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I didn't mean to derail the discussion, or detract from my earlier comments, with my parting shot about Oyelowo's performance, which only meant to express my own opinion, not to tender an assertion about what the "assured" outcome of the Oscar race should have been. 
 
Let me recall that the assertion I was responding to, which is a much lower bar than "Who gave the best performance of 2014?", was that Selma "is not" a "work of art," at least not in the league of another film I deeply admired (which was also #2 on my top 10 from the previous year, in fact). 
 
My opinion that Oyelowo gave the year's best performance, and certainly a performance that a great many people have felt was unjustly deprived at least of an Oscar nomination, was intended primarily to support the overall achievement of the film as a significant work of art. 
 
I obviously agree, Ken, that it's possible to like the performance and admire other performances more. I admit I would look somewhat askance at someone who would single out Carell's performance in Foxcatcher as an example of such a performance. I like Carell's performance in Foxcatcher, but I take it for granted that if he weren't a well-known (and well-liked) comic actor stretching his dramatic skills in a new way (and wearing unflattering prosthetics), there is no way he would have been singled out for a nomination (and frankly I'm not sure his role even qualifies for leading actor). 
 
I have no quarrel, Nathaniel, with your assessment that Oyelowo only "hints" at King's "vast reserves of personal charisma." That hint is a sufficient part of an overall interpretation of King that I find deeply compelling and authentic. 
 
I agree with you about the power of Oyelowo's performance in the two scenes you call out (the opening scene in the hotel bedroom and breaking-bread scene), and to those I can easily add more. Take the somewhat fractious discussion with the SNCC representatives, where King brushes aside the debate ("None of us have time for this"), lays out the differences between the work that SNCC is doing ("fine grass-roots work") and King's approach ("What we do is negotiate, demonstrate, resist"), frankly admits the futility of their efforts in Albany ("We made lots of mistakes in Albany, but Laurie Pritchett didn't make any mistakes") and asks the SNCC what they think of Jim Clark: "Is he Laurie Pritchett or Bull Connor?") Oyelowo is brilliant in that scene: lucid, charismatic, collaborative but in charge. 

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

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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.

True, but that's pretty much the only such moment in the film. 12 Years was so arty throughout that its critics found it distracting (though I didn't).

 

: . . . 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.

I'm not sure anyone in a movie is ever as complex as anyone in real life! And I'm not judging the movie strictly by its verisimilitude to all the historical specifics. I'm saying the movie creates a sense of political and cultural climate as complex and undetermined as the world we live in — one that I think conveys with reasonable accuracy a sense of what it was actually like at the time — relative to the condition and requirements of cinematic historical fiction. 

 

: 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.

Nice observation!

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

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I obviously agree, Ken, that it's possible to like the performance and admire other performances more. I admit I would look somewhat askance at someone who would single out Carell's performance in Foxcatcher as an example of such a performance. I like Carell's performance in Foxcatcher, but I take it for granted that if he weren't a well-known (and well-liked) comic actor stretching his dramatic skills in a new way (and wearing unflattering prosthetics), there is no way he would have been singled out for a nomination (and frankly I'm not sure his role even qualifies for leading actor). 
 

I haven't watched the Oscars in years, but this brings up another one of my pet-peeves. 

Carrell gave a fine performance, but it was *not* the leading role in that movie. (Tatum was, albeit it a less flashy role.) Carrell gave the third best performance in his own movie--and I say that as someone who was more-or-less positive towards Foxcatcher.

 

Still, if the question is Oscar snubs, I liked Oyelowo's performance but his fans are going to have to get in line behind Oscar Isaac's and Brendan Gleeson's.

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Count me among those who think Oyelowo was robbed. While I think it's possible, though difficult, to find five performances better than his this year, I think he's easily better than at least four of the roles the academy did nominate. And for the record, I liked all of the nominated performances, I just liked Oleyowo more, even though my two favorite male leads this year were Ralph Fiennes and Brendan Gleeson.

 

On the other hand, I don't really have a problem with DuVernay not being nominated, other than that I think Selma should be a frontrunner for best picture and it would need a best director nomination to be a frontrunner. Her direction is very good, but I didn't care for her use of slo-mo and I don't think she integrated the J. Edgar Hoover scene into the story as well as it could have been. I loved the way she filmed the lead up to the march and how she integrated historical footage, but I could easily pick five directors who impressed me more than DuVernay, even if I think she did a better job than Bennet Miller and Morten Tyldum (and Linklater too, but that's another argument).

"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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SDG wrote:
: My opinion that Oyelowo gave the year's best performance, and certainly a performance that a great many people have felt was unjustly deprived at least of an Oscar nomination, was intended primarily to support the overall achievement of the film as a significant work of art.

 

I don't think the quality of Oyelowo's performance affects the question of the film's artistry or lack thereof one way or the other. I'm talking about the *writing* and *directing* choices that made the film what it is.

 

I agree about Steve Carell's Foxcatcher nomination, by the way; I can't understand why it was considered a "leading" performance either. He's not the main character, he's not the biggest star in the movie (I suspect Channing Tatum has had better success at the box office, at least among live-action films), etc. Admittedly, Tatum's character isn't present for the Big Scene in that movie, but still.

 

: Oyelowo is brilliant in that scene: lucid, charismatic, collaborative but in charge.

 

Well put. And yes, that *is* a great scene.

