Tuesday, December 20, 2016

AFOS Blog Rewind: Selma

After directing Selma, the 2014 movie that won a Best Original Song Oscar for the Common/John Legend track "Glory," Ava DuVernay has, in addition to being the first filmmaker to ever inspire a Barbie doll based on her likeness, racked up an intriguing bunch of directorial credits. She directed the 2016 Netflix documentary film The 13th and the first two episodes of the OWN drama Queen Sugar (a show she also wrote for during its first season), and she signed up to direct the forthcoming Disney adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, a classic sci-fi novel I remember reading as homework in grade school (here's how long ago it was when I read Wrinkle: the cover artwork on my copy was the version that had the disembodied head of a Darkseid lookalike encased in a crystal ball). The following is a repost of a February 5, 2015 discussion of DuVernay's breakout film in the mainstream. Selma, a historical film about civil rights activism, will continue being timely, especially in a year that will inevitably see an increase in activism against both America's next president (God, those last three words sound like the title of the world's shittiest reality show, which is fitting because reality TV-loving idiots are among the ones who put him and the likes of Omarosa in office) and his inflammatory rhetoric.

The Selma Oscar snubs have disappointed all of us moviegoers who were mesmerized by director Ava DuVernay's third feature film, a historical drama about the civil rights movement's push to get the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, via civil disobedience and legal strategizing. But Larry Wilmore, currently the only African American host on late-night TV and hardly a stranger to the struggles of bringing more diversity to Hollywood (he was the creator and original showrunner of The Bernie Mac Show and he helped showrun the first few episodes of Black-ish this season), said something enlightening about the Selma snubs, and it's helped me feel a little less disappointed about those oversights. The host of Comedy Central's solidly funny Nightly Show said to the Hollywood Reporter that awards at the end of the day don't really mean as much as making sure a black female director like DuVernay gets a shot at making a movie ("That, to me, is more important; the other stuff is gravy," said Wilmore).


Wilmore added that awards aren't even as important as the fact that a black female producer, Shonda Rhimes, the Scandal creator/showrunner and How to Get Away with Murder producer (but not HTGAWM's creator, an important distinction that an actual writer from the supposedly observant New York Times failed to even notice), basically now has a night of network TV programming all to herself, something unprecedented in network TV history. He hasn't let the snubs bother him because he's not surprised by them ("It's hard to get me outraged over stuff that happens all the time").

To recap those snubs, DuVernay didn't receive a Best Director nomination even though her film landed a Best Picture nod. She could have been the first black woman nominated for Best Director. The Academy also overlooked Selma star David Oyelowo's breakout performance--in America, that is, because elsewhere, particularly in the U.K., the British Nigerian actor is a familiar face to TV viewers over there--as Martin Luther King, a rare great turn by a British actor where he's not mangling an American accent for once. I'll always love Amy Poehler for making fun of British actors' often forced-sounding attempts at American accents in her 2015 Golden Globes monologue with Tina Fey. Oyelowo (pronounced "oh-YELL-oh-woe") does it well in Selma. Daniel Craig does not. Idris Elba can do it. Lennie James cannot, unless it's a Southern accent like his current one on The Walking Dead. David Harewood can do it. Philip Glenister cannot, and it's why parts of ITV's Demons were an unintentional laugh riot. Marianne Jean-Baptiste can do it. Saffron Burrows was so terrible at it that Boston Legal had to retcon her lawyer character and change her to a British ex-brothel madam pretending to be American. Damian Lewis can do it. Oyelowo's Selma co-star Tom Wilkinson, who portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson in Selma, often cannot, but he's such a great actor that his dodgy and cartoonish Mafioso accent in Batman Begins fails to ruin his imposingness during the 2005 blockbuster's best scene, his "this is a world you'll never understand" monologue.

Another frustrating but not as frequently discussed Selma Oscar snub is the lack of a nomination for another black member of Selma's crew, cinematographer Bradford Young. He did excellent work lighting King's church speeches, the harrowing "Bloody Sunday" sequence and a key jail cell scene where a perturbed King asks fellow activist Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo) whether being able to sit at the same lunch counter with white people is worth it when the system continually keeps the marginalized from being able to afford to eat there.

Cinematographer Bradford Young and Ava DuVernay on the set of Selma

Something else has kept me from being enraged about the Selma snubs: the simple fact that I don't give a shit about the Oscars, an inane popularity contest that's frequently been on the wrong side of film history. When Do the Right Thing was the best American film released in 1989, what did the Academy give the Best Picture trophy to? The "safer choice" of the astoundingly tone-deaf and stereotypical Driving Miss Daisy. And of those two 1989 films about race relations, which one continues to be discussed in think pieces or oral history pieces and dissected in film school courses? Definitely not "Yes, Miss Daisy." And don't get me worked up over Dances with Wolves winning Best Picture over GoodFellas the following year. Sure, we should all be grateful for how Dances with Wolves gave a breakthrough role to the great Native Canadian actor Graham Greene and a bunch of substantial roles to Indian actors, but it's also a frustrating white savior movie, something Selma is not.

It's not going to matter to me which film will win Best Picture on February 22 because Selma has accomplished something greater than that trophy, and that's simply being a rare feature film about the modern civil rights movement that's told from the point of view of the oppressed for a change. DuVernay has defied the common foolishness of inserting a white savior character into a story about the plight of people of color, whether that story is Cry Freedom or Alan Parker's Mississippi Burning, to make it more "palatable" to white audiences. In fact, the original version of Selma's screenplay by screenwriter Paul Webb, who retained sole credit for the screenplay despite DuVernay's many changes to it, positioned President Johnson as the white savior figure and placed more emphasis on the interactions between King and LBJ. But when DuVernay climbed on board the project (Lee Daniels was originally supposed to direct Selma, but he chose to direct The Butler instead), she wisely refocused the screenplay on King and his colleagues, including black women in the movement like King's wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, whom Oyelowo brought onto the project) and Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson from Dear White People).


