Tuesday, December 23, 2014

History in SELMA

Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.  And I hope Ava DuVernay makes Oscar history as the first African American woman nominated for Best Director.  In this film, we follow Dr. Martin Luther King through one of the most important, most widely-seen marches of his civil rights activist leadership. It was a march in Selma, Alabama.  The gifted British actor David Oyelowo is excellent as Dr. King.  He makes him a man, a complicated man, of dimension.  A man with imperfections and doubts and occasional marital discord.  King was an ordinary man who achieved extraordinary things with his life -- extraordinary things that benefitted millions of us.  Why did Dr. King lead that potentially dangerous walk across a bridge a Selma, Alabama?  Because black Americans were denied the right to vote.  This was the 1960s.

Oyelowo is seen here with the film's director (far right) and with Oprah Winfrey, a supporting cast member.  Oprah's also the film's producer.
Decades have passed since the life and death of Dr. Martin Luther King.  Ms. DuVernay told National Public Radio about a young male in Los Angeles of 18 or 19 who didn't know what MLK stood for.  He saw the initials in relation to a federal holiday in January, a day that meant department store sales.  The teen was unaware of the fullness and magnificence of Dr. King's legacy.  Now Dr. King, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, is real to that teen.  I think Ms. DuVernay's film will have that impact on other youths.
Director DuVernay grew up in what is now called South Los Angeles.  She lived in Compton.  I grew up within walking distance of Compton.  I went to high school in Watts when South Los Angeles was still called South Central L.A.  Our family watched Dr. King on the network evening news regularly.  I remember the day he was shot and killed.  The next school day, all us students were somber.  So were the teachers.  The principal announced the classes would end early that day, in the late morning, and we could go home in case turbulence would erupt in Watts again, this time in anger at the assassination of Dr. King.  King's life and times were a part of my history when I was a boy.

In Selma,  there's a montage of Americans watching network news coverage of the Selma march.  We see a barbershop in Watts in that montage.

With history in mind, I'm attaching a Spike Lee interview I did in 1997.  This appeared on Channel 5's Good Day New York.  The filmmaker was promoting what I feel is one of his finest works, a documentary called 4 Little Girls.

I went to see Selma with a friend who's a lot younger than I am.  In the first ten minutes of Selma, I gasped.  I knew that the action was leading up to a tragic event -- one that made international headlines and intensified Dr. King's mission for Civil Rights.  The movie audience was shocked at the evil deed.  I leaned over to my friend and whispered "That really happened."  She didn't know about this true-life tragedy.

Before Dr. Martin Luther King's march in Selma, Alabama there was a dark Sunday in Birmingham, Alabama.  A racial hate crime occurred a month after Dr. King's March on Washington for racial equality and civil rights.  Here's my 1997 Spike Lee interview.  This bit of history will give Selma more depth when you see it:
If you have not seen that Spike Lee documentary, I highly recommend renting it.

There has never been a theatrical release major movie about Dr. King.  The biopics we've seen have been TV productions. I repeat that David Oyelowo is excellent as King.  Another really solid performance comes from Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson, the former Vice-President sworn into office the day of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in November 1963.
Selma shows us that peaceful protest was not at all easy.  It took bravery.  People stared down the possibility of death.  And there was tension within the movement.  Some black men felt Dr. King needed more muscle.  He needed to be militant.  King and his non-violent protestors had their opponents, like the more militant black leader, Malcolm X.  In Selma, we see a meeting between those two leaders.

The 1960s.  That was a decade both terrific and terrible.  There was the March on Washington, the U.S. landed a man on the moon, we had the fresh new attitude in the White House of President John F. Kennedy and his embrace of the fine arts, we had great rock music and great new films.  We also suddenly and tragically lost Medgar Evers, President John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr. King and presidential candidate Senator Robert F. Kennedy to assassin's bullets.

When the Oscars telecast was still held annually in early April, the first and only time the ceremony was postponed was because of the nation mourning the untimely death of Dr. King in April 1968.

Here's a trailer for Selma.

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