I watched Selma (2014) and Citizenfour (2014) last week, however since then House of Cards Season 3 and other TV shows have sucked up all of my attention. But I haven’t watched any other movies so they’ve both sort of stuck with me, and it’s never too late to get one’s thoughts out.
I didn’t expect to write about Citizenfour or Selma, and I definitely didn’t plan on writing about them together, but after seeing both over the past week it’s clear that they’re both movies about America’s history that deserve a wide audience. Interestingly enough, Citizenfour is a documentary that plays as a dramatic thriller; while Selma is a drama that plays as a fictionalized PBS documentary.
Selma begins with an explosion in which four black girls are killed known as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, which I didn’t know happened. In school we’re told the stories of Emmett Till who was killed for flirting with a white girl in Mississippi in 1955, and of the Greensboro Four who staged a sit in at a whites only lunch counter at Woolworth’s in 1960, which is all well and good, but why not more? Why the same stories year after year?
Soon thereafter Oprah appears as Annie Lee Cooper, a black woman humiliated and denied in her umpteenth attempt to register to vote in Selma, Alabama when she couldn’t come up with how many county judges there are in Alabama.
Those two events set the stage for the type of film the director
Ava DuVernay intends to make, one that will present the true events of our history in a way that they haven’t been told before.
She does this in two ways: literally in that the story of the attempts to march from Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and on to Montgomery in the name of Voting Rights is rarely fully told, and cinematically in that DuVernay presents the truth with a dramatic approach, through a black lens.
Aside from the more concrete things that DuVernay highlights, she also depicts key people less as highly regarded political figures and more as just men at the end of the day; the central figure being Martin Luther King Jr. as played by David Oyelowo. Oyelowo’s accent for the most part is on point and sometimes exceptional. He looks and sounds nothing like the diminutive district attorney he plays in A Most Violent Year (2014). It’s impressive that he’s able to grab hold of the ethos of Dr. King as an Englishman, or any man for that matter.
The Martin Luther King Jr. we’re presented in school is all speeches and peaceful protest and good will. Selma’s King sits scrunched in the middle of the back seat, struggles with his marriage, holds grudges against Malcolm X, and is just another (thankfully less radical) negro in the eyes of the government.
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) is cordial to King’s face but instructs the already skeptical J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to continue to have him surveilled, have his marriage broken up to hurt his image if necessary. DuVernay presents those FBI logs of King’s time in Selma as onscreen text to structure the narrative and underscore the scrutiny our government secretly placed on civil rights activists.
Other major white political figures expressed themselves more openly such as the Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth). All of his lines, and by association Johnson and Hoover, are almost funny, drawn like editorial cartoon characters. The actors aren’t trying to be funny, it just looks funny to me and it’s hard to take anything Roth says seriously. Of course Wallace is serious, as he was then, and violence ensues, as it did then as well. These caricatures give an easy out to those looking for a reason to dismiss Selma and Ava DuVernay as a director, but the characters’ sentiments and attempts to deter black progress are real, silly or unreal as they may seem to us now.
The scenes at the Edmund Pettus Bridge are the highlights of the film and are where Academy Award consideration for Best Picture is earned (and yes, Oyelowo deserved an Actor nod). The first of their three trips to the bridge ends in what is referred to as “Bloody Sunday” and is depicted on screen with heartbreaking, unflinching, brutal images, increasingly washed to black and white colors, eventually drowned out by tear gas and cries and screams and whips and horse hooves. Here is where DuVernay’s artistry in transposing history to her dramatic screen is on full display.
The thing that gets me, and I assume one of the many intentions of Selma, is that I wasn’t aware of exactly what role Martin Luther King Jr. played in those marches from Selma to Montgomery. I wasn’t aware that he wasn’t there on “Bloody Sunday” and that he decided to turn back when the group decided to try a second time, that he wanted legal protection for the march and from his fellow Americans, and that the group won that right to march in court before setting off for a 3rd time backed by the United States Military (reluctant though some of them may have been).