As an Asian American viewer, the four words I immediately think of whenever I encounter "white savior genre" are Come See the Paradise. That's the 1990 Oscar-bait flick that's better remembered these days for spawning ubiquitous '90s trailer music than for its story of World War II Japanese American internment camp inmates told through the eyes of Dennis Quaid as Tamlyn Tomita's white husband (Come See the Paradise also happened to be Parker's follow-up to Mississippi Burning; like Jerry Seinfeld used to say in that ear-piercing whine of his, what is the deal with this Parker guy?). Almost every white savior genre movie goes like this:


I'm white.

My best friend is not white.

Some people are being mean to my best friend for being different.

That makes me very sad.

Here are 95 minutes about why I'm very sad.

Also, see all the things I will do to make the bad people be nice to my best friend.

The genre is stupid, infantile, offensive and always worthy of ridicule. As far back as 1990, In Living Color was skewering anti-apartheid white savior movies with a great fake trailer for a tearjerker about the suffering of a wealthy white South African lady who loses her black housekeeper to apartheid and cries and pleads by letter for her return and then cries again. Even Avatar, the sci-fi action flick where Antony Starr Chris Hemsworth Jai Courtney Sam Worthington becomes enlightened by a race of mistreated aliens, suffers from white savior syndrome. Selma basically says "fuck off" to that type of film, a genre that's rarely questioned or criticized by white Hollywood, and that's probably a reason why neither the 94 percent white, 77 percent male Academy nor the LBJ defenders who aren't former LBJ press secretary Bill Moyers really care for Selma.

The LBJ defenders who were more extreme in their beef with Selma than Moyers (he appreciates the film despite his problems with how it portrays his former boss) proceeded to mastermind a smear campaign that succeeded in ruining the film's Oscar chances. Their accusations that Selma distorts LBJ into a villain are silly. The film humanizes him by showing his flawed ways of thinking and how he ultimately changed his mind about hesitating over voting rights legislation, just like how it takes King, a figure who's either been sanitized, reduced to a catchphrase ("I have a dream") or exploited by both Madison Avenue and right-wing TV hosts whose ideologies he would have opposed, and explores his doubts and insecurities as a leader (like in the jail cell scene) and depicts his generational conflict with younger activists. King's infidelity in his marriage is even addressed, something the last major film about King, director Clark Johnson's equally effective 2001 HBO film Boycott, didn't do (Boycott also happened to feature Ejogo in the same role of Coretta, who was younger and less jaded about both her marriage and activism in general in Johnson's film because it took place in 1955).

Of course, that MLK biopic in The Boondocks failed to show Cuba Gooding Jr. the money.
The Boondocks was right about Cuba Gooding Jr. someday doing an MLK movie during its most popular episode, "The Return of the King" (it was wrong about Cuba playing MLK though).

Selma rarely turns into the kind of stiff and formulaic Oscar-bait The Boondocks made fun of nine years ago when it actually predicted Cuba Gooding Jr.'s appearance in an MLK movie--in Selma, Gooding has a cameo as an attorney--and briefly mocked how often Hollywood mishandles historical figures like King. Part of Selma's verisimilitude is due to the way DuVernay follows various figures in King's cause and not just King himself to show how much the cause became bigger than him.

The DuVernay film's ensemble feel on a low budget is reminiscent of A Night to Remember, the documentary-like, British-made 1958 Titanic movie that's far better than the James Cameron version. Selma glimpses the movement's impact on the likes of young protester Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) and his family; John Lewis (Stephan James, whose resemblance to Lewis is uncanny), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee member who later became both a Congressman and a historical graphic novel author; and even some of the white activists or ministers who joined King's marches.


DuVernay avoided creating composite characters--the usual practice of an Oscar-bait biopic--and wanted to include as many different real-life figures as possible. There is one moment though, when Selma sets itself up for the kind of parody The Boondocks used to often excel at in its first three seasons: the bizarre sight of Oprah punching a cop, although Annie Lee Cooper actually did punch that cop. I imagine this is where Oprah intervened and said, "I'm the producer. I wanna be the one to play Annie and punch a cop." While it's a rousing scene taken from history, it's also the one distracting moment in the film that borders on "John Wayne crashing Christ's crucifixion" campiness.

Otherwise, like Boycott or any other historical drama that doesn't feel like a stiff and formulaic biopic, Selma takes subjects like King's struggles with voting rights legislation and the scourge of police brutality and finds ways to make them resonate in a current climate of ignorance towards voting rights and outrage over police brutality. One of those ways is Common and John Legend's Golden Globe-winning end title theme "Glory."

In that track, Common, who portrays James Bevel in the film, links the activism in Selma and Montgomery to the activism in Ferguson and echoes the film's communal focus when he raps, "No one can win the war individually" ("Glory" is also a unique track in hip-hop: like The Physics' "These Moments" in 2011 and Jay Electronica's "Better in Tune with the Infinite" last year, almost all of "Glory" contains no percussion, perhaps to mirror the film's subject of non-violent activism). DuVernay herself best explained Selma's contemporary-minded and non-stodgy approach to historical drama when she said, "Oh gosh, I'm completely allergic to historical dramas. Particularly those around the civil-rights movement. It's not my favorite thing to watch. So often they feel like medicine... I really wanted it to be nuanced and feel urgent, and to have some life to it."

Oscar trophies are nothing when compared to a simple accomplishment like that.

Selma is now streamable on Hulu.

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