 

: True, but that's pretty much the only such moment in the film.

 

Perhaps, but you know what they say about first impressions. The film begins with a "small" scene of MLK and his wife in their hotel room. Then the Nobel ceremony. Then the four-girls scene and the weirdly artsy touches. Then, I think, the Annie Lee Cooper scene with the really weird mix of camera angles. And then the first Oval Office scene, which, like *all* the Oval Office scenes, feels small, like it was shot on a cheap movie set. (The fact that later Oval Office scenes feature LBJ waving his hand at the window and talking about "protestors" when we can't even *see* any protestors just makes those scenes feel all the smaller.) The film begins with several scenes with no obvious connection to one another (the bedroom scene and the Nobel ceremony are obviously linked and can be treated as a single unit, in that sense), and the recurring aesthetic sensibility is one of low-budget indie filmmaking -- which isn't what audiences expect from a movie about a pivotal moment in national history -- and peculiar aesthetic choices.

 

: I'm not sure anyone in a movie is ever as complex as anyone in real life!

 

Well, obviously, that's not what I was getting at. I was talking about the actual role that LBJ played in this particular slice of history, versus the role he plays in the film.

 

: And I'm not judging the movie strictly by its verisimilitude to all the historical specifics. I'm saying the movie creates a sense of political and cultural climate as complex and undetermined as the world we live in — one that I think conveys with reasonable accuracy a sense of what it was actually like at the time — relative to the condition and requirements of cinematic historical fiction.

 

Well, as noted, I didn't get that sense at all, and like I said, the film's characterization of LBJ didn't even make sense to me *on its own terms*. To repeat what I said earlier: LBJ says (to someone other than MLK) that he wants MLK to lead the civil rights movement, so he... undermines him? Huh?

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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: My opinion that Oyelowo gave the year's best performance, and certainly a performance that a great many people have felt was unjustly deprived at least of an Oscar nomination, was intended primarily to support the overall achievement of the film as a significant work of art.

 

I don't think the quality of Oyelowo's performance affects the question of the film's artistry or lack thereof one way or the other. I'm talking about the *writing* and *directing* choices that made the film what it is.

I think the Academy usually seems to consider great performances to be part of the mix that makes for a great film. For that matter, isn't an actor's performance often indicative of directing choices? For example, don't the strategic pauses at various points in response to questions, from Annie Lee Cooper and the clerk to MLK and Corrie, suggest directorial choices?

 

: True, but that's pretty much the only such moment in the film.

 

Perhaps, but you know what they say about first impressions.

Yes, but I also think that scene is bracketed in a sense from the rest of the film (e.g., it's the only scene in the film that features only unnamed characters who appear in no other scenes). It's a tone-setting scene, but it sets the tone in terms of stakes, not style.

 

The film begins with a "small" scene of MLK and his wife in their hotel room. Then the Nobel ceremony. Then the four-girls scene and the weirdly artsy touches. Then, I think, the Annie Lee Cooper scene with the really weird mix of camera angles. And then the first Oval Office scene, which, like *all* the Oval Office scenes, feels small, like it was shot on a cheap movie set. (The fact that later Oval Office scenes feature LBJ waving his hand at the window and talking about "protestors" when we can't even *see* any protestors just makes those scenes feel all the smaller.) The film begins with several scenes with no obvious connection to one another (the bedroom scene and the Nobel ceremony are obviously linked and can be treated as a single unit, in that sense), and the recurring aesthetic sensibility is one of low-budget indie filmmaking -- which isn't what audiences expect from a movie about a pivotal moment in national history -- and peculiar aesthetic choices.

Your memory of the sequence of the early scenes is correct. (I've seen the film more than once.) I don't find the camera angles in the Annie Lee Cooper scene to be confusing; I find them unsettling, in keeping with the mood of the scene.

Certainly the logic of the sequence of scenes seems impeccable to me. The Nobel speech, or excerpted paraphrases, are actually voiced over the opening shots of the girls in the church scene: King's words about accepting the award "on behalf of our lost ones whose deaths pave our path" are explicitly set against a backdrop of a dramatic example of the deaths he is talking about. The rubble from the bombing then fades directly into Annie Lee Cooper filling out her voter registration form, making it clear that the violence and hate represented by the bombing is not a past event but a present reality that Annie is courageously bucking in filling out this form and standing up to the clerk. As Annie walks away, defeated, a quiet, defiant march-like musical cue links her defeat to King's visit to the Oval Office, giving us the background I described above to understand the import of Johnson's "Technically" even before King interrupts him. And then when King doesn't get the answer he wants from Johnson, his response to his companions is "Selma it is" — thereby setting the stage for the whole rest of the movie.

(For what it's worth, the Oval Office is really small. I've seen it.)

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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Oh, one other thing: There's a scene in this film where one woman tells another that they are "descendants of a mighty people who gave civilization to the world." I assume this is a reference to Afrocentrist theories about the ancient Egyptians being black, etc.? Was that sort of thing in vogue already in 1965?

 

SDG wrote:
: I think the Academy usually seems to consider great performances to be part of the mix that makes for a great film.

 

Perhaps, but I wasn't thinking primarily of the Academy when I wrote that.

 

: For that matter, isn't an actor's performance often indicative of directing choices?

 

One never knows.

 

: It's a tone-setting scene, but it sets the tone in terms of stakes, not style.

