't: It creates a sense of history unfolding in the present tense; of a political and cultural climate as complex and undetermined as the world we live in; of characters who share a common goal but have understandable differences in opinion about how to get there, and other characters who have different goals but are not movie villains. 

 

It offers an iconic protagonist whose way forward is not always clear, who must sometimes make it up as he goes, guessing and wondering if he's guessing right. It makes LBJ's frustrations understandable, and even George Wallace's glib defense of the racist status quo sounds entirely plausible, not an evil speech in the mouth of a villain.

I'd also add how hard it is to do this successfully. The temptation to insert premonitions and foreshadowings, winks to the audience that they know what's coming, or obvious stacking of the deck, is apparently a great temptation. Did Bernstein and Woodward ever have to wrestle with any moral complexities in All the President's Men? In Good Night, and Good Luck, the film's so convinced of McCarthy's evil and apparent power to bully the news, that you never see the heroes in doubt. Remember all of Apollo 13's foreshadowings (car stalls, son asks questions about what can go wrong, focus on the unlucky number 13, wife loses wedding ring down the drain, etc.)? Frost/Nixon has so many tells of Nixon's impending psychological collapse that instead of wondering what Frost should do, you begin wondering why Frost is still so worried and intimidated (by the time Nixon is drunk dialing him).

I did think that Lincoln did another good job of ramping up the suspense towards an ending that was not in doubt, but that was what made Spielberg's film rare. Films that are able to do this remind us that things we think are obvious now were not so obvious before they were resolved.

Perhaps it's the weight of glory, or the premonition of his own impending death, but Oyelowo's MLK moves as if enshrouded in a fog ...

I could swear that he admits this in the letter he writes to his wife in the film. Just remember the figure they are working with. He can walk into a room of arguing activists, silence them and then inspire them. Yet he can also go against and temper the passion of the activists, limiting what they want and are enthusiastic for in order to try and protect them. Remember that almost any real film clip you find of MLK is part of the show he puts on in the face of the media. But if you read one of his biographies, you will read how concerned and troubled he was at the idea that he was sacrificing lives for his cause - that they were dying because of him. If Oyelowo plays King as "solemn" or "morose" or very troubled at times in private moments, that is why.
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Perhaps it's the weight of glory, or the premonition of his own impending death, but Oyelowo's MLK moves as if enshrouded in a fog ...

I could swear that he admits this in the letter he writes to his wife in the film. Just remember the figure they are working with. He can walk into a room of arguing activists, silence them and then inspire them. Yet he can also go against and temper the passion of the activists, limiting what they want and are enthusiastic for in order to try and protect them. Remember that almost any real film clip you find of MLK is part of the show he puts on in the face of the media. But if you read one of his biographies, you will read how concerned and troubled he was at the idea that he was sacrificing lives for his cause - that they were dying because of him. If Oyelowo plays King as "solemn" or "morose" or very troubled at times in private moments, that is why.

 

A great point, to which I'd add that Oyelowo is playing late-career MLK, after he has acquired much fame and swum for so long against the political tide. Hence, his fatigued countenance throughout much of the picture. My main point is that this very fatigue infects the rest of the films in ways that mute some of its power.

Edited by Nathaniel

"A great film is one that to some degree frees the viewer from this passive stupor and engages him or her in a creative process of viewing. The dynamic must be two-way. The great film not only comes at the viewer, it draws the viewer toward it." -Paul Schrader

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Perhaps it's the weight of glory, or the premonition of his own impending death, but Oyelowo's MLK moves as if enshrouded in a fog ...

I could swear that he admits this in the letter he writes to his wife in the film. 

 

That's actually the best part of Oyelowo's performance, imo. (Though overall I am with Christian that it's quite possible to like the performance and simply admire other performances more.)

But I think it actually works against the larger point about historical films that Jeremy is trying to make. Part of MLK's historical present was a foreshadowing of the future. ("A good a place to die as any"). Not in a pat historical after-the-fact kind of way, but pat of what moved me about the film was the courage of the principles to act in the face of what many assumed to be inevitabilities. Wendell Pierce talked about that some in his press comments. . 

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SDG wrote:
: Selma's accomplishment is quieter and less showy . . .

 

I think its handling of the four-little-girls episode at the very beginning was *quite* showy, actually: all those overlapping images of girls' legs etc. It just didn't have the chops that 12 Years did.

 

: . . . but it has a great virtue that many (most?) historical dramas don't: It creates a sense of history unfolding in the present tense . . .

 

Yes.

 

: . . . of a political and cultural climate as complex and undetermined as the world we live in . . .

 

Well, as noted before, its portrayal of LBJ is *not* as complex and undetermined as the historical LBJ seems to have been.

 

: It offers an iconic protagonist whose way forward is not always clear, who must sometimes make it up as he goes, guessing and wondering if he's guessing right.

 

There's an interesting parallel with the depiction of prayer in Noah, isn't there.

 

: The early scene with Annie Lee Cooper trying to register to vote is a brilliant exercise in oblique, economical storytelling that is typical of the movie's method.

 

Though even there, I couldn't tell whether the unconventional mix of camera angles (is Annie Lee Cooper looking to the left? is she looking to the right?) was meant to make an artistic statement or was just a clumsy form of artsiness. Or maybe it was just clumsy.

 

: And Oyelowo gives the year's best performance, dammit.

 

I honestly don't know what to make of the performance. I mean, Oyelowo doesn't particularly *look* like MLK, but that's casting, not acting. The "articulate" speech that J.A.A. referred to above can easily lapse into manneredness, but it's certainly possible MLK was that mannered even when he wasn't giving a speech. I certainly don't find it objectionable that five other guys got nominated for Best Actor, though; there were a lot of strong performances this year, and I'm a little leery of the Academy's tendency to reward mimicry of real-life media personalities anyway.

 

Nathaniel wrote:
: . . . Oyelowo's MLK moves as if enshrouded in a fog: solemn, morose, and even dismal at times. Two of my favorite scenes deviate from this in interesting ways: the sweetly intimate bedroom scene with Coretta at the beginning, and the one where he and his fellow agitators congregate and break bread together, laughing and joking like old friends.

 

Yes, well put. Although that opening bedroom scene is "solemn" in its own way too.

 

: . . . the film, which is similarly accomplished but also somewhat lacking in vitality.

 

Also well put.

 

J.A.A. Purves wrote:
: Remember all of Apollo 13's foreshadowings (car stalls, son asks questions about what can go wrong, focus on the unlucky number 13, wife loses wedding ring down the drain, etc.)?

 

The bit about the wedding ring, at least, is historically accurate, apparently. (So say the real-life Lovells in their audio commentary on the DVD. Which is a really interesting commentary, by the way: it was recorded roughly 30 years after the events in question, and Mrs Lovell still gets choked up when the movie reminds her of certain fears she had at the time, while Mr Lovell just kind of takes it all in stride.)

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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