The movie Selma.

I saw the movie Selma the other night.

Here are the main narratives about the movie I took into seeing it:

1) Selma was “snubbed for the Oscars.”

2) Selma is “inaccurate about the relationship of LBJ and MLK, Jr.”

3) Selma is… how good of a movie?

That third one I was curious about.

I don’t care that much about the first two, but I wanted to get my own answer on #3.

Here’s my answer:

The movie Selma

by Steve Hely

Let’s take as our opening text this excerpt:

This magnificent and powerful film has, at this point, been endlessly derided by white and black critics alike who say it fails to get the story just right. Among white critics, its cardinal sin is failure to pay proper homage to Lyndon B. Johnson for being a champion of black voting rights. He’s represented in the film as a reluctant ally in the civil rights struggle, as one whose racial views evolve over time.

from this Salon article:

Maureen Dowd’s clueless white gaze: What’s really behind the “Selma” backlash

by Brittney Cooper.

Let’s back up a bit:

How “accurate” do you have to be in a historical movie?

This is a puzzle I’m really interested in.

When you make a movie about historical events, part of the pleasure your viewers are getting is from the idea that they are seeing something that really happened.  If you betray that, if what you’re showing didn’t really happen, you’re lying to them and cheating them.  Whether they ever find it out or not, you’ve done something wrong.

But, if you’re boring them, they won’t like that either.

I suspect that if you seriously fudge history in your movie, it will feel “off.”  Whether people can detect it exactly or not, there will be something wrong with the movie, and audiences will feel it.

There’s something Shelby Foote said in his Paris Review interview that I think about a lot when it comes to dramatizing history.  It’s the last sentence, but I include the whole question and answer for context:

INTERVIEWER

Do you consider yourself a novelist or a historian?

FOOTE

I think of myself as a novelist who wrote a three-volume history of the Civil War. I don’t think it’s a novel, but I think it’s certainly by a novelist. The novels are not novels written by a historian. My book falls between two stools—academic historians are upset because there are no footnotes and novel readers don’t want to study history. It doesn’t matter who’s a professional historian and who’s not; Herodotus, Thucydides, and Tacitus weren’t professionals—they were literary men. They considered history a branch of literature; so do I, to this day.

I am what is called a narrative historian. Narrative history is getting more popular all the time, but it’s not a question of twisting the facts into a narrative. I maintain that anything you can learn by writing novels—by putting words together in a narrative form—is especially valuable to you when writing history. There is no great difference between writing novels and writing histories other than this: if you have a character named Lincoln in a novel who’s not Abraham Lincoln, you can give him any color eyes you want. But if you want to describe the color of Abraham Lincoln’s, President Lincoln’s, eyes, you have to know what color they were. They were gray. So you’re working with facts that came out of documents, just as in a novel you are working with facts that come out of your head or most likely out of your memory. Once you have control of those facts, once you possess them, you can handle them exactly as a novelist handles his facts. No good novelist would be false to his facts, and certainly no historian is allowed to be false to his facts under any circumstances. I’ve never known, in at least a modern historical instance, where the truth wasn’t superior to distortion in every way.

What an interesting idea: you should use the truth not for some moral reasoning or ethical obligation, because it’s likely to be superior as storytelling to what you can make up.

Now that is something to think about.  That you ought to know “the real historical story” not because you like, ought to, but because it’s going to be better than what you could make.

Well, OK.  But isn’t it true that the truth is also a lot more complicated than what you can make up?  Harder to dramatize?  I mean, you have to simplify just to get it across, no one can fault you for that.

Here, for example, is a real-life a phone call between King and LBJ:

Here’s a transcript.

It’s pretty long and mostly boring.  How do we make this interesting?

The first scene of the movie Selma has Oprah in it, playing real-life person Annie Lee Cooper.

ALC

Horace Cort/ASSOCIATED PRESS Annie Lee Cooper of Selma, Ala., fights with sheriff’s officers who tried to apprehend her in 1965. found: http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/movies/oprah-winfrey-star-civil-rights-drama-selma-article-1.1825391

She tried to register to vote in Selma, and as is dramatized, she was stopped by bullshit “tests” to prove you were a worthy voter.  She was so fed up that at a subsequent protest she punched the local (racist) sheriff Jim Clark in the face.

