Sunday, 18 January 2015

"Selma"--too real for the Academy

There should be a new Oscar category for whoever managed to make all the actors in the film Selma look so uncannily like the historical figures they were playing. From King and Coretta down to the supporting characters, even the quick Malcolm X cameo, they made watching the picture feel like a strange docudrama combination.

But I digress. The brouhaha over Selma and the Oscars comes to this corner as a major yawn simply because it was so predictable. Politics of any sort makes the film poobahs uneasy (though they crank out ‘topical’ pieces easily enough), but racial politics really gives them loose bowels. When race does appear even in potentially inflammatory works like 12 Years a Slave, there has to be a final alleviating flourish that puts the whole topic back to bed and enables the audience to breathe a sigh of relief, like a horror movie where the evil creatures are beaten back.

After all, any entity that could hail It’s a Wonderful Life (in Auschwitz) as the best movie of any year—as opposed to an obscene mockery of human suffering—has a serious problem of criteria. I look forward to the equivalent film treatment of the 9/11 orphan being convinced that the twin towers collapse apparently burying his father was just a giant CGI stunt. Final frames, “Dad’ll be a little late for dinner, sweetheart, it’s just a game!”

Broadway has a similar problem. John Douglas Thompson did a star turn recently in a one-man show as Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong, but the play never took off—it was too blunt about racial commerce in the music business, so the narrative wasn’t comfy enough. A brilliant musical based on the case of the Scottsboro Boys case did a little better a couple of years ago. But when the cast was invited to perform for the Tonys broadcast, they had to do a sappy number showing the Boys as happy hoboes—nothing about the crushing racism they would soon encounter (or the underlying thread of anti-Semitism cooked up to discredit their defenders and brilliantly portrayed in the tune ‘Jew Money’).

12 Years ended with Solomon Northrup finally liberated thanks to white allies’ intercession. Schindler’s List showed us a few hundred Jews who survived the death camps—fair enough as it’s historically accurate, but a bit of a cop-out. At the end of The Diary of Anne Frank, the final voiceover is a quote from her journal that ‘People are basically good,’ even while her family is being carted off to certain death. Lincoln, the most recent and comparable treatment to Selma, gave us the successfully passed 13th Amendment (complete with cheering “Negroes” in the galleries who apparently had nothing to do with its passage).

The problem with all these happy endings is that they let us off the hook too easily. The villains in those historical accounts are not Jasons or Freddy Krugers, but real people swept up by the historical forces that produced them and made them into monsters. By focusing on the few who got away, it subtly convinces us that the dangers are always avoidable, that a clever protagonist (by projection, us) will always find an escape.

Selma doesn’t escape this criticism, either. (And the heat it took for the LBJ-Hoover scene is deserved.) It finishes on a slightly facile, triumphant note without adding the obvious follow-up message in the final credits that the Voting Rights Act was just shredded by the Supreme Court to undermine black voting strength in preparation for 2016.

Nonetheless, Selma is a radical breach in that feel-good wall because it puts the movement of masses front and center even while allowing historical agency to figures such as King and LBJ. If for no other reason, the profoundly conservative, commercial empire represented in the Oscar vote would feel estranged. We are shown that collective action—not just individual heroics—is key to solving social ills. Who’d want to give a prize to that?

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