 

It does both, actually. It cannot *help* but do both.

 

: I don't find the camera angles in the Annie Lee Cooper scene to be confusing; I find them unsettling, in keeping with the mood of the scene.

 

Well they certainly take you out of the action, at any rate, and make you wonder why the director shot and edited the scene the way she did.

"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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Oh, one other thing: There's a scene in this film where one woman tells another that they are "descendants of a mighty people who gave civilization to the world." I assume this is a reference to Afrocentrist theories about the ancient Egyptians being black, etc.? Was that sort of thing in vogue already in 1965?

 

Afrocentrism was a central part of Malcom X's message (to take one example), and--if I recall my reading of his Autobiography--his interest in it predated WWII. Certainly, the Nation of Islam predates WWII--it was founded in 1930, and Afrocentrism was a huge part of its doctrine (note especially the teachings on race). And there's elements of Afrocentrism in Raisin in the Sun (1959). So, yeah, it was in the air in 1965.

 

EDIT: Ah! Crawling around Wikipedia, it seems that Afrocentrism has been around, in one way or another, since the late 19th C. See also W.E.B. Du Bois.

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Maureen Dowd joins the what-about-LBJ bandwagon:

 

I WENT Friday morning to see “Selma” and found myself watching it in a theater full of black teenagers.

 

Thanks to donations, D.C. public school kids got free tickets to the first Hollywood movie about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on his birthday weekend — an effort that was duplicated for students around the country.

 

The kids did plenty of talking and texting, and plenty of fighting over whether there was too much talking and texting. Slowly but surely, though, the crowd was drawn in by the Scheherazade skills of the “Selma” director, Ava DuVernay. . . .

 

Many of the teenagers by me bristled at the power dynamic between the men. It was clear that a generation of young moviegoers would now see L.B.J.’s role in civil rights through DuVernay’s lens.

 

And that’s a shame. I loved the movie and find the Oscar snub of its dazzling actors repugnant. But the director’s talent makes her distortion of L.B.J. more egregious. Artful falsehood is more dangerous than artless falsehood, because fewer people see through it. . . .

 

In an interview with Gwen Ifill on P.B.S., DuVernay dismissed the criticism by Joseph Califano Jr. and other L.B.J. loyalists, who said that the president did not resist the Selma march or let J. Edgar Hoover send a sex tape of her husband to Mrs. King. (Bobby Kennedy, as J.F.K’s attorney general, is the one who allowed Hoover to tap Dr. King.)

 

“This is art; this is a movie; this is a film,” DuVernay said. “I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian.”

 

The “Hey, it’s just a movie” excuse doesn’t wash. Filmmakers love to talk about their artistic license to distort the truth, even as they bank on the authenticity of their films to boost them at awards season. . . .

 

There was no need for DuVernay to diminish L.B.J., given that the Civil Rights Movement would not have advanced without him. Vietnam is enough of a pox on his legacy.

 

As I have written about “Lincoln,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” and “Argo,” and as The New York Review of Books makes clear about “The Imitation Game,” the truth is dramatic and fascinating enough. Why twist it? On matters of race — America’s original sin — there is an even higher responsibility to be accurate.

 

DuVernay had plenty of vile white villains — including one who kicks a priest to death in the street — and they were no doubt shocking to the D.C. school kids. There was no need to create a faux one.

 

I totally agree with Dowd that the "it's just a movie" argument is utterly bogus if the movie itself is being used for educational purposes (free tickets to public-school students, etc.).

 

Incidentally, Reeb wasn't a "priest". He was a Unitarian minister.

"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
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s: For that matter, isn't an actor's performance often indicative of directing choices?

 

One never knows.

When a motif occurs across multiple performances, one may begin to suspect.

 

: It's a tone-setting scene, but it sets the tone in terms of stakes, not style.

 

It does both, actually. It cannot *help* but do both.

We disagree. I see nothing untoward about a movie having one crucial scene that is stylistically radically different from the rest of the film. I'm sure I can think of other examples, if I put my mind to it.

 

Maureen Dowd joins the what-about-LBJ bandwagon

Do we have to dignify Dowd?

 

Incidentally, Reeb wasn't a "priest". He was a Unitarian minister.

Yes, I have pointed this out repeatedly, on the radio.

Edited by SDG

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Bill Moyers, who worked for LBJ at the time when this movie takes place:

 

Bill: There are some beautiful and poignant moments in the film that take us closer to the truth than anything I’ve seen in other movies to date: the cruelty visited upon black people every day by whites and armed authorities; the humiliation they faced simply trying to register to vote (“Name all the county judges in Alabama!”); the courage and fear of those black people who put themselves on the line for freedom’s sake; the ambivalence in Martin Luther King Jr. as he faced the inescapability of leadership and constant threat of death. I cannot imagine the dread one had to subdue to step on that bridge that day. . . .

 

As for how the film portrays Lyndon B. Johnson: There’s one egregious and outrageous portrayal that is the worst kind of creative license because it suggests the very opposite of the truth, in this case, that the president was behind J. Edgar Hoover’s sending the “sex tape” to Coretta King. Some of our most scrupulous historians have denounced that one. And even if you want to think of Lyndon B. Johnson as vile enough to want to do that, he was way too smart to hand Hoover the means of blackmailing him.

