The brilliant “Selma” and after. Of Elliott Gould, movements, authenticity and… feminism

selmaPlease see this excellent and important film.  Covering a few vital months in the history of the US Black Civil Rights struggle in the mid-60s, it sweeps you along, forcing you to think, feel and hope.

It received justifiably positive reviews in the States (with predictable carping about historical accuracy (1).   Opening with Martin Luther King rehearsing his speech that he will give to the Nobel Committee at the end of 1964, and closing with a speech in Birmingham, Alabama, the intervening two hours shows him and other figures struggling with what to aim for, when to advance and to retreat, who to compromise with, who NOT to compromise with.  There are, thank goodness, no sepia flashbacks to the bus boycott, or the ‘I have a dream ‘ speech.  The action is contained, the sense of urgency and uncertainty never diminishes.

King emerges from behind the myth that has been built around him. He is fearful, courageous, doubting, certain, angry, tired. He is not dis-empowering saint of the ‘star system’.  His fate, three years later, hangs over the film.  (British actor David Oyelowo is flawless. How he didn’t get both an Oscar nomination and the gong itself, well…)

We actually get to see some of the people who die along the way as more than convenient martyrs.  They have names and faces, and their deaths cause horror and grief.

This matters. Noam Chomsky makes the point that movements are  movements of many anonymous people, whose presence is erased.

The movie is also really good on the internal struggles over tactics, strategy, egos.  I’m not so much thinking of the Malcolm X cameo, but of the spell-binding scene where the big and famous SCLC figures have arrived in Selma and this has put the noses of the “Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee” out of joint (by this time, in the aftermath of the previous year’s Freedom Summer SNCC had had a leadership shakeout, and Bob Moses had left the organisation). (For a knowledgable and perceptive take on this an other problems with the SNCC portrayal, see here.)

Movements versus moments? Can the two feed each other?
The basic distinction is between long-term “low-level” community organising and capacity building, and the large-scale, high-profile but necessarily brief moments of agitation (for new laws, usually).  It’s the eternal problem.  Social change without legislative change is slow and frustrating, but by focusing on legislative changes victories can be hollow, rules unenforced and promises unkept (yes, Manchester City Council and your climate change nonsense, I’m looking at you).  SNCC people and the Tom Haydens of this world would say that the Voting Rights Act of 1965, in the absence of ongoing social action, is a symbolic victory.  Given the racialized nature of US poverty and incarceration rates, and the return of Jim Crow, some would agree (2).  The music over the end credits, a rap song, makes many pointed references to Ferguson, Missouri.

 “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

The justification for the Elliott Gould reference in the title
The first I knew of Selma as an historical event was when I saw a curious and little-seen film (with Harrison Ford in a pre-Han Solo cameo) starring Elliott Gould.  The film, released in 1970 and called “Getting Straight” centres on a graduate student (Gould as “Harry Bailey” ) who is trying to figure out what to do with his life while all around him students protest Vietnam and worry about whether they are ‘authentic’.  The script writer lights upon participation in black civil rights struggles when faced with violence, as a litmus test of this authenticity.  The pay-off is that Harry was there. Gould’s despairing speech, about the fear they faced on the bridge, still resonates, 25 years after I saw it.

We can but hope that Ava duVernay, once she finishes the Hurricane Katrina film, makes a drama about the assassination of Fred Hampton in December 1969.

Final question.  We now have Milk about the life of the first ‘out’ homosexual politician in the US, and Selma.  Can someone suggest films (especially dramas) about feminism’s political history? Is my lack of examples simply my own ignorance, or are there actually not so many films (for reasons commercial as well as ideological.)  Answers on a postcard to the usual address.

If you liked this post, or found it useful.
a) Comment on it – I’d love to hear your opinion (especially if you have recommendations of books, or of films that do for feminism what “Milk” does for gay rights and “Selma” for the Civil Rights Movement
b) Send it on to other folks, asking them to comment.

