Thursday, October 06, 2016


(Movie Review)

So, I've been wanting to see this movie for forever now.
I tweeted about it way back on November 7, 2014.   "Wow, this movie looks like it will be awesome" .

Unfortunately I was overseas when this movie hit theaters in the US, and I've had hard time tracking it down ever since
Finally, I was able to track down a copy the other night.  So here I am with my review.

The Review
So, I loved this movie.  Of course.
This kind of movie is red meat to a person like me, so it's a foregone conclusion that I'll fall in love with it.  I'm a history geek for one, so any movie that dramatizes history is going to catch my interests.  Plus I'm particularly interested in protest movements, so this movie is really ticking all my boxes.
I'm the kind of guy who's pre-disposed to give this movie 10 out of 10 stars before I even watch it.

So, 10 out of 10 for the history.  But what about the entertainment value?
The problem with dramatizing history is that history doesn't always lend itself to a 3-act Hollywood screenplay structure.  And this is particularly evident here, when the climax comes halfway through the movie, and everything that happens in the last 40 minutes of the movie is just anti-climatic.

So, I admit to being a little bit bored with the second half of the movie.

But what can you do?  If they had re-arranged the structure of the story to better accommodate a 3-act screenplay, then history geeks like me would have been furious.  The story has to be what the story is.
Maybe a better director could have found ways to punch up the second half and keep the momentum going.  I don't know.  (Film-making is not my business.  I can wish for a better film, but not actually give any useful advice on how to get there.)

But three things come to mind as perhaps missed opportunities that could have kept the momentum of the story going:

1) The media attention regarding the death of the white priest James Reeb was a big turning point in terms of national politics.  This was both a big help to the civil rights movement, and a big frustration to it.  (Black deaths in Selma never got the same level of media attention as white deaths did).  But it did massively increase pressure on the government to do something.
Although James Reeb's death is shown, and the fallout is alluded to, I thought they could have done more with this.

2) According to Wikipedia: In between the second and third marches, SNCC was doing a lot of protests.  James Forman was really getting the crowds excited, and the SCLC was worried they were losing control.
There were protests outside the White House, and President Johnson met with a delegation that included H. Rap Brown.
These White House protests were alluded to in the movie, but this could have been much more dramatic.  James Forman's speeches in Selma could also have been included.

3).  I didn't like the soundtrack choices for the 3rd march.  That song (Yesterday Was Hard On All of Us) was just really blah, and I thought it killed the momentum of the scene.  Another song could have carried that scene a lot better.

But here I am harping on the negatives of the movie, when I should be praising its accomplishments.
I mean, the fact that a movie like this could get made at all, and be so faithful to the historical record, and get a major theatrical release, is such a wonderful thing.
The acting is good.  The directing is good.  And, aside from my one complaint above, the soundtrack was really good.

The movie did a good job of re-using classic songs from the period with some really good new songs.  The official theme song of the movie, Glory, was brilliant.

Okay, now on to my complaining about the negatives...

* I really like Tim Roth, but he is miscast as George Wallace.  His fake Southern accent is awful, he looks and sounds nothing like the historical George Wallace, and his whole performance is just generally terrible.

* Back in 2007, I made a list of all the Hollywood Biopics I wanted to see.  I put Martin Luther King as number one on that list.  ( I know he's been the subject of many TV movies, but I don't think he'd ever gotten the major Hollywood theatrical release treatment).
So, I should be really happy this movie finally came out.  And I am.  But on that same list, I expressed some fears that if Hollywood ever did a movie about Martin Luther King, then they would throw in a bunch of sappy stuff about his relationship with his wife.
To quote myself:

The only thing I would be worried about would be Hollywood’s tendency to really sap this up, pile on the emotion and the turbulent home life, throw in a troubled childhood, and make it interchangeable with every other Bi-opic already out there. I mean, you can just see it already, can’t you.
Wife: “We need you Martin, the Children need you.”
King: “The Work I do is important.”
Wife: “We’re important too.”
Lots of crying, yelling, et cetera, and the standard husband/wife fights that are a part of every Hollywood Biopic film. I’m not suggesting King’s marital infidelities be white washed out, I just hate to see the sap become the main part of the story.
I hate to publicly congratulate myself, but that little prediction turned out to be dead-on, no? Although I guess I really shouldn't take too much credit.  This kind of thing was all too easy to predict.  Hollywood just can't resist.  They just have to throw in the scenes of the husband and wife fighting.  (There was probably some Hollywood executive somewhere demanding that they add those scenes of King and his wife quarreling).
And the thing is --that was all fictional.  Martin Luther King and his wife never had these fights.  Yes, he was unfaithful in real-life, but she apparently never made an issue of it.  She just always pretended she didn't know.
So that whole scene where King's wife confronted him about his cheating was entirely fictional--see this article here for more discussion.

Final Rating
Since this is the kind of movie the world needs more of, I'm going to give it 10 out of 10 on good intentions.  In execution, however, I'm going to bring it down to 9 out of 10 for some of the reasons listed above.

Historical Nitpicking/Discussion  
...In which I go off on tangents about things which are  interesting to me.
Being a martyr does strange things to a man's reputation.
Because he died as a martyr, no one would dare criticize Martin Luther King now.  Which makes it easy to forget that he wasn't necessarily regarded as Jesus Christ during his own lifetime.  Both the Left and the Right had their issues with him.