 

Then, casting the president as opposed to the Selma march, which the film does, is an exaggeration and misleading. He was concerned that coming less than a year after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there was little political will in Congress to deal with voting rights. As he said to Martin Luther King Jr., “You’re an activist; I’m a politician,” and politicians read the tide of events better than most of us read the hands on our watch. The president knew he needed public sentiment to gather momentum before he could introduce and quickly pass a voting rights bill. So he asked King to give him more time to bring Southern “moderates” and the rest of the country over to the cause, but once King made the case that blacks had waited too long for too little, Johnson told him: “Then go out there and make it possible for me to do the right thing.”

 

To my knowledge he never suggested Selma as the venue for a march but he’s on record as urging King to do something to arouse the sleeping white conscience, and when violence met the marchers on that bridge, he knew the moment had come: He told me to alert the speechwriters to get ready and within days he made his own famous “We Shall Overcome” address that transformed the political environment. Here the film is very disappointing. The director has a limpid president speaking in the Senate chamber to a normal number of senators as if it were a “ho hum” event. In fact, he made that speech where State of the Union addresses are delivered – in a packed House of Representatives. I was standing very near him, off to his right, and he was more emotionally and bodily into that speech than I had seen him in months. The nation was electrified. Watching on television, Martin Luther King Jr. wept. This is the moment when the film blows the possibility for true drama — of history happening right before our eyes.

 

So it’s a powerful but flawed film. Go see it, though – it’s good to be reminded of a time when courage on the street is met by a moral response from power.

"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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Maureen Dowd joins the what-about-LBJ bandwagon

Do we have to dignify Dowd?

 

I.

 

 

Steven, Steven, Steven....this is A&F.

 

We have to dignify everyone.

 

We are constitutionally incapable of letting an opinion pass without commenting on it.

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Glenn Kenny reminds me of the film's use of documentary footage during the climactic march (I *think* it was the climactic march). The use of such footage was certainly an interesting artistic choice, but it also undermines DuVernay's attempts to say that her movie is "art" not "documentary". She blurs the line *within the film itself*. Which means the historical/documentary questions do matter.

 

Kenny makes a few other points I like, e.g.:

 

It’s also rather funny—a good bit—that Johnson decides to act as King has asked largely because Johnson becomes more pissed off at George Wallace than he has been, or ever gets, with King. . . .

 

DuVernay’s conception of King seems very much informed by, among other things, what for lack of a better term I’ll call her female tolerance. Clearly DuVernay and her film admire King, but Selma doesn’t quite worship him. It’s not just a matter of acknowledging his flaws and failings as a husband, or depicting him smoking a cigarette while composing a difficult letter. There’s a larger, more intellectual dynamic at work here too. . . .

 

Incidentally, that "flaws and failings as a husband" bit is another example of the film's "tell don't show" aesthetic. Don't show the protestors when LBJ can just talk about them; and don't show MLK's affairs when he and his wife can simply talk about them with a few lines of dialogue. Though to be fair, I have no idea how I'd shoehorn the affairs into a movie that covers such a relatively narrow slice of time, a movie that also happens to be less a straightforward "biopic" than a depiction of the movement as a whole.

"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
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The use of such footage was certainly an interesting artistic choice, but it also undermines DuVernay's attempts to say that her movie is "art" not "documentary". She blurs the line *within the film itself*. Which means the historical/documentary questions do matter.

You can't be serious. This kind of postscript use of archival or real-life imagery is surely a well-established convention at this point, from the Schindler Jews at the end of Schindler's List to the photos of the real people at the end of half the biopics these days to the footage of the real Louis Zamperini at the end of Unbroken.

 

Incidentally, that "flaws and failings as a husband" bit is another example of the film's "tell don't show" aesthetic.

Man, I couldn't disagree more. Showing us the actual effects of MLK's infidelities on Coretta and the strain on their marriage — the unspoken subtext in virtually all their scenes together, from the opening scene in the hotel, IMO — strikes me as far more effective than a scene of MLK womanizing.

Bill Moyers, who worked for LBJ at the time when this movie takes place:

 

Oh, well, I'm sure he was completely objective, then. 

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

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SDG wrote:
: You can't be serious. This kind of postscript use . . .

 

Uh, no. Kenny and I are talking about her use of documentary footage *during the march*, i.e. within the drama. Kenny writes about how the film's depiction of the climactic march

 

breaks away from the staged drama of the march and the speech from Martin Luther King  (David Oyelowo) to intercut actual documentary footage of the events and people. It’s a stirring moment, yes, but it’s a distinctly anti-manipulative one. Instead of using cinematic craft and guile to provide a you-are-there feel, and then perhaps to force an idea of being transported on the viewer, the movie steps back and says “this happened.”

 

My point is that it's the very this-happened-ness of the film's technique that undermines the director's later attempts to suggest that it doesn't really matter whether her film shows what happened or not.

 

Or perhaps, to borrow Kenny's terms, it's the very this-happened-ness of the march sequence that exposes the cinematic craft and manipulative guile that affects the LBJ scenes.

 

: Showing us the actual effects of MLK's infidelities on Coretta and the strain on their marriage — the unspoken subtext in virtually all their scenes together, from the opening scene in the hotel, IMO — strikes me as far more effective than a scene of MLK womanizing.

