MovieBob - Intermission
Selma Shows the Man Behind the Myth of MLK

Bob Chipman | 9 Jan 2015 12:00
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Intermission: Selma: social

Selma takes us to the promised land with a very human portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr.

Social media has its issues, but an unexpected benefit of a culture where people are launching what we used to call "brain droppings" semi-permanently into the digital aether is that every once in awhile something fairly poetic happens. Case in point: During one of the summer's police-brutality/civil-rights protest blowups, a particularly obnoxious set of memes were circulating juxtaposing photographs of protesters led by Martin Luther King (suits and ties, "Sunday best" dresses) and "under-dressed" present-day protesters; the point being made (sometimes with accompanying text) that the difference in attire was also a difference in the seriousness/effectiveness of the protests.

It's a crude point, and was roundly-deconstructed once it slipped from its native habitat on the Facebook timelines of aging cranks and into the Twittersphere. In fact, I only myself caught sight of it in the form of another user's brutally succinct dismissal of the memetic premise:

"MLK was wearing a suit when they SHOT HIM, too."

Dr. Martin Luther King has to be one of the most mis-appropriated figures in history, perhaps second only to Gandhi in terms of the "popular idea" of what they meant to their moment in history being grabbed up and repurposed to make points they never signed on to make or for comparisons one would doubt they'd find appropriate or flattering. "Where is the _______ Gandhi??" is invoked ad-nauseum to deride the efforts of revolutions that don't adhere to a clean-hands approach to the revolutionaries' own detriment, while the media tends to wax nostalgic for MLK whenever it's felt that a protest doesn't live up to some Hollywood standard of gentility.

There's seldom an inherent malice to this kind of misappropriation, just the usual problems that come with distance from events -- the way history tends to get its edges sanded off to flatter the sensibilities of those asked to remember it. King is the most memorable/effective Civil Rights leader with the least "baggage," so his popular, simplified image becomes the unrealistic standard by which his successors are judged: "Why can't YOU just make racism disappear by making a lovely speech about dreams, huh?"

Ava DuVarney's film Selma is being pitched as THE long-awaited Hollywood biopic of King, but that description does the film and its ambitions a great disservice. This is no mere Academy Awards fishing expedition, it's nothing less than an attempt to set the record straight on King. Selma aims to give him and his movement due credit for the radical, revolutionary spirit they embodied and -- though the confluence of events couldn't possibly have been known to the filmmakers -- to remind the world that the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement had a lot more in common with both the fist-pumping folks fighting back on the ground in Ferguson (and New York, and... you get the idea) and the so-called "agitators" using social media tools to turn local flashpoints into fuel for national outrage than they do with the talking heads tut-tutting "uncivilized" protests on cable news.

As the title implies, the film zeroes in on King taking up leadership of a coordinated protest against voting restrictions in Selma, Alabama in 1965. The event, capped off by a protest march from Selma to Montgomery, is remembered as one of the iconic highlights of the movement. While the film is concerned with granting audiences a humanizing glimpse into the man behind the soaring speeches, it's also concerned with exploding the idea that "iconic highlights" are made by history and happenstance, instead of by people.

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