The Left never really forgave King for turning the march around on that bridge.
In his book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe reveals that the New Left had started using the name "Martin Luther King" as a term of abuse to describe people who didn't have the courage to follow through with the protests.  (Wolfe is describing events while King was still alive.  I'm assuming this must have stopped once King became a martyr.)

I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test way back in the summer of 1996 when I was 18, much before I started book reviewing on this blog.  So I never reviewed it here.  But the relevant passage is here.

The Vietnam Day Committee marched in frantic clump at the head, trying to decide whether to force the issue, have a physical confrontation, heads busted, bayonets—or turn back when they ordered them to. Nobody seemed to have any resolve. Somebody would say, We have no choice, we've got to turn back—and somebody else would call him a Martin Luther King. That was about the worst thing you could call anybody on the New Left at that time. Martin Luther King turned back at the critical moment on the bridge at Selma.

Secondly, I forgot where I read this, but I once read somewhere that during his day Martin Luther King was much resented by some in SNCC because he would sweep in to places only after other people had done all the hard work of grassroots organizing, and then King would take all the credit.

To the movie's credit, they actually show this--they show the conflict between Martin Luther King and SNCC.
To the movie's discredit, however, it comes down a little bit too heavy on the side of Martin Luther King, and portrays SNCC as children in need of adult guidance.  

the film is a crude insult to SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee workers who, along with a small minority of Black preachers like Dr. Martin Luther King, comprised the infrastructure of the civil rights movement in the Deep South. These hundreds of heroic young people, who had been organizing communities in Mississippi and Georgia and, yes, Lowndes County, Alabama for years, and who invited Dr. King to come to Selma, are personified in the film by one confused sounding, infantile behaving youth who we are supposed to believe is James Forman, the SNCC executive secretary who was, in real life, a Korean War veteran and former teacher and ground-breaking organizer about the same age as Dr. King. In the film, the James Forman character comes across as petty-minded, while Dr. King is made to seem like the only adult in town. Veterans of SNCC have a right to be hurt at being consigned to the dustbin of history by the likes of Oprah Winfrey.
See also Julian Bond's opinion of the film here:

So that's all on the Left.

On the side of the Right, they would love to forget how they used to call Martin Luther King a communist, and how the FBI was constantly harassing Martin Luther King.

The film shows the FBI harassment of Martin Luther King, although it muddles the details a bit.  The FBI really did send the sex tapes to Martin Luther King's wife, and they really did send a letter to King urging him to commit suicide.  But these were two separate events.  The movie muddles this together by putting the letter and the sex tapes together.
The chronology is also a bit muddled.  The FBI sent the letter to King urging him to commit suicide in 1964, before he received the Noble Peace Prize.

What's also left out of this movie is that the FBI tried to get the media interested in these sex tapes and sex transcripts, but the media refused to play along.  (It was obviously a different time back then).

Had this little bit been included in the movie, it would probably have altered the relationship between Johnson and Hoover.
In the movie, Hoover wants to get rid of King.  Johnson wants King weakened, but not eliminated, because Johnson is worried that more radical elements like Malcolm X will take over if King is gone.  (This is speculation on the part of the movie, but this seems reasonably to me--Johnson probably did think this way.)  When King refuses to back down, Johnson allows Hoover to send the sex tape to King's wife.
In real life, however, Hoover first sent the sex tape and transcripts to the media, and only sent it to King's wife later, after the media refused to publish them.
However had the media been less scrupulous, then releasing the sex tapes to the media would have been the equivalent of destroying King.  Which would have not been what Johnson wanted, according to this movie.

* Speaking of muddled chronology, King receiving the Noble Peace Prize was in 1964.  The Birmingham Church Bombing was in 1963.  The movie switches the order of these.

* My primary education about the Civil Rights movement comes from the  PBS documentary series: Eyes on the Prize.
I actually saw this documentary twice as part of my high school education--two separate teachers teaching two different classes both showed us this documentary series.  (They both only showed us the first season, but the second season I was able to track down at the public library a couple years later when I was in college).

Because this series had been such a big part of my high school history education, I assumed it was something that everyone was familiar with.  But as I've gone out into the larger world, I've discovered a lot of people haven't even heard of it.

I can't recommend this documentary series enough.  If you haven't seen it, it's well worth tracking down.
For the moment, the episode on Selma is freely available on Youtube--here.

It's interesting to re-watch this video, and compare it with the movie.
I was surprised how much of the dialogue of the movie comes verbatim from the actual history--Andrew Young's description of how he talked people out of using guns, for example, is almost verbatim in the movie the way it is in the movie.

It's also interesting to see how much fascinating stuff the movie left out.  James Forman working up the crowds is portrayed in this documentary, and, as I mentioned above, it's too bad the movie couldn't find room for that scene somewhere.

I like the AVclub's review of this film for sufficiently pointing out both the strengths and the weaknesses.
The AVclub review also points out how depressing it is that we've managed to backslide back into a culture where these same issues have returned.  In 1965 black people were being shot by police, and now they are again.  In 1965 the FBI kept wiretaps on all the dissident groups, and now the NSA is doing the same thing.

Final Thought
Watching this movie, and watching everything everyone went through to get the 1965 Voting Right Act just makes you so angry that the Supreme Court gutted that legislation in 2013.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky, 'The Human Species Has Never Faced A Question Like This’ (2016) october

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