 

That depends on what sort of effect you want to have, I guess. I'm interested in knowing more about the personality that is capable of all these different actions, and seeing how those sides of his personality fit together. But like I said, I can also appreciate how it might be difficult to shoehorn those things into the narrow slice of time covered by this film.

 

: Oh, well, I'm sure he was completely objective, then.

 

He certainly had a clearer view of how motivated LBJ was or wasn't to enact the Voting Rights Act than you or I do. And his critique of this aspect of the film, like Andrew Young's, *is* couched within a general recommendation of the film.

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
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: You can't be serious. This kind of postscript use . . .

 

Uh, no. Kenny and I are talking about her use of documentary footage *during the march*, i.e. within the drama.

This strikes me as a distinction, if not without a difference, of limited difference at best. A movie is a movie, and every image on the screen contributes to the overall effect. The march depicted in Selma did happen, just as the real Louis Zamperini did run with the Olympic torch and the real Schindler Jews did pay respects at the grave of their savior. That doesn't amount to "blurring" the dramatic licence taken in everything preceding that deployment of real-life footage. Quibbling about timing (was the real-life footage used after absolutely all of the dramatic footage, or at some point when a minute or two of dramatic footage remained?) seems to me an utterly uninteresting question.

 

: Showing us the actual effects of MLK's infidelities on Coretta and the strain on their marriage — the unspoken subtext in virtually all their scenes together, from the opening scene in the hotel, IMO — strikes me as far more effective than a scene of MLK womanizing.

 

That depends on what sort of effect you want to have, I guess.

FWIW, I read somewhere that some version of the screenplay included a scene of MLK flirting with a prostitute. At the end of the day, I can't say I'm sorry that scene wasn't shot. What we have in the film is enough of a mouthful.

Edited by SDG

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SDG wrote:
: Quibbling about timing (was the real-life footage used after absolutely all of the dramatic footage, or at some point when a minute or two of dramatic footage remained?) seems to me an utterly uninteresting question.

 

It was you, though, who made the point that postscripts often use documentary footage. That's absolutely true. But it also wasn't what I was talking about. The point here is that DuVernay can't play the "it's only a movie" card if her own movie makes the unusual choice of using documentary footage *instead of* dramatized footage at a key dramatic point in the story.

 

: FWIW, I read somewhere that some version of the screenplay included a scene of MLK flirting with a prostitute.

 

Do you know if that was before or after DuVernay began rewriting the script? Just wondering.

"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
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Older interview, but it doesn't seem to be linked here (though tbh I just scrolled back to Dec 15-ish--around the time the article was first posted): DuVernay talks Selma

 

I don’t even really see sit-ins and marches as passive. I see them as quite assertive. I see those as emotionally aggressive tactics. I see people putting their lives on the line and being bold and brave. The way we think of the term “nonviolence” as very passive—let someone spit in your face and just walk away, let someone beat you and don’t do anything—that is so surface. These tactics were much more than that. People were putting themselves in harm’s way to invite, to incite violence against them so that they could illustrate the ills of society. They were putting themselves in harm’s way. They were like soldiers who were going to war. It was a way that they were fighting. And that’s not passive. Like we say in the film, that was very strong. I just think that these ideas are not anything that’s been addressed, certainly not in the American school system. Certainly not in any of our conversations around King. It’s “I have a dream,” he believed in peace, and then he died. Like, my God, people. Let’s do better.

 

Which, yes. The MLK in this movie is much more aggressive than the sanitized version that gets touted in popular culture.

 

Pivoting off that, I think a couple of observations can be made:

 

1. The version of King DuVernay is struggling against is an essentially triumphal figure--the MLK who appears, in part, at the beginning of Selma: celebrated, revered, victorious. The MLK in this movie is--a more complicated version of all those things.

 

2. I keep going back to the last couple of scenes, and it's because that sequence is what ultimately makes this movie unique, as far as I can see, among "race-issue" movies. The movie ends on a note of triumph, but it's a triumph tempered by the realization that things aren't smooth sailing from here on out. That nice white woman in the crowd? She's about to be murdered by a pack of racists. That immense coalition, multiracial and committed to the common good? As King himself observed in Where Do We Go From Here?:

 

With Selma and the Voting Rights Act one phase of development in the civil rights revolution came to an end. A new phase opened, but few observers realized it or were prepared for its implications. […] The outraged white citizen had been sincere when he snatched the whips from the Southern sheriffs and forbade them more cruelties. But when this was to a degree accomplished, the emotions that had momentarily inflamed him melted away. […] It appeared that the white segregationist and the ordinary white citizen had more in common with each other [….] 
 
That book was published in 1967. So two years after the Selma march and one before he was murdered, King saw his coalition dissolving as the tangible evils faded, leaving more insidious forms of inequality unchallenged.
 
3. That's why the invocation of Ferguson is so important in the closing song. Not because Michael Brown is a martyr of the caliber of Jimmie Lee Jackson, but because the riots there expose the fact that the victorious King of popular culture is a myth--that the issues he struggled against didn't go away with the passage of the Voting Rights Act--that race. racism, and racial inequality are still festering wounds at the heart of the U.S. psyche. That we haven't dealt with the truly radical nature of King's activism because, frankly, it's just too much trouble.
 
4. Selma is an historical film, but one that does the very important work of challenging the myth that "racism is over." It isn't; we (and I mean a very particular set of "we," one that includes myself) just don't want to see it.
 
