The Envelope: ‘Selma’s’ depiction of civil rights years: Less saintly, more swagger

Scene from ‘Selma’
David Oyelowo as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Carmen Ejogo as his wife, Coretta Scott King, in “Selma.”
(Atsushi Nishijima / Paramount Pictures)

There’s a short scene in the upcoming film “Selma” about the events leading up to, and surrounding, the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches of 1965 in which Coretta Scott King confronts her husband, Martin, about his suspected infidelities. “Do you love me?” she asks, and he responds in the affirmative. “Do you love any of the others?” she then asks, and after a pause he acknowledges that there are indeed others by answering, “No.”

It’s not a major moment in director Ava DuVernay’s movie, but it is in a sense an astonishing one. That’s because films about the civil rights movement have barely acknowledged Martin Luther King Jr.'s adulterous ways and have for the most part portrayed activists of the era as sexless and saintly.

Films about the movement “have made the representative black characters just such good, noble people,” says Allison Graham, author of “Framing the South: Hollywood, Television and Race During the Civil Rights Struggle.” “The movies don’t risk having a complicated, flawed black hero or heroine.”

Or, as DuVernay told an audience at New York’s Urbanworld Film Festival, King “has been really homogenized, like a preaching statue, but he was a really radical thinker and a bad-ass brother. We’re not seeing a lot of swagger in the nonviolent movement in most of the films about civil rights. There was a lot of swagger, a lot of bravery.”


That’s not the only thing that films about the movement have avoided. Although there have been numerous movies about race relations (“To Kill a Mockingbird,” “In the Heat of the Night,” etc.) and scores of documentaries about the civil rights era, narrative films about the struggle have been scarce.

When portraying the era, Hollywood has generally opted for a narrow range of story lines: films about the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott (“The Long Walk Home,” “Boycott,” “The Rosa Parks Story”); about the 1964 murder of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman (“Mississippi Burning,” “Murder in Mississippi”); and films in which a heroic white person is involved in the struggle (“Ghosts of Mississippi,” “Mississippi Burning,” “The Long Walk Home,” “The Help”).

In these films, “the full dimension of the black experience is not on display,” says Alexis Scott of Atlanta’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights. “It’s because of the people in charge of the money [in Hollywood] and what they think is the most dramatic aspect. I think what’s not portrayed is that these black characters were activists in the sense of making things happen and not just having things happen to them.”

With the exception of Spike Lee’s 1992 film, “Malcolm X,” there have been virtually no major movies about the black power experience and such charismatic figures as Stokely Carmichael (there was also the 1995 Mario Van Peebles film “Panther,” about the Black Panther Party, which tanked commercially). Other than the 2002 TV movie “The Rosa Parks Story,” the role of such female activists as Fannie Lou Hamer has been mostly ignored, and no one has yet to fully tell the story of Viola Liuzzo, the white Detroit housewife who joined the Selma to Montgomery march and was subsequently killed by the Ku Klux Klan, though her involvement is included briefly in “Selma.”


The reason? “The bottom line is the bottom line,” says UCLA history professor Brenda Stevenson. "[The studios] are going to look at what the audience wants to see, and we can see that Hollywood panders to Southern sentiment and a larger sentiment that can be deeply racist. A lot of the audience is more comfortable with ‘here is this heroic white person involved in the movement.’”

“I don’t believe Hollywood is the vanguard of popular culture; it reflects the culture it is in,” adds American Film Institute historian Bob Birchard. At the time of the movement “there weren’t many filmmakers with the black perspective, and they were channeled into blaxploitation pictures. Even today, part of the attention given to the recent ‘Django Unchained’ and ’12 Years a Slave’ is that there just hasn’t been much in the way of a willingness to delve into the historical issues around slavery and Jim Crow. That said, there hasn’t been much bravery on the part of filmmakers dealing with issues like the Indian wars and the labor movement.”

Possibly the most egregious example of Hollywood’s reluctance when it comes to the civil rights movement is the 1988 Alan Parker film “Mississippi Burning.” A well-crafted movie about the search for the killers of three civil rights workers, it treated blacks as passive victims and the FBI — whose director, J. Edgar Hoover, was notorious for his hatred of, and attempts to undermine, MLK — as being in the vanguard of racial justice.

The film “treated the disappearance of three civil rights workers as a western and turned the FBI into great heroes, which they were not,” author Graham says, “and that set the stage for the movies that followed, where you had the white hero.”

It is for reasons such as these that DuVernay wanted to make “Selma,” if only because, as she told The Times in an earlier interview, black historical dramas “feel like medicine. I’m a person who doesn’t really like black historical dramas, so [in ‘Selma’] I was constantly changing the tropes you see in those movies, from the way they were lit and cut to the way people behave in the scenes.”

Whether or not a mass audience will want to see this more authentic version of the civil rights struggle, which opens Christmas Day, is problematic. Recent films about racial issues, especially those with black protagonists, have not achieved major commercial successes — “Malcolm X” grossed less than $50 million, and last season’s best picture Oscar winner “12 Years a Slave” earned just over $56 million. But “The Help,” with its white lead, topped $160 million.

“It’s box office; it’s all about the Benjamins,” says Atlanta’s Scott. “There is the notion that [films about the movement] won’t have broad appeal, that only black people will be interested.”


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