Please. See. This. Film!

For me to (re)-read/watch

Books (non-fiction)
And we are not saved: a History of the Movement as People by Debbie Louis
Freedom Summer by Douglas McAdam
More of Martin Luther King!!

Fiction
Vida by Marge Piercy (I re-read it every couple of years anyway).
Death is Part of the Process by Hilda Bernstein

Films
Getting Straight
Mississippi Burning (to remember how it SHOULDN’T be portrayed)

Footnotes
1) Hint; it’s not a documentary [as if those are ‘perfect’!]). Apparently the top white guy wasn’t quite as bad as some think the film makes him out. Well,  a) cry me a river b) Vietnam c) do the critics who say this get up in arms about black people getting airbrushed, distorted etc etc in films that they ‘agree’ with. Somebody call the #hypocrisycops

The film doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, and although Coretta Scott King gets some good scenes,  Diane Nash and others fade into the background.  There is no mention of other figures (Ella Barker, Fannie Lou Harmer), but to have included them would have made the movie far too unwieldy.

2) please note, other countries, including ‘mine’, have nowt to boast about.

6 thoughts on “The brilliant “Selma” and after. Of Elliott Gould, movements, authenticity and… feminism

Add yours

  1. I have not bothered watching Selma, as some of the critism of the film suggests, it is just ‘Hollywood’, and there is nothing more biased than films out of ‘Hollywood’.
    There are been a couple of articles recently, one on how the environmental movement has not been fully inclusvie, despite all the airy words, otherwise: http://newamericamedia.org/2015/03/environmental-movement-feeling-the-heat—to-diversify.php. And it is not only those of colour, that lack representation of, but also the poorer Whites, which is also the case in the UK.
    Another article, is on the 50th Anniversary of Selma, with no mention 0f the film Selma: http://disq.us/8mhpky.
    It is the poor who are hit the hardest by the lack of civil rights and climate change. And despite slogans like like, ‘For Fairness and Equality’, the Green Party fails miserably when it comes to putting it into action.
    Yesterday, someone unconnected to politics and the environment movement, told me, there was no such thing, as poor people in the UK. Where has the Green Party been active on the ‘bed-room’ tax, sanctions and workfare? When inequalities within society are corrected, then we can have a stronger environmental movement. Not by films or speeches by the filthy rich.

    1. Hi Patrick,
      nothing is perfect. Selma is not a perfect film (I made that clear in the review, I hope), but it is a very good one, and good for thinking with. In terms of dramas about social movements, it’s one of the best I am aware of.
      Yes, agreed env movement is far from perfect. Green Party, of which I am not a member, is not perfect. My understanding of them is that they are opposed to the things you mention. Will they ever have power, and have to have their ideals tested? No.
      As for this unconnected person, I am not sure how that is relevant. There are all sorts of ignorant things get said every day. Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain and all that…

      1. I thought the mention of the person stating there was no poverty in the UK, relevant. They are not alone, mostly due to our media, like the Daily Mail. But is an opinion amongst some members of the Green Party. They, like some members of the Labour and Conservative Party, put everything down to those in dire straits, as ‘life-style’ choices, not poverty due to political policies. Foodbanks drive demand, not the reality, that we need more foodbanks to meet demand.

      1. Hi Marc,

        Another link thought you might be interested in. I remember you raising the question on whether veganism would be the answer to climate-change, or something like-that. As vegans are heavily dependant on Soya products, themselves, and most Soy is now of the GMO variety. What is the future for vegans? Yes, far too much meat is eaten, especially in the USA and increasingly elsewhere. But as the book I loaned you (Food Justice) points out. It is the whole food system, controlled by a small number companies, heavily dependant on fossil-fuels that are ultimately the problem. And they, like the fossil-fuel and pharmaceutical companies are killing us slowly, not with love but for profits.

        Patrick.

        >

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