5. I liked the slow motion.
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It was you, though, who made the point that postscripts often use documentary footage. That's absolutely true. But it also wasn't what I was talking about. The point here is that DuVernay can't play the "it's only a movie" card if her own movie makes the unusual choice of using documentary footage *instead of* dramatized footage at a key dramatic point in the story.

And I'm saying your interpretive choice here says more about you than it does about the movie. The use of documentary footage during the climactic march can reasonably be construed as saying "This march really happened." It cannot be forced to say "This whole movie exists in an ambiguous space between documentary and drama, and the dramatist's normal license to fictionalize is therefore suspect if not entirely suspended."

 

: FWIW, I read somewhere that some version of the screenplay included a scene of MLK flirting with a prostitute.

 

Do you know if that was before or after DuVernay began rewriting the script? Just wondering.

I don't. Since I've heard that the original screenplay focused much more on LBJ and much less on King, perhaps making it more like Lincoln, yet another tale about saving black people starring a white protagonist. If the screenplay in that form, with King playing a much less prominent role, still managed to get in King flirting with a prostitute, that would seem prima facie to be a troubling level of emphasis.

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

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John Lewis:

 

“Selma” does more than bring history to life, it enlightens our understanding of our lives today. It proves the efficacy of nonviolent action and civic engagement, especially when government seems unresponsive. With poignant grace, it demonstrates that Occupy, inconvenient protests and die-ins that disturb our daily routine reflect a legacy of resistance that led many to struggle and die for justice, not centuries ago, but in our lifetimes. It reminds us that the day could be approaching when that price will be required again.
 
But now this movie is being weighed down with a responsibility it cannot possibly bear. It's portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson's role in the Selma marches has been called into question. And yet one two-hour movie cannot tell all the stories encompassed in three years of history — the true scope of the Selma campaign. It does not portray every element of my story, Bloody Sunday, or even the life of Martin Luther King Jr. We do not demand completeness of other historical dramas, so why is it required of this film?
 
“Lincoln,” for example, was a masterpiece, a fine representation of what it takes to pass a bill. It did not, however, even mention Frederick Douglass or the central role of the abolitionists, who were all pivotal to the passage of the 13th Amendment. For some historians that may be a glaring error, but we accept these omissions as a matter of perspective and the historical editing needed to tell a coherent story. “Selma” must be afforded the same artistic license.
 
Were any of the Selma marches the brainchild of President Johnson? Absolutely not. If a man is chained to a chair, does anyone need to tell him he should struggle to be free? The truth is the marches occurred mainly due to the extraordinary vision of the ordinary people of Selma, who were determined to win the right to vote, and it is their will that made a way.
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NBooth wrote:
: 1. The version of King DuVernay is struggling against is an essentially triumphal figure--the MLK who appears, in part, at the beginning of Selma: celebrated, revered, victorious. The MLK in this movie is--a more complicated version of all those things.

 

Yes, one of the striking things about the film is how it shows MLK putting his life on the line and risking (and receiving) physical beatings and whatnot *after* he has already received his accolades. There's an interesting trajectory in which we see King with his wife, and then with a few of his associates, and then with a larger group of people (mostly people who heard him speak at black churches, etc.) and then finally with an even *larger* group of people that includes people of all races and creeds etc. It's a pretty *straightforward* trajectory, but at the back of my mind I kept wondering how it would have looked in light of that massive march in 1963, the one that ended with the "I have a dream" speech.

 

: That nice white woman in the crowd? She's about to be murdered by a pack of racists.

 

It *was* a little startling to realize how quickly the violence resumed after that triumphant march/speech. Had the film really introduced that character before the closing sequence? If so, I missed it.

 

: 3. That's why the invocation of Ferguson is so important in the closing song. Not because Michael Brown is a martyr of the caliber of Jimmie Lee Jackson, but because the riots there expose the fact that the victorious King of popular culture is a myth . . .

 

Perhaps, as far as that goes. But the song *does* perpetuate the notion of Michael Brown as a martyr of the caliber of Jimmie Lee Jackson, insofar as it invokes the whole "walking with hands up" idea, which in turn is based on the myth that Brown was peacefully surrendering when he was shot, etc. And the way films and songs like these perpetuate those kinds of myths is not unrelated to how the film's revisionist treatment of LBJ perpetuates certain other kinds of myths.

 

SDG wrote:
: The use of documentary footage during the climactic march can reasonably be construed as saying "This march really happened." It cannot be forced to say "This whole movie exists in an ambiguous space between documentary and drama, and the dramatist's normal license to fictionalize is therefore suspect if not entirely suspended."

 

I'm not sure what you're saying here. Of *course* historical fiction, or fictionalized history, exists in an ambiguous space between documentary and drama. Would anyone seriously deny that? But the use of documentary footage *within the drama* suggests that the film wants to point us to *what actually happened*, at least when it's conducive to the filmmaker's agenda, and that casts a different light on the fictionalizations than the non-use of such footage would have cast. At the very least, it opens a space for asking what the filmmaker's agenda was when she brought facts into the drama over here while deviating from the facts over there.

 

And thus, it means the filmmaker can't simply say, "Oh, it's just a movie, it's not a documentary."

 

: I've heard that the original screenplay focused much more on LBJ and much less on King, perhaps making it more like Lincoln, yet another tale about saving black people starring a white protagonist. If the screenplay in that form, with King playing a much less prominent role, still managed to get in King flirting with a prostitute, that would seem prima facie to be a troubling level of emphasis.

