Thursday, January 8, 2015

I Loved SELMA

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was our leader as we marched.  Why did black Americans risk their lives and march across that bridge in Selma, Alabama?  For the right to vote.  Black Americans.  In the 1960s.  Not the 1860s. The 1960s.

January will be a major month for Women In Film.  SELMA, directed by Ava DuVernay, opens nationwide this weekend.  She has already won rave reviews from several top film critics in the country.  She deserves that high praise.  I've seen Selma and I want to see it again.  This Sunday at the Golden Globes ceremony,  Ava DuVernay will hear her name read as nominee for Best Director.  A first for a black female filmmaker.  Brava, Ava!
The subject of her film, the late Dr. Martin Luther King, made history with his legendary Civil Rights activism in the racially turbulent 1960s.  Ms. DuVernay is making Hollywood history as a female director -- and as a minority female director.  I believe that Ava DuVernay could make history on January 15th as the first African American woman to hear her name announced as an Oscar nominee for Best Director.

Filmmakers say that making biopics is difficult.  I'm sure it is.  Some critics and moviegoers may quibble about a biopic's accuracy.  That happened with the fine portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered by Tom Wilkinson in Selma.  Folks forget that the project is neither a documentary nor journalism.  It's a feature based on the life and/or a key time in the life of a publicly known person.  It's still a movie.  As a filmmaker, I'm sure you try your hardest to get at the essential truth of the person's life or message.  That said, you cannot deny that Hollywood just loves biopics come Oscar nomination time.  This love has been throbbing for well over half a century.  From the 1930s when Paul Muni, Spencer Tracy and the recently departed Luise Rainer won Oscars for playing true life characters to the modern-day Oscar victories of Susan Sarandon, Julia Roberts, Sean Penn, Forest Whitaker, Helen Mirren, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jamie Foxx and Matthew McConaughey (to name a few), the nearly 13 inch Golden Boy loves going home with performers who played real life people.

I will not be surprised to hear the name David Oyelowo announced on January 15th as a nominee for Best Actor and Selma should make the list of nominees for Best Picture.
I've written before that I was a boy when Dr. King made his historic 1963 March on Washington, his march on Selma, his appearance as a guest on NBC's Tonight Show and when he was tragically assassinated in 1968.  He changed the world and did monumental things when he was just in his 30s.  He never lived to see 40.  Think about that when you see Selma.  Dr. King was part of our weekly lives, it seemed, because he was constantly covered by the network evening news.  Our family in Los Angeles paid attention to the TV every time he was televised.  I remember his classic speeches ("I have a dream") and how his majestic preacher's voice was like a symphony orchestra unto itself.  We don't hear his classic speeches in Selma because another filmmaker owns the rights to them. Not the King Family.  Director Ava DuVernay mentioned that Thursday, January 8th, when she was interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air by host, Terry Gross.  DuVernay did not mention who the other filmmaker is but, reportedly, Steven Spielberg owns the rights to the famed Dr. Martin Luther King speeches.

When the Oscars ceremony was annually held in early April, the one and only time the telecast was postponed was in 1968 out of respect for the untimely death of Dr. King.
Due to one screenwriter's strong clause in his Hollywood contract, DuVernay is not credited on film as a co-screenwriter.  But she did work on the Selma script and had the daunting task of writing "new" speeches for the late Civil Rights legend.  Her writing rocked.  She got the essential message and truth of Dr. King's words and of his message.  It would have been wonderful to hear his exact words but DuVernay couldn't get the rights.  She overcame that obstacle with some superb original writing.

Compare that, in a way, to another biopic of sorts that opened last year.  Jimi:  All Is By My Side could not get the rights to classic Jimi Hendrix music.  The film suffered from that.  It also suffered from a shabby structure.  The women in the life of the famous rock guitarist take more focus than he does.  Also, the storyline meanders.  It's as if Selma focused more on Coretta Scott King and made Martin a supporting player with the story ending before the march across the bridge in Selma.  André Benjamin was good as Jimi Hendrix.  But director/writer John Ridley couldn't overcome obstacles that arose when he couldn't get rights to significant material, specifically Hendrix's hit music.
Oprah Winfrey is one of the Selma producers.  She also delivers one of her best big screen performances in this film.  (She's in the pic above with star David Oyelowo and director DuVernay.)  Oprah knows Spielberg.  It would've been very generous if he'd granted Ava DuVernay permission to use some of Dr. King's speeches.  But maybe he's working on a King project himself.
With the events of Ferguson in the St. Louis area and the anger in New York over the grand jury decision relative to the death of unarmed Eric Garner at that hands of police, the strength and importance of peaceful protest has great relevance in Selma.  You'll think of the "I Can't Breathe" peaceful protest marches that arose from the Garner case.  In looking at the past, we see much of our modern times.  We see how far we've come.  We see the work that still needs to be done.  The release of Selma is perfectly timed due to occurrences in the news -- just as The China Syndrome was released about a week before the Three Mile Island nuclear plant emergency.  That 1979 drama starring Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon focused on safety hazards at a nuclear plant being covered up.  With the Three Mile Island national news story, life imitated Hollywood art.
As I wrote in earlier blog posts, DuVernay made Dr. King a real kitchen sink, working class person.  A man who laughed, argued, ate, had sex, doubted himself, made mistakes, gathered his courage and helped others.  He was not born a saint or a legend.  He was an ordinary man, a family man, who did extraordinary things with his life.  What he did was not easy.  Utilizing Gandhi's principles of non-violence and non-resistance, principles introduced to him by his brilliant openly gay and Quaker key advisor Bayard Rustin (played by Ruben Santiago-Hudson) took extreme steeliness and guts.
Who knew back in those hard days of the 1960s that, in time, he would be honored with a January federal holiday in his name?  Who knew that a black woman from Compton, California would direct his story on a big screen?  Wow.

If you can, go see Selma.  You'll be moved.  It shows us a life.  It shows us a struggle.  It shows people brave enough to oppose bigotry.  It shows us the possibilities we all have.



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