Why Selma's not a 'challenging race biopic'; it's much more
There's a rather funny viral doing the rounds by UK blog the Shiznit about what if the 2015 Oscar nominations told the truth, following similar posts they've done in previous years. I didn't feel like sharing it however because their poster for Selma ('Challenging Race Biopic: if you don't like it then you basially hate black people') troubled me somewhat. I had to see it to be sure - and no longer on the press list for freebie previews, I got my chance when Pathé's advertising on the #MLK hashtag alerted me to UK previews for Martin Luther King day (a rare case of social media targeted advertising winning me). And I came home compelled to write, because it feels there's a risk people might think the film was a biopic or even specifically about race, as opposed to a story about the universal struggle for justice, and methods to achieve that.
To be clear - I'm not trying to pick the Shiznit up for what it created - it was part of a trio of jokes alongside 'challenging gay biopic' and 'challenging disability biopic' - and perhaps the authors hadn't even seen the film. And of course if we were fool enough to try PC-one-up-manship, well Netribution published Andrew Cousin's spoof about September 11: the Musical barely weeks after the tragedy, while some of the cartoons we ran such as the crucifixion of Lars von Trier cut somewhat crudely - not to mention much of the crap I must have spouted over the years. However, in this year when BAFTA voters refused to grant Selma even one nomination (despite a mostly British cast - from MLK and his wife to Lyndon Jonson and the Alabama governor), and where the Academy Award voters gave it only two - there seems a real danger that people think the Shiznit poster is accurate and don't get round to seeing the film. So for the avoidance of doubt:
- Selma is not a Biopic. A biopic is the story of someone's life - true for Theory of Everything and Imitation Game - but not Selma. Selma covers one episode in Dr King's life - the attempts to peacefully march between the city of Selma and Montgomery in Alabama to change the law around all Americans' right to register to vote, creating a piece of legislation considered the most effective civil rights legislation in America's history.
- It's not only about Race. As a white guy I don't want to labour an "and it's also about us!" angle, but Dr King campaigned almost as hard on poverty as on race, pointing out in the film how the poor white person is encouraged to be racist by the super-rich whites in order to keep the poor in general disunity, a theme as relevent today as migrants get blamed for a financial crisis not of their creation (and a view well expressed by a rapping Warren Beaty in Bullworth).
- And while it's certainly challenging to watch parts of this film, witnessing scenes of brutal and senseless violence, it's it's also un-apologetically inspiring, showing - at a time where our news is full of scenes of violence, and terrorism - [SPOILER] that non-violence works [/SPOILER]. Massively, and perhaps disarmingly, to some people in power.
And it's this last point - that the film is a genuinely inspiring examination of the power of non-violent resistance, of mass protest in the face of brutal state violence - that should make all of us who care, more sensitive to any efforts to belittle such an important film. Whether that's the backlash from Lyndon Johnson's people that the film didn't present him as faultless (he came off pretty well IMHO), or voters of the awards ceremonies using that as an excuse (as if accuracy stopped Braveheart getting five wins), or even just this casual cynical-but-comic putdown of the film as just another worthy race biopic, as if to say we all need to pay lip service to it only to offset some privilege guilt - rather than, 'here is an inspiring TRUE story of how people uniting and acting peacefully changed the world' - as relevant today as ever, perhaps even more urgently so, given how successful Dr King was back then. And doubtless as unnerving to some people in power as it was then.
There is, of course, another reason why the film is inspiring - from the perspective of this website's traditional focus - and that's the story of writer/director Ava DuVernay. Indeed if Netribution was still a weekly magazine rather than an occasional echo chamber for my lingering thoughts, I'd be doing everything I could possibly do to get an interview with her for a future edition - as she seems to represent everything good and inspiring about the independent spirit of filmmaker. It was only in 2008 that she quit her job as a publicist, and taught herself filmmaking while directing a documentary on a micro-budget, before making her narrative film debut in 2011. She self-distributed this and then made another feature - winning Sundance Best Director award (the first time it was ever won by an African-American woman), and self-distributed that as well, creating a distribution network for African American films to find and connect with audiences, creating a network of cities to screen in and group of backers for future projects. In short she's part of a new generation of filmmaker who, using modern tools and technology, and of course considerable hard work and determination) floated straight up through the a number of traditional glass ceiling. She talks inspiringly about how exactly she did this at the Film Forum (video).
And of course, there's still the tiniest of chances that Selma could become the fifth film in Oscar history to win Best Picture without a best director nomination - after Argo, Driving Miss Daisy, Grand Hotel and Wings - the voting doesn't take place for almost another month.
So please see this film and talk about it if you want to believe that change is possible but aren't sure how to achieve it, or if you have any doubt about the power of non-violence. You could also see it if you want to get a little better understanding of someone as significant as Martin Luther King, or even simply to watch a brilliantly-made and gripping film. Failing that, please just see it if you want to witness evidence of how much one person can achieve when they put their mind, body and soul into doing something for all the right reasons, be that Dr King or Ava DuVernay.