 

Agreed. I'm only interested in that stuff as it pertains to understanding the psychology of MLK himself -- but if he isn't even the main character, then I doubt there'd be any reason to go there.

 

John Lewis wrote:
: We do not demand completeness of other historical dramas, so why is it required of this film?

 

What a strange line of argument. Who has been demanding "completeness"? And if it was not possible to fit everything into the film, then why make stuff up and invent misdeeds that never took place?

 

: Were any of the Selma marches the brainchild of President Johnson? Absolutely not.

 

I'm not sure that anyone has said LBJ conceived of the Selma march *specifically*. What he did say, in that phone call with MLK, was that something needed to happen that would get white voters thinking "this ain't right" (my words, not LBJ's). And the problem with the film is that it never shows LBJ encouraging MLK in this respect; it presents LBJ as an obstacle, pure and simple.

"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
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Like I say, I find the whole LBJ critique so boring--not to say banal--that I'll just move on:

 

: That nice white woman in the crowd? She's about to be murdered by a pack of racists.

 

It *was* a little startling to realize how quickly the violence resumed after that triumphant march/speech. Had the film really introduced that character before the closing sequence? If so, I missed it.

 

 

Briefly. She shows up during the march handing out food--she's not a major character, but she's certainly shot in such a way as to draw attention to her.

: 3. That's why the invocation of Ferguson is so important in the closing song. Not because Michael Brown is a martyr of the caliber of Jimmie Lee Jackson, but because the riots there expose the fact that the victorious King of popular culture is a myth . . .

 

Perhaps, as far as that goes. But the song *does* perpetuate the notion of Michael Brown as a martyr of the caliber of Jimmie Lee Jackson, insofar as it invokes the whole "walking with hands up" idea, which in turn is based on the myth that Brown was peacefully surrendering when he was shot, etc. And the way films and songs like these perpetuate those kinds of myths is not unrelated to how the film's revisionist treatment of LBJ perpetuates certain other kinds of myths.

 

 

Only if you're willing to give the song the least charitable reading possible. The emphasis, remember, even in the song isn't on Brown, it's on "walking with hands up"--which may be based on some eyewitness testimony from Brown's shooting, but which has by this time attained its own symbolic form and content. The focus in the song is on communal action against injustice. Whatever Brown's status (and I'm an agnostic both toward the police case and toward the contrary argument), his death set off a powder-keg of resentment that had been existing in Ferguson long before the shooting. Focusing on Brown's innocence/guilt misses the point as surely as--well, as focusing on whether or not Selma gets LBJ right. That's more or less Lewis' point as well (and, um, if the former mayor of Atlanta, LBJ's aides, and Bill Moyers get a say in the controversy, surely Lewis does as well? Is there something in his own testimony that makes him worth rejecting on the face of it?)

 

From a culture-studies perspective, the response to Selma is interesting. I pointed out above that just praising the movie on my Facebook feed provoked a mild backlash of folks claiming that the movie would be propaganda, that it would make all white people look bad, etc. I was warned by two [white] people before the movie that it might be "romanticized." I think the case can be made that Selma has been held to a far higher standard of historical fidelity than pretty much any historical biopic that I can remember--heck, even JFK doesn't seem to provoke as much tut-tutting (at least, not anymore). Lincoln didn't get such an examination. 12 Years a Slave came close--maybe. Lawrence of Arabia, Gandhi, American Sniper, The King's Speech all get--not a total pass, but a wink and a nod from most people who see it. Selma alone is treated by the broader chin-stroking community as if it has a Higher Calling to Total Accuracy. Why this might be, I leave as an exercise for the reader.

 

But, like I say, the question of whether or not it's historically accurate is in itself--apart from what it says about critical culture--a pretty bland, boring, and bourgeois concern, and I'm dismayed that it's taken away from the more interesting stuff going on here. We've never had a major cinematic depiction of MLK, and that Oyelowo nails it so handily is all the more remarkable. And that he does so without pious kneeling at the shrine of The Icon MLK is even more remarkable. Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King heads up a collection of female agents the likes of which I'm not sure we've seen, though there might be a small Civil Rights film somewhere that does it. This movie gives us an image of active black agents, people who are actually doing stuff instead of having stuff done to them. Not even Lincoln did that. Not even 12 Years a Slave did that. That's important. Does it come at the expense of not giving LBJ more screentime? Maybe. But that's just a reason to give Bryan Cranston a DV-cam and letting him record his one-man show. It isn't an indictment of the film.

 

The movie has problems--it's far too talky, for one thing (the "proud people" speech is particularly irksome in this regard). But if the purpose of an historical drama is to convey the emotional experience--the experience of being there--then Selma is a total success. Seeing the multiple factions within the Movement was a treat (and I nearly cheered when Malcolm X showed up). The murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, the attacks on the protesters in Selma, MLK's own inner conflict--these are conveyed powerfully enough (and without words, by and large) that any quibbles over speechifying go out the window. It may not be the best movie we ever get about the Civil Rights movement, but I'm pretty darn sure that it's among the best we've gotten so far. Perhaps in fifty more years we'll get another one.

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Selma alone is treated by the broader chin-stroking community as if it has a Higher Calling to Total Accuracy. Why this might be, I leave as an exercise for the reader.

