Sunday, January 11, 2015

Two great films up for Golden Globes tonight: 'Selma' and 'Pride'

I have been busy lately catching some 2014 films I missed last year.

Scene from 'Selma'
The most recent viewing was director Ava DuVernay's superb 'Selma,' (pictured on the right) which chronicles the efforts of many led by the late Martin Luther King Jr. to achieve full voting rights for African-Americans in Alabama and across the racist southern states in the 1960s, specifically the Selma marches in 1965.

The direction of this film by Ava DuVernay is artful but also completely accessible.   The acting is exceptional, including the lead performance by David Oyelowo as King, who really captures the passion, determination, intelligence and grace of the man.   As a work of art and entertainment, the film works on all levels and is most deserving of the praise it's receiving, including a Best Picture (Drama) nomination in tonight's Golden Globe Awards.

As with any high-profile feature film about contentious events, there has been some controversy about the film's depictions.  Most particularly, a former Lyndon Johnson adviser, In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted — and he didn’t use the FBI to disparage him."

The film's director effectively rebuffed the accusations on her Twitter account with:

"Notion that Selma was LBJ's idea is jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so.

"More detail here. LBJ's stall on voting in favor of War on Poverty isn't fantasy made up for a film."

"Bottom line is folks should interrogate history. Don't take my word for it or LBJ rep's word for it. Let it come alive for yourself."

Sage words not to forget.  That New Yorker article is a very detailed account of the events that led up to the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, many of which seem to be depicted quite accurately in the film.   

"Johnson recognized the need for additional voting-rights legislation, and he directed Nicholas Katzenbach, soon to be his attorney general, to draft it. “I want you to write me the goddamnest toughest voting rights act that you can devise,” is the way he put it. But then progress slowed. Johnson had the most ambitious legislative agenda of any President since F.D.R. (his idol), and he explained to King that he was worried that Southern opposition to more civil-rights legislation would drain support from the War on Poverty and hold up bills on Medicare, immigration reform, and aid to education. He asked King to wait."  

After watching the film and doing my own research, I'd have to agree that the portraits painted in the film 'Selma,' are pretty much accurate.  Grassroots organizers including King found Selma as a primary example that could be used to justify the crucial importance of voting rights reform.  They did the heavy lifting.  There's no indication in the film that LBJ used the FBI to disparage King.  But the film does post verbatim transcripts of FBI logs that clearly show that King was being monitored throughout the entire period.  

It's probably true that LBJ first wanted political conditions to be in place before pushing for voting rights reforms over other priorities.  And the Selma experience ultimately created those conditions.   The film portrays King as being fully aware of that political reality and organizing to make it happen.  Without a doubt, King and his supporters and other activists were the primary players in those marches including their conception, plus obviously the execution: they walked those miles, they put their lives at risk.  The televising to millions of Americans and others across the world of the first march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge which ended with unarmed and peaceful protesters being brutally attacked by police under orders from the Alabama governor marked a turning point for the civil rights movement.  And the events gave Washington the impetus to push the reforms.

All in all, 'Selma' is a great example of civil rights history that deserves to be viewed and studied.

Another film nominated for the Globes tonight, 'Pride,' (pictured on the right) also depicts historical efforts against injustice and discrimination, albeit with a lighter, more humorous tone than 'Selma.'

Directed by Britain's Matthew Warchus, 'Pride' is a lovely film with great heart about gay activists in 1980s Britain raising money to help support striking miners in Wales and across the U.K.   Beautifully acted by a huge U.K. cast including Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy, Dominic West and a bevy of cute young men including Ben Schnetzer, the movie succeeds because it shows the great benefits of forming alliances between the downtrodden or attacked groups that otherwise might never interact.   Through those unlikely alliances, greater communication, understanding and personal growth result, sometimes in small intimate ways, and also in larger ways: because of the efforts of those few gay activists, huge swaths of Britain's labour movement became more supportive of queer rights.  

Some might take issue with the alliance between coal miners and gay activists if they value equality but not industries that clearly had grown inefficient.  In fact, the burning of coal is one of the main sources of greenhouse gases and continues to fall out of fashion.  Ontario has shut down all of its coal-burning energy facilities, as we know.   The film barely mentions the word, "coal," and instead focuses on the relationships between the characters.  The workers under threat in the film are fighting for basic survival and a way of life, not simply for coal.  They had followed paths laid out for them by their communities (most of which were single industry towns), only to see their livelihoods threatened in the name of an uncaring ideological government only concerned with the bottom line.

Had I been among the gay activists in the U.K. in the 1980s, I would've joined this movement for certain.  The film succeeds in depicting that era in the gay rights movement extremely well.  They were different times, indeed, and it's great to have this gem of a film to depict them.

While 'Selma' succeeds in showing both black and white activists coming together to fight injustice, the activists in 'Pride' are all lily-white.  No doubt, London's gay scene in the 1980s wasn't too racially diverse, nor were the mining towns of Wales.   But the themes of different groups coming together to fight for their rights resonate in both films.

I urge you to check out both of these films as soon as you can. 

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