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Seeing ‘Selma’: An Exercise in Awareness

Seeing ‘Selma’: An Exercise in Awareness:

Deadline Hollywood recently published an article suggesting that the over-politicization of Selma might actually hurt the film’s chances for Oscar recognition come next year:

But could thrusting Selma directly into that conversation, where events can quickly change the message, be a risky move for a movie just opening, and an Oscar campaign that seems to be going very well? Saturday’s ambush murder of two NYC police officers at the hands of a clearly disturbed African-American man, who indicated on social media the killings were payback for the deaths of Garner and Brown, could heat up passions on the other side. Staging visible protests at a movie premiere could be at cross purposes, putting the film smack in the middle of a debate that takes away from the powerful, and powerfully told, story of the movie itself.

Filmmakers, including director Ava DuVernay and star David Oyelowo, have been outspoken when it comes to stressing Selma’s cultural and political resonance vis a vis the lack of indictments in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, and the ongoing protests of police violence around the country. While Martin Luther King and the real-life Americans depicted in Selma were fighting for voter’s rights in 1965 — not police reform — DuVernay and others maintain that current events solidly echo King’s experiences and that there are valuable lessons to be learned therein about the power of peaceful protest. The crew also expressed solidarity with modern-day protesters by posing for a photo outside of Selma’s New York premiere wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts and holding up their hands as a symbol of nonviolence.

Selma is not a Martin Luther King biopic. It focuses on a brief period in time and attempts to shed light on the intentions, strategies, deeply-held beliefs, and — ultimately — the humanity of individuals seeking justice and fair treatment from their own government. It seems counterintuitive that such timeliness would actually block Selma’s Oscar shot, especially considering that the film has already been recognized for excellence by critics and various awards organizations. If there is path to the Academy Awards, Selma would seem to be on it. But Deadline quotes unnamed industry insiders who suggest that Academy voters like “to make up their own minds.” Says one:

“It seems once you conflate a movie non-organically with current events, that you’re diminishing the film as film, and casting it instead in sociopolitical terms, before the public and the press do it for you,” the observer told me. “It seems messaged and contrived the way they’re doing it.”

Ava DuVernay is the founder of AFFRM, the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement, the organization which distributed my first film, Big Words. As such, she and I have a professional relationship. But we have also known each other since the days when she was a film publicist and I was covering movies at another publication. I consider her to be a good friend. Just as I was infinitely proud of her when she became the first African American woman to win the Best Director Prize at Sundance in 2012 and, this year, when she became the first black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe, I will be rooting for her and her company come Oscar time.

That said, I don’t believe the socio-political relevance of Selma should be downplayed for the sake of nominations and statuettes. Barely two news cycles ago, the dominant story in this country was the growing, public dissatisfaction with the treatment of its citizens, African Americans especially, by police nationwide. That compelling narrative was cut short by the Sony hacks, and suddenly Americans were upset because they had been deprived of their right to see The Interview – a film that even Sony execs themselves seemed to dislike. Some theaters tried run 2004’s Team America in place of The Interview, as if digging up a decade-old satire of American patriotism would serve as some sort of political action because said film thumbs its nose at North Korea, before they were thwarted by Paramount. (Just this week, Sony has decided to let independent theaters show The Interview starting Christmas Day if they choose to and are negotiating a VOD release.)

The Sony hacks constitute an unsettling display of cyber-terrorism. I feel for Sony employees in their loss of privacy. But, ultimately, a billion-dollar multinational corporation was targeted by external, possibly international forces — an issue best dealt with by that corporation stacking its billions toward a better firewall. The most the average Sony cog can do going forward is keep his or her password close and refrain from sending insensitive, insulting, racist, or personally embarrassing emails.

Thanks to the gruesome murder of two New York police officers by a man claiming revenge for Eric Garner as his motive, the issues of two weeks ago have returned to the forefront of the news — albeit in twisted, even more incendiary form. Tempers and hashtags are flaring — #blacklivesmatter versus #copslivesmatter. Selma hits theaters on Christmas Day. I can’t responsibly argue that going to see this movie is some sort of overt political act against the circumstance that precipitated that grisly display. Your ripped ticket stub will, on the surface, do nothing to bring about police reform in the immediate future. But, having seen Selma, I believe that the experience can help one understand and process the volatile nature of the struggle at hand. Not everyone responds to the news or remembers the beats of their American History textbooks. Often, entertainment — the embellished, the fabricated — is the best way to comprehend events.

The person quoted above by Deadline is obviously implying that Ava and Co. are deliberately highlighting the connection between their movie about the Civil Rights struggle and the actual continuation of that struggle to this very day. Why not hammer home that connection if it is absolutely pertinent? All over the country, people are fighting what they perceive to be clear injustice through marches, sit-ins, and other forms of nonviolent protest. At its most minimal effect, Selma provides a window into why these tactics are being employed and what can hopefully be achieved. For some, the film may even spark their engagement and participation. In light of the fact that only people can bring about the change they desire, either result would be as significant as any award.

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