Please 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
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!!
Mississippi Burning (to remember how it SHOULDN’T be portrayed)
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.