Selma. Oh, my goodness. You will need to see this.
Selma is everything a historical film must be. Leading up to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, this biopic of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proves itself to actually be a portrait of the people. The people on the ground in Selma, Alabama and nationwide during 1965 are placed transparently before us. We get to look at a portrait of the spirit woven through the Civil Rights Movement. Once again, the cinematic context gives way for an opportunity to share in another’s perspective.
Interestingly, Ana DuVernay, director of Selma, has expressed that originally she did not possess a great desire to work on a historical drama. This was not the genre that appealed to her because often it felt like there was a significant sense of “distance” between the viewer and its story and characters. In Selma, her goal was to bring the viewer closer to the struggle and humanize the characters, and that is exactly what is accomplished here.
Bradford Young, the cinematographer behind Selma, shares some rich insight about the motives behind the way the movie was shot. He states, “…we didn’t want you to be an observer of the violence. We wanted you to be a person that was also being violated.” When asked about the vignetted frames in many of the shots, Young clarifies that “we must really express this idea of us being involved, engaged. I think the wide angle, you see that in the frame. Those wide angle lenses, they distort the side. I think that just created a greater periphery. It just made the human peripheral vision.” Young is speaking earnestly about the importance of a viewer’s personal involvement during the film.
When commenting on DuVernay’s vision, he explains:
“How do you approach violence without making it about the gore, but about the resilience and demise of the body? It was all part of Ava’s strategy, to get you in so that you see that and you never forget that was a violent, brutal moment and people paid a dear price for us to be here today. But not turn it into a conversation around the film. Make it about an experience. Make it repulsive but in the best way — in the most subtle, nuanced way.”
And an experience it was. When a film makes you more than just a simple observer, you know it is fulfilling its essential purpose. I definitely caught the “human peripheral vision” that Young mentions. I got chills from Dr. King’s speech delivery (played by David Oyelowo). I was unsettled by the lives that were taken and angry at those who were allowing it. I felt sickened by the abuse, crime, and unjust humiliation. I felt a kindred spirit with the Scriptures quoted and songs sung to fuel King’s resolve. I felt genuinely challenged in the reality of conditions today. When things like this happen to a viewer, you know a movie is good.
Yet, some would say that Selma is everything a historical movie shouldn’t be. The portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson has been under scrutiny and a representative of the former administration came forward to disagree with his role as an antagonist in the film.
The obstacle to overcome in this story is the painfully slow rate of movement that the Voting Rights Act was making in the President’s agenda. Dr. King says it must happen now, while the President says wait. One of Johnson’s top assistants, Joseph A. Califano Jr., reported through the Washington Post that the President was the one who devised the march in support of passing the Act. He writes:
“Contrary to the portrait painted by ‘Selma,’ Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. were partners in this effort. Johnson was enthusiastic about voting rights and the President urged King to find a place like Selma and lead a major demonstration. That’s three strikes for ‘Selma.’ The movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.”
Ana DuVernay, director of Selma, speaks out against these types of accounts, stating her belief in reports from leaders who were actually involved in the march and movement. She does not believe that this march was Johnson’s original idea or initially his primary concern. You can hear a snapshot of her perspective in this interview. She also cited a 2013 article from the New Yorker via her Twitter account describing the relationship between President Johnson and the movement’s struggle leading up to the Voting Rights Act. One notable paragraph states:
Johnson recognized the need for additional voting-rights legislation, and he directed Nicholas Katzenbach, soon to be his attorney general, to draft it. “I want you to write me the _____ toughest voting rights act that you can devise,” is the way he put it. But then progress slowed. Johnson had the most ambitious legislative agenda of any President since F.D.R. (his idol), and he explained to King that he was worried that Southern opposition to more civil-rights legislation would drain support from the War on Poverty and hold up bills on Medicare, immigration reform, and aid to education. He asked King to wait.
DuVernay explains in one interview that she believed President Johnson to be a hero and was dedicated to showing the “rocky road it took to get there”. Neither King nor Johnson were perfect, but the manner in which their agendas challenged one another ended up bringing change. DuVernay makes it her aim to show the great pain and perseverance such progress required. Dr. King and the President confronted one another and the movie does not shy away from presenting this complexity in their relationship. Yet, the director believes it was one of the most productive relationships in national history.
Art for the Ages
January 9, 2015. Add it to the list of dates when noteworthy creative works bolstered the most crucial movements in history. The creative arts are an expression of the people, and the best of them buttress the greatest challenges and values of the time. This is why I ardently believe that it is important for many people to experience this movie, despite their standing regarding the President’s portrayal. Selma raises serious questions and asks you to fathom a life different from your own. Selma’s release is on time and relevant, occurring when the nation’s conscious is undoubtedly confronted and its citizens awakened.
Thank you, filmmakers—those of you who tell good stories. It provides us the opportunity to walk in another person’s shoes. We all can heed the call to be quick to listen and eager to understand people. Viewer, practice walking in another’s shoes, particularly these people marching from Selma to Montgomery. What better a time for our nation to practice considering one’s fellow man and experiencing their story?
Selma. Just receive it.