Selma : A Film Review

Selma 2014 US/UK Cert. 12a.
Director. Ava DuVernay. Cast: David Oyelowo, (Martin Luther King Jr.), Carmen Ejogo, (Coretta Scott King), Tom Wilkinson, (Lyndon Baines Johnson), Andre Holland, (Andrew Young), Omar J. Dorsey, (James Orange), Tessa Thompson, (Diane Nash) Colman Domingo, (Ralph Abernathy), Wendell Pierce, Tim Roth, (George Wallace), John Lavelle, (Roy Reed), Jeremy Strong, Dylan Baker, (J. Edgar Hoover), Oprah Winfrey, (Annie Lee Cooper).

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Selma in the 1960’s
When the Television hit the living rooms of modern life in the shapes of mass produced plastic boxes, carrying life through the lens of the Networks and state Media outlets which quickly had become the news digest medium of moving image broadcasting.

The war in Vietnam covered a long period but when in 1960 US President Eisenhower pledged American assistance to the South Vietnamese after decades of sporadic involvement which went back to the early days of the century and further the Television was there there to bring pictures.

Ava DuVernay the Director of Selma clearly is aware of the media presence, the new media, in tackling Selma and the story of the war fought inside America in respect of Racism. The division of white black and other races was a complete unresolved and to a large extent still remains an unresolved mammoth in the Politics of the United States of America as well as every continent on the planet.

Lyndon Blaine Johnson was only a small part of it.
As far as Martin Luther King Jr. was concerned he was the principle obstacle.
So what linkage has the Film with LBJ and what he was at?
There were 5 U.S. Presidents during its involvement in the Vietnam War. They were:
1. Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961)
He wanted the breakup of Vietnam to stop the influence of Communism in South East Asia.
2. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
He decided to use Machinery sending masses of aid. Three weeks before he was assassinated he had organised a coup against Diem who he was also ‘aiding’.
3. Lyndon Johnson (1963 –1969)
He became embroiled in 1964 vastly upgrading the inner war by the Operation Rolling Thunder. US Combat troops had hit the ground in March 1965. He instituted the draft in the face of anti-war protests across campuses and Wider America.
In 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred and its resolution gave Johnson more powers to wage the war in Vietnam. He was the President who ordered the bombing campaign called Operation Rolling Thunder and sent the first combat troops to South Vietnam in March 1965 after an attack of Viet Cong on U.S air base in Pleiku. The draft was instituted soon after that and caused many anti-war protests nationwide especially inside campuses.
4. Richard Nixon (1969 -1974)
He decided Vietnam was not enough and decided to go into Loas and Cambodia. His Christmas bombing of 1972 an especially personal act of retribution on North Vietnam
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So this is the background to the film.
The Proximity of War
To wage war you need troops and so for Texas anti-communist Lyndon Blaine Johnson it must have been obvious that as he had a war of continuous making; it was an inherited war against Communism, sometimes fought with the US also.
The arms industry was a widescoping and labour intensive work and profit wielding operation, giving with it the supremacy of power sought against the Eastern Bloc of Communism post-war that Russia had become and the quite Maoist China had grown into against its agrarian broadly egalitarian principles, the modern America had within it the black community disenfranchised and treated as second class citizens.
Producing Product
Brad Pitt in Producing role and Ava Du Vernay the Director must have sat down together and looked about at a script or treatment to sort out into Selma. The casting is odd and the Criminal Americans, George Wallace, LB Johnson with principle British Actors complete with wavering Texas, Alabama accents and frankly dumbed down ‘psychotic minds and blood thick contempt’ are cop outs by Americans not wishing to put that nest of vipers on their own doorstep.
It makes you wonder do they have what it takes to tell a complete story.
The counterbalance is also that perversely the Mr and Mrs King performances of the good characters is splendidly accurately and deeply prescribing the emotion and humanity both these people undoubtedly possessed. Oprah is not sole a exception in delivering a stunning and extraordinary memorable acting part. There is seldom an American who does not inhabit nor convince you this reality is now in the room.
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Civil Rights
To tell the story of Martin Luther King is a grand project. Quite literally he alone turned the United States of America to the mirror and look into itself.

The hatred , the division, the sectarian, the discriminatory, the exploitation, the inequality the cultural gulf was theirs to own in the USA.
David and Carmen
David Oyeloyo is introduced to us as Martin Luther King in the Brad Pitt peacock way, in a plush hotel room with the peacock feather flock wallpaper alongside the doting wife Coretta played beautifully and smartly by Carmen Ejogo. The Nobel Peace Prize awaits and The scene is our introduction as the Ascot tie is unfurled and retired as with customary and honest reflection, David Oyeloyo conveys the differences existing throughout America as they both have come to this citadel of honorable notoriety.

A very Scandinavian backdrop of pastel mistreatment sand geometric clashes of subdued angst cover the walls behind him on acres of canvas as he receives the acclaim and he has the opportunity to deliver his soliloquy.

The stage is set and we are next to see the memorable, very, very, accomplished performance of the central embodiment of the issue in the form of Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper, a nurse sought her right to vote in Selma Courthouse. It is a scene of oppression and dignity plainly conceived and effectively delivering for its writer Paul Webb his and our grasp of where we shall be going.

