Ava DuVernay’s Selma makes a valiant attempt to snatch back the 1960s Civil Rights Movement from Hollywood — the filmmaking institution that has lately used America’s racial history for its own white liberal self-aggrandizement. (Who can forget the throwback image of British director Steve McQueen jumping Jim Crow at this year’s Oscars?) But the problem with Selma is that it’s a Hollywood movie at heart. DuVernay does the same foreshortening of history seen in such recent films as The Great Debaters, The Help and The Butler. Though less egregious than those, Selma doesn’t find a distinctive tone; it’s similarly self-congratulatory.
Opening on Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta as they dress up to receive his 1965 Nobel Peace Prize, DuVernay does a couple interesting but curious things: She establishes a glamorous sexy vibe between these African American dignitaries and recreates a moment of their renown. Not that Selma needs to begin with the grassroots incidents that inspired the famous March from Selma to the Alabama state capital Montgomery — one of several events that galvanized the movement — but it’s unclear where DuVernay is headed with this sequence of familiar events. By first going for the gold, DuVernay seems to opt for celebrity over history. Though titled Selma, the film settles for being the Martin Luther King Show.
To start with Nobel recognition keeps Selma within the shadow of Official (white liberal) approval rather than portraying the movement in terms of authentic domestic (meaning American and African-American) values and goals. DuVernay’s best efforts seem impersonal but probably aren’t, because much of black American history is still seen through the hegemony of those who control the media’s image of black people. These days, few filmmakers are willing to complicate typical black movie stereotypes, even when the stereotypes are “dignified.” DuVernay’s background as a publicist suggests that she may not know the difference.
Immediately following the Nobel sequence, DuVernay segues into another flashback, this time an idyllic scene of little black girls descending a staircase gleefully discussing Coretta Scott King’s fashion sense. A sudden explosion blows the children into the air like dolls floating in slow-motion. (A recreation of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four black girls.) At this point, Selma’s hop-scotch narrative from Stockholm to Birmingham to Selma to Washington, D.C. looks like a collection of the Movement’s Greatest Hits (pardon the expression). DuVernay is telling a very well-known story in an overly familiar way — rubbing soft spots (brutalized children, women and white Northerners allying with the Movement) and sore spots (the 1965 murders of Jimmie Lee Johnson and Viola Liuzzo) rather than making meaning.
Not a single scene in Selma seems felt. Every plot turn is a nudge — and a boast — intended to remind viewers of a golden history to which they can easily lay claim. Some will argue that this is necessary in order to enlighten generations who may be ignorant of that history, but the problem is that slick familiarization prevents them from understanding the complexities of the past. And they don’t properly earn it — to borrow a term from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.
Think back to the scene in Spielberg’s 1985 The Color Purple (Hollywood’s foremost black female melodrama, which at one time widely repudiated but has since won rightful bonafides from a popular audience holding fast against disdainful critical fad and responding to the film with pure feeling and genuine affirmation). One of The Color Purple’s many memorable moments showed Oprah Winfrey as the prideful heavyset black Southern woman Sofia being slapped by a white sheriff and socking back; she ends up pistol-whipped, knocked out in the middle of a dusty street, the wind blowing her dress to pathetically expose her underwear. The humanizing details are part of the scene’s artistry and powerful effect. But in Selma, Winfrey’s appearance as Annie Mae Johnson, the voting rights activist who was brutalized and arrested by Alabama police, merely seems routine. It uses Oprah’s sanctimonious certitude that reenacting Johnson’s story (and the right to vote) is sufficient, even though these flashes of Johnson’s life are less compelling than that painful flash of panties. Spielberg’s image of underwear and an uncovered large brown thigh coexists with national memory of those formally-dressed black Americans who were beaten and hosed-down and attacked by dogs while petitioning. It’s what film scholars would call a synecdoche, symbolizing something deeper than Sofia’s wounded flesh and insulted pride; calling upon one’s own shame and inspiring compassion. Less ingenious replays of violence — tendentious representations of “history”–don’t stick in the memory but merely win a cursory response.
Noting Selma’s lack of imaginative power isn’t to slam DuVernay but to point out basic standards by which we can rightfully view movies — especially films about race, a subject that is rarely well executed. Selma is part of a Hollywood movement that easily exploits race through the eagerness of filmmakers and audiences to claim “the right side of history.” Viewers of The Help, The Butler and Selma are encouraged to profess an inheritance they do not earn merely from watching a superficial Civil Rights Best-Of reel.
DuVernay tries to reprove this truly reactionary approach to the Civil Rights movement but it has been stolen by the habits of contemporary Liberal self-congratulation. It is the same moral confusion and anachronistic historical thinking evident in much recent “protests” where every black male is Emmett Till and every march is Selma. Perhaps that’s why DuVernay loses the dramatic pulse of what was in fact three Selma marches; her sense of cinema and history gets bungled in anachronistic attitude.