I can’t, to be honest, figure out when Annie Lee Cooper punched the sheriff in the face. This phone call happened on 1/15/65.  This article refers to Annie’s punching happening in “late January” 1965.  In this piece Oprah refers to a local news story that convinced her to take the part. I can’t find that on the Internet right now.  But it may have more info.

King met with LBJ in December, ’64, and that meeting is depicted in the movie.

Here’s an interesting part from this phone call, where King and LBJ talk about just the kind of tests that got Annie Lee Cooper outraged.  LBJ suggests to MLK, “what if we put voter registration in the hands of the post office, ie federal officials, instead of local ones? ”

President Johnson: Then we’ve got to come up with the qualification of voters. That will answer 70 percent of your problems.

King: That’s right.

President Johnson: If you just clear it out everywhere, make it age and [the ability to] read about write. No tests on what [Geoffrey] Chaucer said or [Robert] Browning’s poetry or constitutions or memorizing or anything else.

King: Yes.

President Johnson: And then you may have to put them in the post office. Let the Postmaster–that’s a federal employee that I control who they can say is local. He’s recommended by the Congressmen, he’s approved by the Senator. But if he doesn’t register everybody I can put a new one in.

King: Yes.

President Johnson: And it’s not an outside Washington influence. It’s a local man but they can all just to go the post office like they buy stamps. Now, I haven’t thought this through but that’s my general feeling, and I’ve talked to the Attorney General, and I’ve got them working on it. I don’t want to start off with that any more than I do with 14-B because I wouldn’t get anything else.

King: Yes. Yes. [Unclear.]

President Johnson: Do you–And I don’t want to publicize it, but I want–that’s–I wanted you to know the outline of what I had in mind.

King: Yes. Well, I remember that you mentioned it to me the other day when we met at the White House, and I have been very diligent in not . . . making this statement.

President Johnson: Well, your statement was perfect about the vote’s important, very important. And I think it’s good to talk about that. And I just don’t see how anybody can say that a man can fight in Vietnam but he can’t vote in the post office.

Here, King changes the subject:

King: Yes. Right. Well, Mr. President, I’ll tell you the main thing I wanted to share with you. This really rose out of conversations that I’ve had with all of the civil rights leaders–I mean the heads of civil rights organizations–

President Johnson: Yeah.

King: –as well as many people around the country as I have traveled. We have a strong feeling that it would mean so much, first, to help with our whole democracy but to the Negro and to the nation, to have a Negro in the Cabinet.[bold: Helytimes] We feel that this would really would be a great step forward for the nation, for the Negro, for our international image. And it would do so much to give many people a lift who need a lift now. And I’m sure that it could give a new sense of dignity and self-respect to millions of Negroes who–there are millions of Negro youth who feel that they don’t have anything to look forward to in life.

Now, here is a long excerpt, feel free to skip it — the interesting thing to me is how hard it is for King to get a word in edgewise:

President Johnson: I agree with that. I have not publicly shouted from the house top, but I have had them sit in with me. I–the first move I made was to put one [an African American] on the [National] Security Council.

King: Yes.

President Johnson: And to put one in charge of every bit of the information that went to all of the 120 nations and take him out of an important ambassador post.1 And I am trying my best to get the housing and urban and city problems [sic], which is the number one problem in America as I see it, made into a Cabinet post. I have a good chance of getting it done, unless I get tied in with the racial thing. I’m going to concentrate all of the executive power I can to get that done. I’m pretty half-way committed to putting in [Robert] Weaver, who I consider to be a very able administrator and [who has] done a good job and who we respect pretty highly.2 And I’m trying to bring in others as assistants and deputies. I talked to them no longer than two hours ago about trying to get one in charge of, maybe, African affairs if [G. Mennen] Williams left. I don’t know whether you know him or not, but I’m just giving consideration. I don’t want to get it around, but it’s this fellow [George] Carter that runs [the] African desk for the Peace Corps.

King: Oh, yes.

President Johnson: Do you know him?

King: I just–no, I don’t know him well.

President Johnson: Well–

King: [Unclear.]