 

I persist in not seeing the great significance for this question of several seconds of historical footage in the last minutes of the movie.

The movie has problems--it's far too talky, for one thing (the "proud people" speech is particularly irksome in this regard).

That is the one scene I would have singled out in this connection. It doesn't bother me much. 

 

But if the purpose of an historical drama is to convey the emotional experience--the experience of being there--then Selma  is a total success. Seeing the multiple factions within the Movement was a treat (and I nearly cheered when Malcolm X showed up). The murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, the attacks on the protesters in Selma, MLK's own inner conflict--these are conveyed powerfully enough (and without words, by and large) that any quibbles over speechifying go out the window. It may not be the best movie we ever get about the Civil Rights movement, but I'm pretty darn sure that it's among the best we've gotten so far. Perhaps in fifty more years we'll get another one.

Well said.

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

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NBooth wrote:

: Only if you're willing to give the song the least charitable reading possible.

 

I dunno. Am I reading the ointment uncharitably if I object to the fly in it?

 

: The emphasis, remember, even in the song isn't on Brown, it's on "walking with hands up"--which may be based on some eyewitness testimony from Brown's shooting, but which has by this time attained its own symbolic form and content.

 

That cuts both ways, though. For some people it's symbolic of how disconnected symbols are from reality, of how an incident that had nothing obviously to do with race (if a large man physically assaults a cop and reaches for the cop's gun just because the cop tells him to stop jaywalking, then of *course* things are going to get ugly) quickly got turned into a racial issue.

 

And that, in a weird way, suggests that racial prejudices don't just come from one side in this argument.

 

This is where it ties into the LBJ issue: DuVernay has written a film that encourages people to go on thinking that authority figures who happen to be white are basically *against* them on some level, and that it is always because of race. A more complex or nuanced depiction of LBJ would not only have been more historically authentic, but could have challenged that mindset.

 

: Whatever Brown's status (and I'm an agnostic both toward the police case and toward the contrary argument) . . .

 

Oh, so am I. I'm quite happy to believe that *both* men overreacted. But as always, you have to ask: "Who threw the first punch?"

 

: . . . his death set off a powder-keg of resentment that had been existing in Ferguson long before the shooting. Focusing on Brown's innocence/guilt misses the point . . .

 

Which makes it all the more tragic that Brown's death is what set off the powder-keg.

 

: That's more or less Lewis' point as well (and, um, if the former mayor of Atlanta, LBJ's aides, and Bill Moyers get a say in the controversy, surely Lewis does as well? Is there something in his own testimony that makes him worth rejecting on the face of it?)

 

No, but then he doesn't offer much of a testimony in the quote that was posted here. My issue was with the straw man he used to mischaracterize critiques of the film. To respond to a critique, you have to engage with it, i.e. you have to understand it (cf. that SDG quote in my A&F signature).

 

: From a culture-studies perspective, the response to Selma is interesting.

 

Yes, from both sides. The people who use this movie as a litmus test -- either you praise it to the skies or you're racially insensitive (Al Sharpton demanding meetings with Hollywood executives just because the movie didn't get more nominations, etc.) -- are just as much a problem here as the people who dismiss it out of hand. And I've seen far, far, *far* more of the former in my Twitter feed than the latter. Indeed, I'm not sure I've seen the latter *at all*.

 

: Lincoln didn't get such an examination. 12 Years a Slave came close--maybe. Lawrence of Arabia, Gandhi, American Sniper, The King's Speech all get--not a total pass, but a wink and a nod from most people who see it. Selma alone is treated by the broader chin-stroking community as if it has a Higher Calling to Total Accuracy. Why this might be, I leave as an exercise for the reader.

 

Oh, I think American Sniper is getting some attention now. I also don't think any of those other films had advocates using them as litmus tests, which is the sort of thing that tends to invite some scrutiny. (Although, again, American Sniper might be attracting those kinds of advocates right now, which led Mark Harris to tweet today that that film's Oscar chances have basically ended now that conservatives have embraced the film so vocally.)

 

: This movie gives us an image of active black agents, people who are actually doing stuff instead of having stuff done to them. Not even Lincoln did that. Not even 12 Years a Slave did that. That's important.

 

Malcolm X did that over 20 years ago, and it made more money in 1992 dollars than Selma is likely to make today. Make of that whatever you will. (Box Office Mojo estimates that the $48.2 million made by Malcolm X in 1992 would be equal to $93.8 million today.)

 

: Does it come at the expense of not giving LBJ more screentime?

 

I don't think anyone's saying LBJ needed more screentime. (Again, this is a Legend-style mischaracterization of the film's critiques.) What people are saying is that it should have rendered a more authentic portrayal with the screentime it *did* give him.

 

: The movie has problems--it's far too talky, for one thing (the "proud people" speech is particularly irksome in this regard).

 

Are you referring to the "mighty people" scene I referenced earlier?

 

: But if the purpose of an historical drama is to convey the emotional experience--the experience of being there--then Selma is a total success.

 

I actually agree with this, believe it or not.

 

: It may not be the best movie we ever get about the Civil Rights movement, but I'm pretty darn sure that it's among the best we've gotten so far. Perhaps in fifty more years we'll get another one.

 

Well, it's only been 22 years since Malcolm X. They may be coming at shorter intervals than that.

"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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