If you doubt there’s anachronism in this modern process, look closely at the smugness in Winfrey’s performance as well as the cartoonish appearances of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and Alabama governor George Wallace. (Tim Roth plays Wallace as if doing James Woods in Ghosts of Mississipi.) Most importantly, British actor David Oyelowo’s turn as MLK displays a knowingness and bitterness that winks to millennial audiences. Oyelowo isn’t a matinee idol King like Jeffrey Wright in HBO’s Boycott but a firebrand. DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb retool King’s speeches to emphasize toughness, not spirituality. (“We‘re not asking, we‘re demanding. We will take their power!”) Oyelowo gets King’s melodious voice but the attitude is more suited to Stokely Carmichael — or a Spike Lee film.
The use of Negro spirituals in Selma has no force. Even an FBI surveillance log scene of a dispirited King’s Midnight call to Mahalia Jackson, whose singing could convince and soothe and prove faith, just seems like name-checking. DuVernay’s decision to avoid gospel spirituality is her prerogative, but it aligns her with the secularism that has turned the old pacifist movement toward new hostility. (Including “House of the Rising Sun“ and Dylan’s “Masters of War” proves she knows her market.) Tying an angry MLK to glib 60s rhetoric recalls Spielberg’s disingenuous presentation of political chicanery in Lincoln. Even a news clip of LBJ’s condign “History and fate meet at the same time and place” speech lacks its proper proportion.
That Hollywood and the film critical establishment gives preference to movies about black people that are based on historical tragedy, famous figures from the past (or documentaries) proves the unchallenged legacy of white supremacy — the distanced perspective of impersonal imagining. Critics in the 80s who had difficulty relating to The Color Purple’s romantic depiction of black struggle discounted the film’s empathic leap that moves viewers and towers over today’s self-important Civil Rights dramas. Selma’s characters fit a prescribed template — a twisted glorying in hardship, torture and suffering exemplified by 12 Years a Slave — as if that’s the only story about black people worth telling.
Fact is, many black moviegoers balk at wallowing in hardship. Liberals prefer it because it expiates their privileged guilt; misery not salvation, anger not loving-kindness or spiritual strength are the draconian ways by which they define humanity and the American condition. This could explain the media’s indifference to Get On Up and Beyond the Lights; those life force films go against the stultifying trend.
Had DuVernay not been influenced by the current trend, she might have avoided the mistakes of The Help and The Butler. (Selma’s best scene is almost pure melodrama: Carmen Ejogo’s sly, stoic confrontation with a husband’s infidelity.) DuVernay misapplies genre style in the scene where John Lewis (Stephan James), after leaving the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, allies with King and they discuss strategy during a night drive. DuVernay shoots the scene in dark, moody, Michael Mann imagery and edits these brothers in separation — why? She lacks the historical analysis and cinematic exactitude that distinguished Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, a complicated political history (part propaganda, part modernist deconstruction of Neorealism) that, overall, was an inspired cry for liberation.
On the streets Black Americans have had their quest for freedom and justice appropriated by anarchists and self-serving liberals. On the screen, Hollywood hustlers appropriate Black American history. DuVernay means to right this wrong, but she falls into the trap that limits Black people to documentary representation and biopics rather than films presented in dramatic fullness. The unfortunate irony of Selma is that its view of history skims the surface of Black American experience. It resembles a patronizing 21st century stump speech full of historical paraphrases. Ingesting this fantasy-history is like drinking from a Whites-Only water fountain.
Angelina Jolie’s World War II drama Unbroken offers a white variation on Selma. It recounts the hardships of Louis Zamperini, a second generation Italian immigrant who overcomes ethnic prejudice and the War (a plane wreck and stints in Japanese P.O.W. camps). Tailored to the “indomitable spirit of man” crowd, Unbroken has a really stupid self-help premise: “If you can take it, you can make it” At mass, a priest advises “Accept the darkness. Live through the night.”
Only a person of enormous privilege peddles these bromides and bootstrap clichés. Zamperini’s bullied schooldays are meant to strengthen and ennoble — “embiggens” as The Simpsons jokes — turning him into a Forrest Gump-style sprinter who competes at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (He ignores Jesse Owens but gives a prophetic-ironic nod to a Japanese athlete.) The detention camp survival scenes resemble dozens seen before only more callow.
Gifted British actor Jack O’Connell (Starred Up) gives Zamperini the dark-haired profile of young Dirk Bogarde and voice of C. Thomas Howell. Singled out by a smiling sadistic Japanese Sergeant Watanabe with a smooth, effeminate jaw line, he endures extravagant, quasi-erotic humiliations including a punch-in-the-face gauntlet recalling the orgies in Poison and Last Exit to Brooklyn. (It’s 12 Years a P.O.W. Angie and Brad have dined too often with Steve McQueen.) When Zamperini and inmates at No Exit Prison Camp # 2 are forced to work a coal barge, they become muddy, sweaty, soot-faced (i.e., blacks) and he defiantly balances a concrete slab like a cross.
This shameless crucifixion lacks conviction — except for Jolie‘s mawkish motto. The priest’s homily “Love Thine Enemy” is literalized in Hollywood Liberal fashion and sounds like Hillary Clinton’s recent empathize-with-the-terrorists speech. Jolie puts a fine point on it with an anti-war-on-terror epigraph: “Serve God; the only way forward is to forgive, not revenge.” It’s her right as a millionaire pacifist who normally makes violent, sadistic action movies. Like Ava DuVernay, Jolie makes it clear that the secular and p.c. revolution have extracted spirituality and feeling from American history. Both of their movies are hollow.
— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.