President Johnson: He’s very, very able and we’ve got George Weaver over in the Labor Department, and I’m bringing them in just as fast as I can. I gave Carl Rowan the top job over [at the United States Information Agency] . . . I would guess that eight out of the ten people that I talked to felt like that I had problems there. But up to now, he’s–he sits with the Security Council on everything. He participates just like the Secretary of State. And I’m going to–I don’t want to make a commitment on it because I don’t want it to get tied down in the Congress. But I’m going to shove as strong as I can to get the biggest department there–housing, urban affairs, city, transportation–everything that comes in that department that involves the urban areas of America into one department. And then if I can get that done without having to commit one way or the other, my hope would be that I could put the man in there and probably it would be Weaver because I think we have, more or less, a moral obligation to a fellow that’s done a–

King: He’s a top flight man.

President Johnson: He’s done a good job, and he hasn’t disappointed anybody. If we put somebody into a job and he fails, we lose three steps when we go ahead one.

King: Sure.

President Johnson: And I haven’t had any of that, if you’ll notice it.

King: No.

President Johnson: We haven’t had any mistakes or any corruption or any scandals of any kind. And I’ve moved them in, I mean, by the wholesale the, both women and men.

King: Yes. Well, this–I–this is very encouraging and I was, as I said, very concerned about this and I know how others have been mentioning that–what this could mean; it would be another great step toward the Great Society.

President Johnson: I have seen where they considered Whitney for–Whitney Young–for a place with [a] top job with [Sargent] Shriver. He’s running two shows, and maybe as a kind of associate director with Shriver with the poverty group. I thought that ought to get under way a little bit. I don’t know what Shriver’s said about it. I have a very high regard for Whitney. I like him. I don’t feel–I honestly don’t feel that with Roy Wilkins or with you or with [A. Philip] Randolph or with the man from CORE [James Farmer] that meets with us, I really don’t think I have a moral obligation to any of them like I have to Weaver, who has been in there. And it’s kind of like you being assistant pastor of your church for ten years with the understanding of your deacons that you would be–take over and then you–they lose and they don’t get to make a pastor, and then you continue to carry on, and then finally when the good day comes, they say, “Well, you get back [and] sit at the second table.” I just don’t feel like saying that to Weaver.

King: Yes.

President Johnson: Now, Weaver’s not my man. I didn’t bring him in. He’s a [John F.] Kennedy man, but I just think that there’d be a pretty revolutionary feeling about him. I–Carl Rowan’s not my man. He’s a Kennedy man. But he’s got the biggest job in government, and it’s a Cabinet job. He sits with the Cabinet every time. He sits with the [National] Security Council every time. And I did it the first month I was in office.

King: Yes.

President Johnson: I don’t throw it around to cause him to be attacked by his appropriations [committees] because the Southerners handle them. [John] McClellan handles his appropriations. But after we get by pretty well this year and I can get this reorganization through, why, we’ll not only have people like Weaver and Carter and undersecretary’s places, but we’ll have Rowan head there, and we’ll have Weaver and perhaps some other folks on the order of Whitney and whoever you-all think’s good.

King: Well, we think very highly of Whitney and–

President Johnson: I do, too.

King: –that he can play a role in–

President Johnson: [with King acknowledging] I do, too. You know, he’s worked very closely in our Equal Employment [Office], and he’s done a very good job in about 60 cities, where his people have branches on employment. And I rather think that there’s been substantial progress–not enough–but I rather think there’s been substantial progress with industry on a higher level. Don’t you?

King: I think so. There’s no doubt about it.

President Johnson: Every corporation I talk to–and I talked to 30 of them yesterday–they are looking for Negroes that can do the job that a George Weaver does or Carl Rowan does or a fellow like Weaver does. If we have some of them, and if you have some of them, and you get them to Hobart Taylor, we can find companies that will use men of that quality. Then when they get in, they can look after the ones below them like you’re looking after your people.

King: Well, I think you’re right, and we’re certainly going to continue to work in that area.

President Johnson: There’s not going to be anything though, Dr., as effective as all of them voting.

King: That’s right. Nothing–

President Johnson: That’ll get you a message that all the eloquence in the world won’t bring, because the fellow will be coming to you then instead of you calling him.

It’s probably a full minute and a half before King can even get in there on Presidential overtalker Lyndon Johnson:

And then what does he say?:

King: And it’s very interesting, Mr. President, to notice that the only states that you didn’t carry in the South, the five Southern states,have less than 40 percent of the Negroes registered to vote. It’s very interesting to notice. And I think a professor at the University of Texas, in a recent article, brought this out very clearly. So it demonstrates that it’s so important to get Negroes registered to vote in large numbers in the South. And it would be this coalition of the Negro vote and the moderate white vote that will really make the new South.

