by Montré Aza Missouri 

On the night of the 2015 Golden Globe Awards in which critically acclaimed Selma directed by African American filmmaker Ava DuVernay and staring Nigerian-British actor David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. managed to walk away with only one award, despite nominations in several categories including Best Director and Best Actor, I knew that the die had been cast for disappointment. The day the 87th Academy Award nominations were announced confirmed that. The handwriting was on the wall for this historical drama based on a pivotal point in the civil right legacy of Dr. King: the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March, ultimately leading to the Voting Rights Act protecting racial and ethnic minorities from voter disenfranchisement which was signed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson later that same year. The fact that a film directed by a black woman had managed to make it as far as the Golden Globes was a stretch but with a ceremony that only garnered the symbolic gesture of an award to hip-hop artist Common and signer/songwriter John Legend for ‘Best Original Song’, ‘Glory’, it was quite obvious that this year would again be white male business-as-usual in Hollywood. This despite the previous year’s historic wins for Steve McQueen and 12 Years A Slave at both the Golden Globes and the Oscars.

_Selma__Portrait_Session__mschulte@kcstar.com_45Unsurprisingly, on the 15th January 2015, what would have been Martin Luther King’s 86th birthday the entertainment news was about Selma being ‘snubbed’ by The Academy. Neither director Ava DuVernay nor the film’s star David Oyelowo had been recognised. Likewise the film was overlooked in the categories of ‘Best Cinematography’ despite the beautiful work by award-winning cinematographer Bradford Young. No nomination either for ‘Best Screenplay’. Instead, film industry reporters were agape, as Selma had been a universal favourite and touted as a strong Oscar contender with its 100% rating of critical reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, a claim that not even rival Boyhood or other popular Oscar hopeful could match.

While Selma fans took to Twitter, quickly trending #OscarsSoWhite to express their outrage and disappointment over the film’s exclusion and essentially the exclusion of all people of colour from the nominations, industry pundits became ‘Monday morning quarterbacks’ explaining exactly what went wrong for Selma. Some film industry reporters blamed Paramount Picture’s misstep of not sending screeners to voting members of the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild of America, the American Society of Cinematographers, Producers Guild, American Cinema Editors and BAFTA. Without guild recognition, it would be nearly impossible for the film to gain the momentum (and the silverware) to push Academy Awards nominations.

Other industry observers point to Paramount’s inability to deflate a smear campaign against Selma led by Lyndon B. Johnson Library Director Mark K. Updegrove, in which he suggested that the public boycott the film and urged Academy voters to regard Selma as ‘ineligible’ for awards because of the film’s portrayal of LBJ played by British actor Tom Wilkinson. While some may argue that Johnson and King did not have as tense a relationship as portrayed in Selma, it is certainly revisionist history as one former Johnson aid contends that Lyndon Johnson was the ‘mastermind’ behind the Selma march, thereby diminishing the role of MLK, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during this significant historic and political moment. Some critics of the public backlash against the film question Updegrove’s intentions as having more to do with promoting his biography of LBJ than concerns over the film’s historical accuracies. Hollywood dramas based on historical figures are routinely questioned including Lincoln, The King’s Speech and 12 Years A Slave. However, Selma has experienced more than its fair share of scrutiny. I would argue that if this public smear campaign is the reason (or excuse) used to derail the first viable opportunity for a black woman to be nominated for a ‘Best Director’ Oscar, LBJ’s advocates would have done far more to malign the civil rights legacy of the 36th president among young people than anything they fear is being misconstrued by watching Selma.

What are the real issues with Selma? It’s not Paramount’s lack of attention to its own product. Nor is the issue with the controversy over the film’s depiction of LBJ, who was not the most loved American president. Prior to the presidency, Lyndon Johnson had a decades-long track record in Congress of voting against every single civil rights bill that came before the legislative body as well as having a presidential legacy shaped by his decision to commit U.S. troops to a very unpopular Vietnam War. Further, it’s not Paramount releasing it on Christmas Day, as it’s traditionally seen as being too late to gain momentum among Academy voters. Since Warner Brothers also released Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper on Christmas Day and both Selma and American Sniper premiered at American Film Institute Festival this past November that doesn’t hold water.

The question of Selma is one of power — the power of articulation and representation. Who has the power to tell stories and who should determine the content of those stories especially in terms of race and gender? At its surface, a major motion picture project on Martin Luther King could hardly appear controversial. The most sensational parts one might expect would be references to King’s extramarital affairs. Otherwise, King has traditionally been portrayed as a Christ-like figure and any theatrically released film about him might simply be a blown up version of those squeaky-clean ‘afterschool specials’ airing during Black History Month. And perhaps this is the type of film that Paramount believed they had on their hands, another ‘magical negro’ depiction of Martin Luther King as found in made-for-television movies, documentaries, children’s books and even on U.S. postage stamps. Dr. King is that ‘I Have A Dream’ ‘magical negro’ who for many of the hip-hop generation and younger, is a completely inaccessible image. The perception of King is that of the establishment, the anti-revolution as opposed to the figure of Malcolm X, dynamically embodying social and political change. This long-standing ‘whitewashing’ of King in order to sell everything from soda and fast food to Apple products and greeting cards with his dream of racial and social equality as reduced to equal access to buy stuff — has intentionally stripped King’s message of its relevancy and power within the popular imagination until now.

