So I finally watched Selma. A few observations long after the debate has dissipated.
1. The main issue in the Selma debate was the portrayal of Lyndon Johnson. Critics said the portrayal was too cynical and didn’t give LBJ his due. Phooey. First, this isn’t a documentary. Second, at the core of the LBJ defense was pointing out how much he did and how much we should honor him. That’s fine, but it also borders on the hagiographic. LBJ was a politician with a lot on his plate who really would have preferred not to deal with any of this, as the film effectively shows. By thinking of Johnson as a hero of the civil rights movement, it reinforces the unfortunate way progressives look at political leaders (Obama primarily) as the people who should guide us and then are disappointed when they don’t. That’s our problem, not the politicians. The film effectively shows how politicians respond to intense political campaigning. That’s the lesson of the film. And it’s a valuable one. No politician will ever be a solution.
2. The film does an effective job of delineating the factions developing in the civil rights movement by 1965. But it does give short shrift to the radical SNCC ideas that will quickly become prevalent under Stokely Carmichael’s leadership.
3. The film really underplays the amazing grassroots work of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth in Selma and that’s unfortunate.
4. The film also could have done more with Diane Nash and the role of women in the movement.
5. I thought the film actually soft sold the hatred of whites, largely making the violence look like an official response than a popular one. The only time the word “nigger” was actually spoken during the film was when the white priest from Boston was beaten to death. This was telling. The film did pull some punches in making connections to the present as well.
6. As a U.S historian with a pretty deep, although not expert-level background in the civil rights movement, I was frustrated early in the film by the characters saying so many obvious things that the actual people would have already known. But then my wife, a Latin American historian with a reasonable background in these issues, didn’t know all the details. So it’s hard being an Americanist watching films about American history. But what can be done?
7. David Oyelowo was very good as MLK. And I’m glad the casting went to a relatively unknown actor.
8. I laughed out loud when Tim Roth was playing George Wallace. Great casting. Had I seen it in the theater, it’s unlikely my fellow patrons would have laughed alongside me.
9. The only explanation for Ava DuVernay not getting a best director nomination in the Academy Awards is the racism/sexism combo. You have got to be kidding me.
10. I would love to see a movie about King after Selma. The failures of the Chicago campaign, the growing tension in the movement, coming out against Vietnam, the move toward economic justice, and the final days in Memphis, could, in the hands of the right director, make a fantastic movie. Not sure it would supply the myth-making American audiences require though.