Selma (2014)

Poster for Selma

I always have trouble with fictional treatments of history, but this one handles it about as well as you can. It has been compared to Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), because both films are ultimately about the passage of a law. In fact, Selma is almost a kind of sequel to Lincoln, because Lincoln is about the law that liberated the slaves, while Selma is about the law that gave the descendants of the slaves the right to vote in the South. As others have pointed out, the struggle continues, and this film is timely in a period when voting rights are once again (only 50 years later) under attack.

I saw this on MLK Day, which I thought was appropriate. The portrait of MLK offered is complicated. He is shown to doubt his own strategy, and he is shown to feel aggrieved by Malcolm X’s criticism of his strategy. He is shown to be an adulterer. Perhaps above all he is shown to be a part of a community, not as a lone hero. As much as he inspires others, he is inspired by them. His leadership is part of a group effort. This is true to life, although it also makes him dramatically a somewhat passive figure.

The portrayal of LBJ has been criticized, and I don’t know enough of the history to judge the criticism, or to judge how other parts of the story are handled. There were events portrayed in the film that I don’t remember hearing about (e.g., King’s decision to turn back the second time the protesters try to cross the bridge out of Selma), but I can’t say whether the portrayal is true or not. What I took away from it, however, was that all decisions were contested and debated. Nothing was clear to the people struggling for their democratic rights.

It’s a good film, and a very moving one, although I have to say that the documentary Eyes on the Prize, which covers the Civil Rights movement at much greater length (14 hours worth), is the better, deeper film. There’s something in me that resists the personalization of history that films like Lincoln and Selma represent. Rather than pull me into the drama, it pushes me out, because the personal stakes seem a distraction from the political ones.


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