by Louis Proyect
Selma, the stunning new film based on Paul Webb’s screenplay and directed by the previously unheralded African-American Ava DuVernay, makes for an interesting side-by-side comparison with Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln. Both films revolve around the circumstances attending the passage of key legislation affecting Black America: in the first instance, the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery and in the second the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that sealed the doom of Jim Crow, a legacy of white America’s abandonment of Reconstruction.
Selma, however, has exactly what Lincoln lacked, namely the agency of Black self-emancipation dramatized by the Selma to Montgomery march. If Lincoln was seen as a wise benefactor of a sidelined Black population whose leaders like Frederick Douglass failed to materialize on screen, the prime mover in Selma is Martin Luther King Jr. who is played to perfection by David Oyelowo, the actor last seen as a cartoon version of a Black Panther member in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. He is far better served in this new film.
Both films pay close attention to period detail and use the speeches that are part of the backbone of American progressive politics, including Lincoln’s and LBJ’s. It is of some significance that the speeches given by King in Selma are only approximations of what he said in (the town) since the King estate refused to allow the speeches to be used by DuVernay. So she wrote the words herself after steeping herself in the original for months.
And why did the King estate refuse to grant permission? Once again there is a Spielberg angle. Around the same time that Lee Daniels was trying to get The Butler made, he had an option to make Selma using Paul Webb’s screenplay. Since there was not enough money to make both films, he went with The Butler. We benefit from his decision since I am afraid that Daniels’ penchant for melodrama might have led to cartoonish results.
After Daniels abandoned Selma, Spielberg purchased the rights to King’s speeches in 2009 with the intention of producing his own film. One can easily imagine such a film making Lyndon Johnson another Lincolnesque figure, a Great Man of history challenging the forces of Deep South reaction with Black people an afterthought. Fortunately, DuVernay’s film is the one that got made.
The four main characters in the film are LBJ, George Wallace, MLK Jr. and Coretta Scott King. Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth, two British actors who most often are cast as Americans, play Johnson and Wallace respectively. DuVernay made the wise decision to have them avoid impersonating their characters but focus more on revealing their Read the rest of this entry »