We view movies through the lens of our times; case in point, 'Selma'

Betsy Sharkey
Los Angeles Times Film Critic
When you watched 'Selma,' did recent events in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island come to mind?

It is impossible to see "Selma," Ava DuVernay's Oscar-nominated drama tracing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic 1965 march to demand voting rights be accorded all citizens of this land, and not feel the weight of Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, and the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, felled by a policeman's bullets.

Impossible to watch the real footage DuVernay intercut — of police in riot gear in 1965 tear-gassing and bashing peaceful protesters — and not hear the echoes of clashes between protesters and police in Missouri and around the country in the wake of a grand jury decision not to indict the officer involved in Brown's death.

New York's Staten Island too colors any viewing of "Selma." The life of Eric Garner cut short during an arrest, the emotionally charged protests that followed, another grand jury opting not to indict an officer.

Watching the Selma march unfold in the film, it does not play so much as a page out of history but a replay of the racial tensions and human rights issues we still see today.

Whatever impact a film might have on those who see it, the reality is that events, attitudes and present-day understandings affect and shape how we view movies as much, if not more.

This cultural exchange doesn't apply only to new films, as I discovered after rewatching the Oscar-winning "Gone With the Wind," on its 75th anniversary this month.

Like Selma, the 1939 epic adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's Southern-inflected Civil War novel — coming in just shy of a mind-numbing four-hour running time — is affected by the shifting winds of time. But in very different ways than DuVernay's film.

While the current racial conflicts enhance and inform the experience of watching "Selma" and make the discussions of racial inequality more trenchant, modern times dim the power of "Gone With the Wind." Its depiction of Southern slaves both before and after the war that would free them emerge now as exceedingly uncomfortable clichés.

One of the opening scenes is of a huge bell being rung by the counterweight of two young boys, slaves in tatters, "happy" to summon those on the plantation and call those in the audience to settle in for this story.

Though "Gone's" central theme is of Southern belle Scarlett O'Hara, who goes from flirty to flinty in this time-warped female empowerment story, it is the portrayal of blacks that emerges and overtakes the experience of watching the film today. It serves as a stark reminder of one of this country's darkest chapters, not the romance suggested by Mitchell's words on screen — a time when "Gallantry took its last bow. ... Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair" — but of how inhumane and insensitive a people we were.

Among its eight Oscar wins would be one for lead actress Vivien Leigh for her petulant Scarlett. And in a groundbreaking first, the supporting actress win went to Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy, the O'Haras' house slave. McDaniel became the first African American to be nominated for an Oscar, the first to win, so there is that. (The film also received two special citations from the academy.)

Still, do we forgive the film, and other art forms, whether past or present, their indiscretions? Their arch assessment? Their idiotic insensitivity? Should the relative quality of the intellect and artistry factor into the equation? The questions certainly nag.

The answer does not come in shelving the offending material, as Disney has done with the embarrassment of the 1946 film "Song of the South," locking it away in the vaults and opting not to release it on video, DVD when that came along, or the Internet streaming services that followed.

The studio's decision was triggered not by self-reflection but by public complaints about "Song of the South's" depiction of African Americans, starting with Uncle Remus, the jocular former slave so happy to charm children with his Br'er Rabbit tales. And though Disney continues to keep the movie on ice, bootleg copies of the live-action animated mash-up of Uncle Remus tales are easy enough to buy, only a credit card and a click away.

If one of history's roles is to remind us of our predecessors' transgressions and show us how not to repeat them, films, even offensive ones, can be instructive. But that is not the issue or an argument in favor of their dissemination. Like all forms of freedom and equality, speech — whether in movies, cartoons, high art or YouTube hits — should be protected. No caveats, no matter how uncomfortable or how distant and dissonant the discourse in relation to our own particular views.

The very nature of freedom is to allow friends and foes alike to live under its tent — a position that has never made its protection easy, as the legacy of war forever underscores.

Make no mistake, film is rarely on the front line of the battle. It's not so much a leader of causes as a reflector of our attitudes tied very closely to the times in which it is made. Moviemakers tend to pick up the pulse of the nation. It is up to their creative inventiveness, or inappropriateness, to send that pulse racing. Though I wouldn't vouch for its inventiveness, "The Interview" certainly got North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's blood boiling, as Sony Pictures so painfully discovered. Which is not to denigrate film's ability to change lives, either.

But true courage is rarer still.

For all who respect free and uncensored discourse, as well as those who create movies anchored by that precept, a great deal of trust is required. Trust that most moviegoers are smart enough to decide what is worthy of our time and attention and what should land on the scrap pile.

I know there are idiots among us; we have too many statistics on the link between violent images and violent action to pretend it doesn't exist. Whether mentally disturbed or trained terrorists, their actions put the responsibility on the messenger.

Filmmakers, as one of the more effective of those messengers, do carry responsibility for the tenor and tone of their work. For as much as the power of free speech in creative endeavors should be protected, those who wield it should never forget that with great power comes great responsibility.

At the same time, we should keep in mind that, with movies, it's never a clear case of cause and effect. The experience, the outcome of that interaction, if you will, is framed by what is on the screen and the world we happen to be living in on that particular day. Without both pieces of the equation, film is nothing more than a tree that falls in the forest with no one there to hear.

Twitter: @BetsySharkey

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