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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

January 20, 2015: MLK Stories: Selma

[In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a week’s series on histories and stories salient to understanding and engaging with the life and legacy of one of our greatest Americans. Please add your responses and other MLK connections for a crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On what’s very inspiring, and what might be more problematic, about the new film.
This is a great time for films about African American stories and histories. Steve McQueen, director most recently of 12 Years a Slave (for my money the best film to date about African American history, and on my short list of best films about American history period), has announced that his next project will focus on the amazing life of actor, performer, athlete, activist, and icon Paul Robeson. One of the breakout stars of McQueen’s film, Lupita Nyong’o, is set to star in an upcoming film adapation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s stunning novel Americanah (2013). And there’s no need to wait for those two future films—in theaters now is Ava DuVernay’s historical and political drama Selma, perhaps the first mainstream American film to focus centrally on portraying histories and stories of the Civil Rights movement from African American perspectives.
That last phrase is one main reason I find DuVernay’s film so inspiring. There have certainly been prominent and successful films about the Civil Rights movement: Mississippi Burning (1988) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989), to name two of the most acclaimed. But I would argue that both of those, like similar but more slight films such as The Long Walk Home (1990) and Ghosts of Mississippi (1996), have approached Civil Rights and African American history through the lens of white protagonists and perspectives—perhaps an understandable choice, and one that (as I would argue Glory [1989] proves) does not render it impossible to connect with African American histories, but also a necessarily limiting starting point. I haven’t had the chance to see Selma yet, but it seems clear that its protagonists and central perspectives are King, his wife Coretta Scott King, and other Civil Rights activists and leaders (such as James Bevel, the principal architect of the Selma march). The fact that this groundbreaking film was directed by an up-and-coming female filmmaker who was born seven years after the Selma march? Well, that’s just one more inspiring detail.
Ironically, given this inspiring reversal in racial emphasis and perspectives, the one critique of Selma I’ve encountered has been of its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson as an adversary to King and the Selma march. That op ed was written by Joseph Califano Jr., one of Johnson’s principal domestic advisors for most of his presidency, which both lends it an air of accuracy yet also means it comes from a subjective point of view to be sure. And again, as of this late-December writing I haven’t had a chance to see DuVernay’s film yet, so I should try to reserve judgment. But if the film does set up Johnson as an adversary in the ways Califano suggests, I would say two things: that’s an understandable and reasonable storytelling choice, one that certainly highlights the substantial national opposition faced by King and his fellow activists; but nonetheless, on the spectrum of white American responses to the Civil Rights Movement, I would put Johnson toward the positive end for sure. And if Selma helps us think and talk about such questions, that’d be one more inspiring effect of the film.
Next MLK story tomorrow,

PS. What do you think? Responses or other connections you’d share for the weekend post?

PPS. After I scheduled this post, DuVernay responded passionately and convincingly to Califano's criticisms.

PPPS. And long after, I had a chance to see the film, understood even more fully the motivations behind such choices, and wrote this piece about it:

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