I knew the FBI kept tabs on Dr. King, but only because that was recent news, and it was more eye opening to see the text written out on screen for all to see. I doubt states will be adding those bits to their textbooks.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”. John Legend, Common, and others have said that Selma (and the Academy Award winning song “Glory”) is important because in many ways we’re still fighting the same battles today. This past Saturday, March 7th, 50 years to the day, President Obama gave a rousing speech to mark the occasion and in it he said a great many things.
Obama notes that as a result of the perseverance of those in Selma 50 years ago “the doors of opportunity swung open not just for African-Americans, but for every American. Women marched through those doors. Latinos marched through those doors. Asian-Americans, gay Americans, and Americans with disabilities came through those doors.”
However, he also spoke truthfully on Ferguson and the DOJ report and on the state of race today, noting that racism hasn’t gone anywhere, “we just need to open our eyes, and ears, and hearts, to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us. We know the march is not yet over, the race is not yet won…”
And later added, “right now, in 2015, fifty years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote. As we speak, more of such laws are being proposed. Meanwhile, the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood and sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, stands weakened, its future subject to partisan rancor.”
Some are calling it his best speech since being elected. It inspired Grantland’s Rembert Browne, who was invited to travel to Alabama with President Obama on Air Force One, and in a way they’ve both inspired me to finish the notes that eventually became this post. That Obama can give that speech, that Rembert Browne can cover it, and that I can write about an Oscar nominated film by a black female director is evidence of progress, but we’ve got so far to go and seem to be going backward as the President points out.
It’s a bit ridiculous that large swaths of Americans, myself included to some extent, don’t know some of the details of our collective history. It’s even more surreal that our Governments are trying to censor education even further, be it something as broad as textbooks in Texas or specific as AP US History in Oklahoma.
If Selma can take place 50 years ago and still feel important today; in terms of history, the events of Citizenfour happened a few hours ago and deserve our attention as well.
Citizenfour won the Academy Award for Best Documentary and is one of the best I’ve seen since last year’s crop of nominees. For a Documentary to really break out into the mainstream it has to not only have a unique subject, it also has to present itself in a unique way.
It’s dismissive to say director Laura Poitras got lucky; she was very well prepared when opportunity appeared in January 2013 in the form of a string of encrypted emails from “Citizenfour”, now known as Edward Snowden. These emails are decrypted and displayed on screen as they would appear in a computer terminal then narrated by Poitras.
Before I watched Citizenfour I didn’t have much of an interest in Edward Snowden. I’d seen his face in the news and understood him to be responsible for the public knowledge of the depth and breadth of the United States National Security Agency (NSA). And though I knew him as someone who revealed such information I wasn’t really aware of the reach and strength of the NSA, which is world wide and building toward infinite, until I saw Citizenfour.
Snowden and Poitras, as well as Glen Greenwald and a third investigative journalist, eventually convene in a Hong Kong hotel where Poitras films Edward Snowden as he reveals details about himself and his work at the NSA. As a result it feels as if you’re in the room with them, hearing the details of how the NSA tacitly surveils American citizens (well, anyone on Earth) just as they hear it for the first time.
Snowden’s testimony is supported by images and videos of NSA data centers in the United States and related data centers abroad, as well as testimony from Intelligence officials in Congress which paints an even more dubious picture of the state of surveillance in the name of our National Security.
Regardless of what you think of the notion of privacy, or Edward Snowden’s actions, or how Poitras depicts America, it’s important that people know these things are happening. That as we go on about our oversharing business, our text messages and pictures, Google searches and online interactions, aren’t ever really private or deleted.
Or in the case of the march from Selma to Montgomery, regardless of how you feel about racism, or voter suppression, or America’s need to look good in the history books, it’s important that people know those things happened. That just 50 years ago people protested and marched (three times), were whipped and tear gassed, for rights they already had.
That’s why movies like Selma and Citizenfour are important. There’s so much our government fails or neglects to inform us of, and there’s so much we forget or choose to not pay attention to, just to get along in our own little lives.