President Johnson: That’s exactly right. I think it’s very important that we not say that we’re doing this, and we not do it just because it’s negroes or whites. But we take the position that every person born in this country and when they reach a certain age, that he have a right to vote, just like he has a right to fight. And that we just extend it whether it’s a Negro or whether it’s a Mexican or who it is.

FUCK.  Note how interesting this is!  The first time King gets a word in edgewise on Johnson, what does he say?  In essence: “you’re a politician?  Register black people!  They would vote for you!  The fucked up registration is hurting you, politically!  That’s the one thing I know you care about. The one principle I know you understand. ”

How interesting is this relationship?!  The blend of principle and pragmatism!  These are two incredibly forceful men, who’ve risen to incredible heights from incredibly impoverished backgrounds. LBJ’s background was more impoverished than King’s.  Certainly LBJ’s dad was poorer, in the eyes of his community, than King’s dad, a distinguished minister, was.

How does this phone call end?:

President Johnson: But they’re there and they’re ready for them to go to work, and we’re not just going to talk. If they’ll vote, I’m ready. We’ve got our recommendations. And we talked the first three years of our administration. We promised, and we held it up and people were getting to be pretty disillusioned, I think, when I finally beat the Rules Committee and got [the] Civil Rights [Act of 1964] out.

King: Yeah. Well, I know.

President Johnson: I think you might had a lot more revolution in this country than you could handle if we had had that Civil Rights [bill] stay in the Rules Committee under Judge Smith.

King: That’s right. Oh, that’s–that’s such a disillusion [unclear].

President Johnson: Well, we talked about it [for] three years, you know. [Unclear comment by King] But we just did something about it. So that’s what we got to do now, and you get in there and help us.

King: Well, I certainly will, and you know you can always count on that.

President Johnson: Thank you so much.

King: All right. God bless you. Thank you, Mr. President.

President Johnson: Bye. Bye.

OK.  That’s 1/15/65.

As best I understand, the Johnson/King meeting in the movie Selma took place right before this call, and then the bulk of the movie takes place immediately after it.  The Selma marches were in March ’65.

Now look: that call is boring, and it’s full of lots of information that’s pretty tiresome.  If you don’t condense and compress historical stories, the audience is gonna be bored stiff.  There’s some responsibility to rough accuracy, but if I’m the moviegoer?  You have a lot of leeway to mess around with chronology, character, or whatever, so as to keep me from being bored.  I’ll be pissed if you don’t use it.

So: when it comes to Selma being criticized on these grounds?  I am sympathetic to the moviemakers.

Let’s go back to the source.  That Salon article is mad about this Maureen Dowd thing which was, I think, kicked off by this thing: Elizabeth Drew in The NY Review Of Books (Drew is white, fwiw (extremely white, it would appear)) about the inaccuracies of the movie:

The film suggests that there was a struggle between King and Johnson over whether such a bill should be pushed following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, signed into law in July of that year. The clear implication is that Johnson was opposed to a voting rights bill, period, and that he had to be persuaded by King. This story has now been propagated to millions of viewers, to the point where young people in movie houses boo Johnson’s name.

But there was no struggle. This is pure fiction. The remarkable story of the relationship between Johnson and King was that two such different men, from such different backgrounds, with such different constituencies, and responsibilities, formed a partnership to get the voting rights bill through. This is not to say that the two became pals: they were understandably wary of each other but managed to overcome that as well as other possible sources of tensions to get the job done.

What do we do with this?

Drew doesn’t even bring up what seems to me to be the more slanderous deviation from history: LBJ apparently didn’t use Hoover’s wiretaps on King against him:

Lyndon Johnson felt betrayed by King’s opposition to the Vietnam War, yet he refused to use Hoover’s dossier against King, according to Taylor Branch, one of King’s most distinguished biographers.

Telling the story of King and LBJ, their relationship, was, I would guess, the intention of the original screenwriter, (white) Paul Webb:

He adapted the novel “Spanish Assassins” for Brit outfit Company Pictures, and then wrote “Selma,” an original idea about Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson, for Celador Films.

Maybe Paul Webb* believes in Forrester’s Rule (“a story is about two people”).  He was interested in exactly what Elizabeth Drew is talking about — what we see in that phone call.  King and LBJ, two masters of politics and political theater.  The activist and the politician.  It’s a great story, two big dogs squaring off, needing each other but also battling each other.  He went off and wrote it.