Selmafilm

Selma not only counters the ‘white savior’ stereotype as crafted in the film’s original screenplay in which the LBJ character was depicted as the ‘white savior’ of the civil right movement, but it finally liberates the political legacy of Martin Luther King from the problematic positioning of the ‘magical negro’ who simply exist as a moral conscience of white America.

Rather than King’s effectiveness being reduced to his ability to give rousing speeches (thankfully, the director was denied permission to use MLK’s speeches because they are part of an upcoming Steven Spielberg film), Selma portrays King as a politically savvy and masterful strategist. Instead of a Christ figure, King is a three-dimensional character who is flawed and insecure—a man who is concerned about his image in his community and constantly aware of his own limitations. In Selma, King is a complicated and relatable character; his struggle is not simply that of one man. Instead the film brings to the foreground the women and men who equally contributed to the Selma marches for racial justice and social equality, and who did so boldly in the face of police brutality and under the real threat of death.

This is not an ‘afterschool special’ of King and the civil rights movement, this is a #BlackLivesMatter MLK and the civil rights movement. Not since the 1989 summer release of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing and death of Yusef Hawkins has a film’s release been so relevant as Selma, in terms of grand jury decisions to not indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown and New York police officers Daniel Pantaleo and Justin Damico in the death of Eric Garner. The parallels between the Ferguson protests and scenes of Selma marchers being met with teargas and protesters beaten by police are so apparent. This alongside a poignant scene of police shooting to death unarmed Jimmie Lee Jackson is clearly reminiscent of the shooting of Michael Brown. Beyond the socio-political message and its re-crafting of King’s image, there are also authentic and compelling interpretations of black identities within the tradition of L.A. Rebellion films such as Killer of Sheep that simply cannot be ignored.

Selma is a rescue mission and a call to action as it recovers the courage, humanity and the genius of the civil right movement bringing this history to life as a rallying cry to young people of all races who have already shown from #OccupyWallStreet to #BlackLivesMatter that they are ready to continue the struggle for social justice and social change. While the announcement of this year’s Academy Awards nominations marks the ‘whitest Oscars since 1998’, the impact of Selma should not be lost in second guessing studio executives or in the disappointment of not seeing the first black woman nominated for an Oscar for ‘Best Director’ (yes, I am disappointed). Instead, I am reminded that Selma is an outstanding film, universally acclaimed by critics and a film that will likely remain significant long after this year’s Academy Awards.

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Montré Aza Missouri has produced narrative and documentary films in the UK, the US, Ghana and Nigeria. She is an Associate Professor in Film at Howard University where she teaches Directing, Scriptwriting, Film History and African Cinema. She is also the founding director of Parallel Film Collective a nonprofit organisation dedicated to producing, distributing and promoting “local equals global” film that transcends limiting racial, cultural and gender identities found in mainstream media. A former fellow at the Center for Media, Religion and Culture, Montré is completing her book Black Magic Woman and Narrative Film: Race, Sex and Afro-religiosity for Palgrave Macmillan. She is on Twitter @MontreMissouri

2 thoughts on “‘Selma’ finally liberates the political legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

  1. This is spot on!! When you refer to the structure of power in Hollywood, I am reminded of the Academy President (a Black woman) who said that the actors nominated are ‘at the top of their game’. Which can imply that the directors are as well, however a few years ago Kathryn Bigelow was just as fresh faced as Ava but still won the Oscar for ‘The Hurt Locker’. At the end of the day, this isn’t the Spielberg MLK film so the Academy prefers to wait on THAT film to receive the noms for portraying MLK….which is a slap in the face of the filmmaking community!! Why isn’t David and Ava not deserving? Top of their game shouldn’t matter…only the work should!

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  2. This put me in mind of back in 2001 when Halle Berry, Denzel Washington and Sidney Poitier all won Oscars in the same night. There was a possible feeling that it would be the start of something transformative, but in reality, it didn’t normalise black success at the Oscars, it just gave the Academy a racism shield for the next few years.

    When I was a kid, and my mum got me something, she used to jokingly say, “Now don’t come back to me for the rest of the year.” There’s a bit of that about the Academy, and ’12 Years a Slave’. It as if we’ve got some success, so now we can’t expect anything for about a decade.

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