Friday, February 27, 2015

Selma: The Whole World Was Watching

Now that the Oscar ceremony is over, the sound and fury surrounding the movie Selma has largely subsided. All the points of controversy, among them the film’s take on President Lyndon Johnson and the failure of the Academy to nominate director Ava DuVernay and star David Oyelowo, are now pretty much moot. Certainly, I was as surprised as anyone that Oyelowo won no nomination for his stirring, convincing portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King. In a year when the portrayal of real-life heroes (Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking, Chris Kyle) was being richly rewarded by those with prizes to give, Oyelowo’s work certainly merited recognition. Which was why, of course, the Oscar broadcast was at pains to feature Oyelowo throughout the evening. (I’ve got to say—I loved that maroon tuxedo.)

With the question of statuettes now out of the way, I should add that I’m deeply grateful for Selma. Not so much for its aesthetic achievements, mind you, as for its contribution to the historical record. Needless to say, no feature film can ever hope to be 100% accurate. In telling a story that will connect with viewers over a two-hour period, filmmakers necessarily cut corners and make mental leaps. Still, even those of us who were alive during that tumultuous era need reminding of what happened, and why it did. One key function of movies is to give us visual images that allow the past to live on. With Black History Month just wrapping up, it seems high time to salute Selma for putting before our eyes (even in a necessarily truncated form) what went down on Alabama’s Edward Pettus Bridge in March 1965. What happened fifty years ago has much to teach us about today’s racial divide, and I thank DuVernay and company for the memories.

My viewing of Selma is part of why I approached Marvin J. Wolf’s recent publication, I Will Vote, with excitement. Wolf, a veteran journalist and my colleague in the Southern California chapter of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, started out as an aspiring U.S. Army combat photographer. In early March 1965, because the Army needed him at Fort Benning,  Wolf headed in his own car from Los Angeles to Georgia via U.S. Highway 80. His route took him through Montgomery, Alabama. As he approached Selma, fifty miles west of Montgomery, on the morning of March 9, he was surprised to see this normally sleepy country town crawling with cops. He soon learned that Dr. King was in the vicinity, supporting a voting rights demonstration that had quickly turned ugly. (Around the time Wolf arrived, a white Unitarian minister named James Reeb died from injuries inflicted by white racists who’d been deputized by Jim Clark, the notorious sheriff of Alabama’s Dallas County.)

Wolf had with him only three rolls of film. (Remember film cameras?) He shot as many photos as he could, capturing the image of neatly-dressed black protesters, solemn-faced white clergy, alert news reporters, and policemen feeling the heft of their nightsticks. Wolf was particularly taken by the earnest face of a black female college student wearing a button that announced, “I will vote.” Then a rock was thrown in his direction, and a giant of a deputy in bib overalls knocked him to the ground. He prudently left town, and those three rolls of film were forgotten for almost fifty years. How fascinating to see now what he captured then.

By the way, Marv has another new non-fiction book out, Abandoned In Hell, The Fight For Vietnam's Firebase Kate. Old journalists never die . . . thank goodness!  

To look at the Civil Rights era from another perspective, check out my colleague James McGrath Morris’s new Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press. It’s gotten terrific reviews, and I look forward to reading it myself.


  1. I will watch Selma at some point. I missed the events by a couple of years, so I can definitely use the history lesson. The book I Will Vote also sounds fascinating. We certainly haven't gotten where we need to be - but thank goodness we've made at least some progress in the last fifty years.

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