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

Bob Chipman | 9 Jan 2015 12:00
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In the film's version of events, King (David Oyelowo) is bound and determined to see then-President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) push the Voting Rights Act -- a bill that would, among other things, bring the hammer of Federal force down on specific Southern states with a history of using both "murky" and outright-illegal methods to prevent black citizens from registering to vote. When LBJ balks, fearing (in part) a backlash among white voters/lawmakers otherwise opposed to bigotry but overly-wary of Federal power expansion (sound familiar?), King decides that he'll need to bust out the only weapon in his arsenal more effective than rhetoric: His media-savvy. And that means going to Selma.

This is where the mythology-exploding comes in: King and company don't choose Selma, then notorious for the racist violence both perpetrated and tolerated by its police force against "uppity" black citizens, purely out of noble Christian obligation to do right by those most in need. Instead, they go there because it's the perfect staging ground for what was by then a finely tuned machine of media management. Righteousness and moral dignity are all well and good, Selma argues, but at the end of the day controlling the narrative, crafting tableaus and tugging on heartstrings is often what gets the job done.

Cynicism? Maybe. Oyelowo's heroic but shrewd, profoundly human King seems like he'd call it "realism" (or pragmatism). He's painfully aware, after a lifetime of building the Civil Rights playbook, that the only way to "move the needle," nationally, is for mainstream America to see the bloody reality of racism and be outraged by it -- and that means marching waves of ordinary, decent-looking folks into direct confrontation with their oppressors while his own celebrity draws the eye of the media onto the result. It's a twofold calculation: That Americans' horror at the sight of racist brutes using police powers to brutalize innocent/nonviolent marchers will force the government's hand, and that Selma's political leadership is both brutish and ignorant enough to give him that reaction.

This is the King that secular sainthood has stolen from the history books: No "simple man of God" just doing the righteous thing, but a sharp, smart operator who knew how to get things done, knew how to use the media to accomplish his goals, and did so with gusto. In that respect, it resembles Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, which took tremendous delight in holding up the devious arm-twisters and scheming backroom-dealers as the "real" heroes of political progress -- "The Ends Justify The Means: The Movie."

DuVarney's humanizing touch doesn't just extend to King. Coretta Scott gets several powerful scenes centered on her own view of the proceedings, and the film is very much enamored of sequences where the small army of Civil Rights stalwarts who travel with King drop their public solemnity to celebrate, argue and remind us that they were people before they were icons. Even Malcolm X turns up, briefly, offering to help with the theatrics of the The March by playing the part of the "meaner alternative" should Selma reject MLK's more gregarious version of civil disobedience. Even the "villains" get a certain amount of nuance, most of them having resigned to the inevitability of Civil Rights' victory but still insistent on gumming up the works to appear "strong" to their constituents.

Selma is powerful filmmaking, but also vibrant and immensely watchable. We shouldn't have had to wait this long for a great film or an honest film about Dr. King, but since we did it's nice to get them both in one package.

Bottom Line: Powerful filmmaking, but also vibrant and immensely watchable.

Recommendation: One of the best films currently playing.

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