But: the movie Selma, which has his name on it, is not about that. Director Ava DuVernay rewrote the movie:

DEADLINE: How much changed from the script that you inherited to the one that you turned in?
DUVERNAY: I’d say about 90 percent. He had a lot of good White House zingers and I kept those. I don’t write white racist very well, and left some of those good zingers in, like, if Elvis Presley and Jesus Christ went into a club, stuff like that. What was so important to me to get right was the arc about King and Coretta, the relationship that they had, their marriage and the turmoil in it at that time. All of the strategy sessions with the Band of Brothers including all of the leaders around him. The poor little girls in the introduction, the third act turnaround. A lot. Just being African-American from East Philly, I knew the period really well. My father is from Brownstown, Alabama, so I knew the place. I took out all the composite characters. They were like three people made into one person, stuff like that. The time was so beautiful and the story was so intense, you didn’t have to make anything up.

DuVernay was less interested than Webb in the LBJ aspect of the story.  From her Rolling Stone interview:

Let’s talk about reducing LBJ’s role in the events you depict in the film.
Every filmmaker imbues a movie with their own point of view. The script was the LBJ/King thing, but originally, it was much more slanted to Johnson. I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma. You have to bring in some context for what it was like to live in the racial terrorism that was going on in the deep south at that time. The four little girls have to be there, and then you have to bring in the women. So I started adding women.

(Side note, about a weird legal/union thing here:  when somebody rewrites more than 50% of a script, they can appeal to the Writers’ Guild of America and arbitrate to get credited as screenwriter:

On completion of a film, the producer presents proposed screenwriting credits to the guild and circulates the final script to all writers employed on the script. If any writer objects to the proposed credits, credit for the film enters arbitration. If the director or producer of the film is being proposed for a final writing credit, this triggers an automatic arbitration (WGA Screen Credits Manual, section III.C.1)

But apparently neither Ava DuVernay or Paul Webb are in the WGA:

DuVernay and Webb discussed the possibility of sharing screenplay credit in recent months but the original writer elected to enforce the terms of his original deal. DuVernay had no way to challenge his decision because neither she nor Webb are members of the Writers Guild of America.

Webb is a British writer and as an independent filmmaker, DuVernay never joined the guild, thus the script was not subject to the WGA’s typical credit arbitration process.

So the screenplay is still credited to Webb.

For her part, DuVernay appears to be taking the setback in stride. Though she wasn’t available to comment on this story as she’s in the midst of a press tour, a “Selma” source told TheWrap that DuVernay has had a month to wrap her head around Webb’s decision, acknowledging that her making a fuss about the lack of co-credit won’t change anything.

One insider described DuVernay as “disappointed” about Webb’s decision to keep sole screenwriting credit. “I never thought someone would put their name on something they didn’t write, but I’ve learned a lot about human nature [during this process]. There’s no point in stirring the pot because nothing can be changed,” one of “Selma’s’” key creative collaborators told TheWrap.)

Anyway:

Two nights ago I saw this movie.

Re: the possible inaccuracy about LBJ’s important role in the events depicted:  as a moviegoer?  I don’t really care.  I think they have some wiggle room on this if they need it to dramatize the deeper reality.

I don’t give a shit about Johnson getting “credit.”  LBJ’s whole life was about ensuring credit for himself.  It’s actually deeply fucked up, maybe his most destructive quality.  The LBJ Library in Austin is like a twisted postmodern Pharaoh’s tomb:

IMG_7346

If LBJ’s role in all this has to be sacrificed, to tell a good story?  Fuck it.  Is Selma really more unfaithful to its historical characters than The Imitation Game?  (man, NYRB really on the historical accuracy cases)

THE IMITATION GAME

But I think the historical fudging is important because it suggests where Selma went off the rails as a movie.

Why include Johnson at all? If you want to tell a story about Selma, great!  It sounds crazily dramatic!  Couldn’t you cut the Johnson scenes out entirely?  What story are you telling here?  What am I following?  Which characters are trying to achieve what?  What’s in their way?

If this is a movie about MLK convincing LBJ to support a voting rights act via protests in Selma, and that’s not what happened, then why are you telling this story?

