As you tuck into that third white chocolate-chip cookie (in the interests of political correctness, there is no racial supremacy here, a dark chocolate cookie is equally valid) it is hard not to feel smug and bloated, sitting high and happy in the cosily warm cinema. This beacon of refuge for the middle-class bourgeoisie has been invaded. Instead of seeking escapism from a banal life of bluff, a rare and self-conscious thing has entered this palace of pomposity, the citadel of cinema: a moral conscience.
Following in the footsteps of Steve McQueen’s exceptional, Academy Award winning 12 Years A Slave, featuring a truly once in a lifetime performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor, comes Selma to challenge the conscience. Directed by Ava DuVernay, the film stars Brit David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., charting his tale from the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony of 1964 to the arrival of his marching troop of Civil Rights activists in Montgomery on 25th March, 1965. A significant single event in the ongoing fight for freedom, the crossing of Selma is a watershed. The advent of whites within the movement and the sustained deadlock in negotiations over the right to vote triggered LBJ’s classic “We Shall Overcome” speech of 15th March, 1965.
LBJ does not come out of this film well. Mind you, almost the entirety of white Caucasians come out of this film badly, without even a nod to the most extreme of all, the Ku Klux Klan. This is where our collective analysis of the still murky grey nature of white and black relations begins. Collective, selective memory is a dangerous, lethal weapon that plagues our interaction with the past as a caucasian, western community. It is so easy to sit at home and celebrate the progress from Jordan Belfort’s enslaved musician, to Martin Luther King’s heroism a century later through to the present day in which Barack Obama, only fifty years after the events of Selma, sits in the White House, the most powerful man in the world, regardless of race.
Obama is the easy headline to shroud the truth and consciously wash our hands of any difficult thoughts over the white, western world’s loathsome legacy. Racial equality, that most illusive, yet recycled and regurgitated term, fairness…where are they? The summer saw a return to scenes, certainly not identical, yet horribly reminiscent of the marches, riots and protests with which Selma is concerned. Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson and the subsequent unprovoked choking of Eric Garner, both blacks killed by over zealous cops, led to large scale demonstrations unseen in the Obama era. Yet, Obama’s existence seems to exonerate any true review of the current racial climate.
The United States is a country still dogged by an entrenched, ingrained stain of unfairness and inequality that exists in the day to day, but boils over at the momentous. If Ferguson was the eruption, the volcano is the persistent trend of institutionalised inequality, slipping on the tectonic plate of a racist, supremacist history. On the street, stop and search by a cop is more likely for a black than a white, in education, blacks are less likely to acquire an Ivy League or leading university degree, making it much harder to secure that top notch job in the workforce, where they are less well represented in the leading professions. Such racial stigmatism and short-sightedness is not what the far-sighted, blue sky optimists of the civil rights movement fought and died for…
Now back to Selma. It is a film that both flies and flails because of its violence. The killings are abrupt and shocking, they choke the viewer as they manoeuvre from the mundane to the macabre in a micro-second. Take the scene immediately after a peaceful march disintegrates into a farce of a riot. A family of three, mother, grandfather and son seek refuge from the street in a placid cafe. They sit, unconvincingly reading the menus, while a stampede of souls rages past the window outside. “Just look at the menu, everything will be all right”, asserts the youngest. Right on cue, a horde of uniformed cops not only jump the queue, but annihilate the peace and assert their righteous authority in the most tragic of fashions. Before they exit and continue their barrage of abuse elsewhere.
Though the killing scenes have an emotive force in their shock and awe, the riot and protest violence is the downfall of an otherwise fine film. Whether it is the fault of Jason Moran’s musical composition that often feels too modern and too black (just see the trailer to see the dichotomy between eye and ear) or the Django Unchained quick-quick-slow, stop action that undercuts the bite of demonstration drama, is in the eye of the beholder. 12 Years A Slave was a rip-roaring, shredding success because it let the human tragedy unfold with very little emotive, pathetic embellishment.
By contrast, Selma, just like its largely white-western audience is a little too self-conscious. The symbolism of the bridge almost steals the main focal frame from Luther King. That is surely tantamount to unforgivable. Meanwhile, it continues the trend of films including Catch Me If You Can and TV leviathan, Mad Men, that make the 1960s look like one long Ray-Ban advert. Saying that, there is one mighty nifty tri-tone orange sweatshirt to look out for.
Star turns come from the presence on screen of Oprah and off screen of Brad Pitt as a producer. Now there is a white boy who can hold his head high. Not only is he involved in this latest project, but, lest we forget, as a Canadian, Pitt was the only white light of hope in 12 Years A Slave. Someone to save our souls: yes please, Brad.