It is the straight and narrow path which it has been the vision of Martin Luther King to symbolism, focus and harness around the odd gospel doctrinarians that stood the Black communities in good faith through the venal hardships of white slavery and which manifested all over the world in various non-believing forms.

The he actors are well up to this task as most and probably all a have a large part of the memory, the history, the feelings of hurt manifested and manifesting in every core of their existence. This is the story as noted above of holding up mirrors and seeing the reflection inside and out. Of seeing through the impressive though tangibly flawed concept of film another reminder of ourselves flawed and unable to breakdown fears.
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Black Power for a War?
Tom Wilkinson as Lydon Blaine Johnson plays the role of the US President (the one the film ignores who saw the need for troops and Black troops suiting his warring ambitions against Commmunism) as a vexed, lagubrious control freak leader manipulating all about him in an ill fitting suit and displaying cockamayne bullshit language as a means of acting plain stupid when he utilised it as another tool in the armoury. David Oyeloyo is never outplayed and neither is given the reign to overbalanced the other in direction. Quite literally this combat of words and gestural conflict are brilliantly handled by Ava DuVernay.

The same is with almost every passage through the film.

The delivery of the Selma town as being atypical Alabama and spokes town for the cities. The Boston’s, Philidelphias, the Chicagos of America as MLK distilled into a real life narrative to focus, focus and bring explicitly and implicitly onto the new TV screens of America.
Ferguson another Ulster name.
DuVernay composes the bridge scenes when the central plank of the film which is the march to set out from Selma to the town of Montgomery (I wonder now about the white settlers from Ulster? erstwhile fundamentalists?) which has as it’s first physical obstacle the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This happened in 1965. It’s was a scene of passive activism meeting with violence unleashed under the authority of Alabama’s Wallace and with the probable blessing of US President Johnson.
Neither of who wanted any power to reach the hands of ordinary people bearing in mind the Black majority in States of the South.

Such was their land theft and exploitation of white and black workers the whole edifice of control was part of an even broader picture of modern empire.

The scenes on the bridge are pivotal and while large parts of America are adjusting to difference, that it was there to stay in many immigrants from Europe’s eyes, it is was entirely different for the Native American and those whose own history was the relatively young slave nations and continued exploitation throughout America.

DuVernay delivers vividly the issue through pieces of dialogue between for example, Malcolm X played Nigel Thatch and Coretta with Carmen Ejogo understanding only too well how personally high the stakes are set against them both.

There is also the civil rights movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee whose players have the raw anger of youth and played out by the respective actors superbly.

On March 7th, “Bloody Sunday,” is the centrality.

Lorraine Toussaint as Amelia Boynton,is brutalised on the march, likewise Tessa Thompson as Diane Nash.
Bloody Sunday and the Courts
In the Courthouse Martin Sheen as presiding Judge has a small role and this must have been another tilt at Hollywood’s finest remaining in the room under the invasion of outsider acting.

I noticed and it is not a spoiler, that as well as being a continuity key, DuVernay has a black and white girl on the central steps of the Court staircase conversing leisurely as the case is awaited, adjudicated and discharged.

It is a bit of sisterhood over the male violence which is at the fearful root of the hatred.

Conclusion. ####4

This is a very pivotal film for America to be making as it will be soon bro into the habit of commemorating and making sense of these times after and amid conflicts fought since elsewhere.

The film is a great accomplishment regardless of any caveats, Americans and Foreigners bring to it. It is smoothly achieved without being overwrought. Without rancour it repeats sometimes in the frame of the old footage of TV. Black and white footage without the sight of blood that it had excess of and it is for people like Oprah to get this story told over and over in countless ways. The witness of the United States of America needs is of campus, State museums right in the heartlands telling each part of the story from wherever it reveals the truth of the divisions. The inter gyration of communities need united in principles and seem through the mirror of History.

Despite misgivings on casting and they are in my mind intentionally non-committal moves of intent, the lack of addressing the Politics in an analytical observant way by critics and commentators, it delivers a many vectored and visually impressive and solid story of Historical narrative handheld with excellence by writer, director and the vast bulk of the cast.

It is a wonderous achievement – the achievement of Martin Luther King that is brought In no small part alive and it should not be the only vehicle to explore and inhibit more adventurous filmmaking in looking into the mirror of America. US Cinema should be up for it having so long relied on false narrative, escapism, fantasy for its Cinematic canon.

Less fantasy please America, more of this opinion shaping medium.

The USA needs this continued analysis and the connections run back in many directions, slavery, imperialism, religious division, to the dislodged from the little Island of Ireland for one. Further as well to the more worrying presently pressing, fore bearers of Jewish diaspora from Europe whose religion is like Middle East politics entwined in the industrialisation of War and all have completely undermined their futures in failures to contend with content of the Bible. The commandment not to kill a fundamental evidence of blind faith.

John Graham

4 February 2015

Go see it at QFT from
Friday 6th February to Thursday 16th February 2015

“Glory,” a song by Common and John Legend ends the film.

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