My guess: this movie was halfway down the road to getting made as a LBJ/MLK movie.  Then DuVernay took over.  She — fair enough — wanted to tell a different story, but the movie was halfway formed.  She pivoted the story of the movie, but not all the way.

Here’s that Salon article again:

“Selma” achieves both narrative breadth and affective depth. DuVernay added 27 new characters to a screenplay heavily focused on LBJ and MLK, most of them women.

For me, this is exactly the problem with the movie.  You can’t add 27 new characters and expect your two hour, seven minute movie to hold together.

I thought Selma was all over the place.

This movie has all kinds of great actors in it.  Oprah plays Annie Lee Cooper, who punched a sheriff in the face. Wendell Pierce is awesome.  But: if you get to the end of the movie, and can tell me the name of the person Wendell Pierce plays, you are a better moviegoer than me. To service all these characters, the movie has to jump all over the place, losing focus.  Malcolm X shows up for one scene, then he’s gone.  There’s a lot of dramatic stuff that happens, but none of it has as much power as it probably could have.

Whatever — it’s no crime to make a not great movie.  Selma is ambitious, an important story, and I learned a lot.

The real bummer of the movie, though, is that David Oyelowo is truly great as Martin Luther King.

SELMA

How the fuck do you play Martin Luther KING?  Every single American who spent a single day in a public school has seen a Martin Luther King speech, so first of all you have to live up to that.

But you also have to take on the fact that King was more complicated as a person, that he was more than just our national saint of race relations.

Add too that King was young when all this happened.  He was 39 when he died.  You need an actor who has both youth and gravity.

I think Oyelowo did a terrific job, and the shame is his talents aren’t used as powerfully as they might have been because this movie is kind of a mess.

As I was watching Selma, I was like “damn, how do you fuck up a movie about Martin Luther King?!”  This guy’s life was astoundingly dramatic.  Take, for example, the story of King’s last speech.

It’s April 3, 1968.  Four days before, LBJ, swamped by Vietnam, surprises the country by announcing he won’t run again.

King at this point is four years past his Nobel Peace Prize, five years past the “I Have A Dream” speech.  He’s won massive victories, but the civil rights movement is unraveling.  King’s started talking about issues even thornier than ending segregation and winning voting rights: Vietnam, poverty.

In Memphis, garbage workers have been on strike for two months.  Here’s what set off the strike:

Echol Cole and Robert Walker had been crushed in a mechanical malfunction on February 1; city rules forbade black employees to seek shelter from rain anywhere but in the back of their compressor trucks, with the garbage.

There are all kinds of demands on King’s time, requests to appear, but he decides he has to go to Memphis.  So he’s there.  That’s the context for this speech.  You can’t hear this in the clip, but there’s a thunderstorm in Memphis that’s banging the shutters of the church against the walls — it sounds like gunshots:

The next day:

King assassinated

this photo was taken by black South African photographer Joseph Louw – not a ton about him online.

The reason I know all that stuff is because of this amazing documentary:

Can’t recommend this enough.  You can watch it for $1.99 on Amazon Instant.  It is just fantastic.  (Apparently Paul Greengrass of Bourne and Captain Phillips is working on a movie about those events.)

After seeing it, though, I learned the screenplay for Selma was handicapped by an enormous problem: they couldn’t use Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches.

Those revisions included rewriting King’s speeches, because, in 2009, King’s estate licensed them to DreamWorks Pictures and Warner Bros. for an untitled project to be produced by Steven Spielberg. Subsequent negotiations between those companies and Selma‘s producers did not lead to an agreement. DuVurnay [sic] is credited with writing alternative speeches that evoke the historic ones without violating the copyright. She recalled spending hours listening to King’s words while hiking the canyons of Los Angeles.

Well, given that, I think Ava DuVernay did a pretty decent job on the speeches.

I might be alone in not thinking Selma was an awesome movie:

FullSizeRender

But that’s what I thought.  In addition to having a mess of a screenplay, I didn’t think it looked all that good.  Look at these photos of the actual Selma march:

Selma 1

That’s the famous photo by James Karales.  How about these, by Spider Martin?:

Selma 2

Selma 3

Bloody Sunday

Selma 4

Selma later

from the march to Montgomery, I believe

Spider martin

Spider Martin.

(More Spider Martin photos here).

Is there one shot in Selma that’s as amazing as any of these?  For me, the coolest parts of Selma were at the end, when they showed actual documentary footage.

