16 Jan 2015

Selma's Martin Luther King has no need of white saviour

Written by  Adekeye Adebajo

No. 321: Selma's Martin Luther King has no need of white saviour / Adekeye Adebajo / Business Day
16 January 2015

Martin Luther King Jr's national holiday on Monday is one of only three that honour individuals in the US. The other two figures are explorer Christopher Columbus and founding president George Washington. It is therefore particularly appropriate that the first feature film of King's civil rights struggle, Selma, has just been released.

The movie is a dramaturgy of the struggle to achieve voting rights for blacks in apartheid US and captures three months between King's receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in December 1964 and the march from Selma to the Alabama capital of Montgomery in March 1965. Despite the fact that blacks made up 50% of Alabama's population, only 2% of them could vote at the time.

This is an epic drama that stages the civil rights struggle at two levels: a re-enactment of some of the major actors and events; and a "play within a play" in which King and his allies stage set-piece events to highlight white violence and injustice against blacks.

The Nobel Peace Prize gave King (at 35, the youngest laureate at the time) a global stature that strengthened his hand in pressuring the white establishment to change. African-American journalist Lee Daniels described King as "the great provocateur". To capture the attention of politicians and the public, it was particularly important that these scenes of white violence appear on the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, and be transmitted to the living rooms of 70-million Americans.

Selma has already won critical acclaim, with four Golden Globe nominations for best film, best director, best actor, and best original song, and is attracting much Oscar buzz. The New York Times's AO Scott described the film as "a triumph of efficient, emphatic cinematic storytelling", while the Washington Post's Ann Hornaday saw it as "an impressive history pageant". Selma's evocative cinematography and intelligent dialogue impressively recreate the mood of a volatile age. The leaders of this movement were, remarkably, mostly young men in their 20s and 30s, with King already a veteran leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the age of 36. But Selma also focuses on ordinary grassroots members who drew courage from the example of their leaders.

The film's intrepid 42-year-old director, Ava DuVernay, is the first African-American woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe, in only her third film. DuVernay's role model, Oprah Winfrey, lent the film both star power (as an elderly nurse) and was among the film's producers. Oscar-winning Cuba Gooding Jr also stars as a civil rights lawyer.

The disappearing political ties between Africa and its diaspora appear to have been transferred to the cultural arena, as black actors and directors with ancestry from Nigeria, Kenya and Grenada star in, and direct, films like Twelve Years A Slave (which won the Oscar for best film last year) and Selma. The central, masterful performance of this movie is that of David Oyelowo, a 38-year-old Nigerian-Briton. A talented and versatile actor, he was a Shakespearean thespian before going on to star in such movies as Lincoln (as a soldier); The Help (a preacher); The Butler (a Black Panther); and Interstellar (an astronaut).

Oyelowo almost seems to transform himself into King. As he said: "Everything I am as a man came together in this role." He noted that his non-American background gave him the distance to allow him to see King as a man of faith, a father and a husband, rather than as a mythical demigod.

Secularists may be somewhat uncomfortable with Oyelowo's messianic explanation that God had called him to play this role. He spent hours talking to King's associates, reading biographies, watching documentaries, visiting places in which King had preached, and even making a pilgrimage to where his hero was assassinated, in Memphis in 1968.

He captures perfectly the cadences of King's speech, his passion, his anger, and his reflective, melancholy silences. Most important, he demonstrates how canny a strategist King was.

The complex and difficult relationship with King's wife, Coretta Scott (played with great poise by another Nigerian-Briton, Carmen Ejogo), is at the heart of the movie, as the adulterous King's human frailties are exposed. The notorious director of the US's Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI), J Edgar Hoover, is a sinister, ubiquitous presence in King's life, tracking his every move.

The film also focuses on King's loyal disciples: David Abernathy, Hosea Williams, Andrew Young, John Lewis, Diane Nash, and Amelia Boynton. Many of these activists are religious preachers whose faith sustains them through their many trials and tribulations. The role of white priests and protesters in the civil rights struggle is also highlighted, as are the contributions of musicians such as Jamaican-American Harry Belafonte.

A major controversy erupted after the film's opening when Joseph Califano, a senior assistant in the Lyndon Johnson administration (1963-68), and Mark Updegrove, director of the Lyndon Johnson presidential library, questioned the portrayal of Johnson as having been in conflict with King; of having used the FBI to discredit him; and of having been reluctant to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

These criticisms, however, seek to deny black Americans any agency. Califano and Updegrove's petulant reaction actually shows how subversive Selma is. This is a story unapologetically told from a black perspective by a confident African-American director without Hollywood's usual need for a white hero to try to "save" infantile blacks, as depicted in such films as Cry Freedom, Blood Diamond, Lincoln, and The Help. Johnson, in fact, comes across in the movie as a skilful, pragmatic and wise leader who wanted to do the right thing without losing political support. The tension between the politician and the activist is a creative, constructive one that leads to a successful outcome. The lesson that King demonstrates is that power will concede nothing without a fight.

My only major criticism of this outstanding movie is that it ignores the influence of India's Mahatma Gandhi on King. Gandhi is not mentioned once in the film. However, one cannot understand the staged nonviolence "passive resistance" methods employed by the civil rights protesters without understanding the Satyagraha methods that Gandhi successfully used in SA and India.

As King himself noted, Gandhism was "the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom".

Selma is a stark reminder that the past continues to haunt the present.

In the movie, a 26-year-old black protester, Jimmie Lee Jackson, is shot dead by an Alabama state trooper who is never charged with the killing.

The rap song at the end of Selma reminds audiences of continuing injustices against blacks in Ferguson, where Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot dead by a white policeman, who was allowed to get away with the killing by a white-dominated grand jury. A similar situation would soon play itself out in New York when African-American Eric Garner was choked to death by a white policeman. As DuVernay aptly put it: "Ferguson is a mirror of the past. And Selma is a mirror of now. We are in a sad, distorted continuum."

Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution and editor of Africa's Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent.

This article is part of a series of fortnightly columns written by Adekeye Adebajo for Business Day. It was also published in the Guardian of Nigeria under the headline "Selma: Staging America's civil rights struggle" on 12 January 2015.

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