OK, maybe it’s not fair to bash a movie for not being as cool visually as the photos of the actual event, but: why are you making this movie?  If you’re not showing me anything new or unseen or innovative?  If your drama isn’t more dramatic than just a documentary?  Is Selma any better or more engaging than this?:

I just jumped into this more or less at random 39:18 or so, and there’s a description of the real-life meeting between LBJ and George Wallace that’s dramatized in Selma.  Watch from 39:30 for one minute and tell me if you think that scene in Selma captures even a fraction of the drama that’s described here.

Compare what LBJ actually said to George Wallace to that scene in Selma:

“George, you and I shouldn’t be thinking about 1965; we should be thinking about 1985… . Now, you got a lot of poor people down there in Alabama … a lot of people who need jobs, a lot of people who need a future. You could do a lot for them. Now, in 1985, George, what do you want left behind? Do you want a great big marble monument that says ‘George Wallace: He Built’? Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine lying there along that harsh caliche soil that says ‘George Wallace: He Hated’?”

Do you think the made-up version is better than the real one?

Did Selma get snubbed for the Oscars?

From EW:

‘Selma’ and the woman who should have made history: Ava DuVernay

The Oscars are ridiculous and silly, but they’re fun to argue about.  If you ask me, David Oyelowo got robbed, he was as good at acting as anybody else this year.  I don’t think Ava DuVernay was as great at directing this year as say Richard Linklater, but whatever, are you gonna tell me Imitation Game was better directed than Interstellar?  The whole thing breaks down awful fast.

But this, from that EW article, is some bullshit:

Just as when Zero Dark Thirty smashed into real-world events that snuffed out its Oscar hopes, Selma marched into theaters just as the country was swirling in racial tension. In November, after Officer Darren Wilson was not indicted for the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., DuVernay joined other black filmmakers in protest, asking her 58,000 Twitter followers to boycott all retail stores on the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday. And last month in New York, after a grand jury declined to charge the officer who had caused the death of Eric Garner using a chokehold, she and her cast gathered on the front steps of the New York Public Library, without the knowledge of studio publicists, dressed in “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts.

Journalists consistently—and accurately—drew a line between the film and current events. Oddly, this seemed to rankle some Academy voters, as if DuVernay, the media, and the film’s campaign were all saying: If you don’t vote for Selma, you’re not taking a stand against this outrage. “It’s almost like because she is African-American, we should have made her one of the nominees,” says one member. “I think that’s racist. Look at what we did last year with 12 Years.”

This woman made a movie that’s partly about cops killing a young black man.  If she was outraged when the very same thing was still in the news in 2014, who can be “rankled” by that?

Even if she was completely shamelessly drawing a political connection to promote her movie, an egomaniac using every possible advantage — what feature film director isn’t an egomaniac using every possible advantage?

Look at what Silver Linings Playbook did — tying their movie to a political cause, with the help of a professional political operator. To imagine wicked intention and then criticize DuVernay for it is some straight-up bullshit.

As of 2012, according to the Los Angeles Times, voters were 94 percent white, and 77 percent male.

That’s embarrassing.

And it’s embarrassing and bad for movies if they’re mostly made by one kind of person: white dudes.  Or feature mostly white people.

Selma drove me crazy because a movie about Martin Luther King should’ve been so much better.  Maybe that’s not fair, or asking too much.  But these stories about American history are just insanely interesting.  They’re almost unbelievably dramatic.  The Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the central event of this movie takes place, is named after the former head of the Alabama KKK.

pettys From the Encyclopedia of Alabama:

Between 1868 and 1871, according to testimony gathered by a special investigation conducted by members of the U.S. Congress, Klansmen in Alabama committed more than 100 murders and thousands of acts of violence and intimidation.

That’s the country we live in!  The actual facts are so incredible, so dramatic.  Maybe Selma was hurt because it was trying to squeeze in some fraction of this information.  You know what?  It got me learning about all this, got people talking about it — that’s not nothing.

The moral here might be it’s very, very hard to make a good movie.

Or maybe the moral is the truth is superior to distortion.

(As always, if you have a strong opinion or think I got it wrong, please do comment or email me.)

 * Paul Webb’s story is  pretty interesting: he’s a 60 year old British guy who spent ten years as a high school teacher and fifteen as an oil company consultant before breaking into screenwriting.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s