For Hollywood, 'Selma' Is A New Kind Of Civil Rights Story

Dec 27, 2014
Originally published on December 27, 2014 5:54 pm

The movie Selma opened to high praise on Christmas Day — Variety says director Ava DuVernay delivers "a razor-sharp portrait of the civil rights movement." The film focuses on a 1965 voting rights march from Selma, Ala., to the state capital in Montgomery — a march remembered for the savage beatings participants sustained at the hands of both state and local police.

Of course, there have been civil rights movies from major studios before, but many of those have depicted the movement through the prism of white characters. Selma is different.

Lesser-Known Organizers Get Their Due

The 1988 film Mississippi Burning, which focuses on two white FBI agents, exemplifies the normal Hollywood approach to the civil rights movement. The film angered a lot of black movie-goers because it made the FBI into heroes when, according to civil rights activist Charles Cobb, the bureau often looked the other way as black Southerners were beaten and murdered in the early '60s.

"The position of the federal government at that point was that it couldn't interfere with local affairs, that the FBI was purely an investigative organization. It was not the business of the FBI or the federal government to protect people from local violence," Cobb says. "That was their official position."

Cobb spent five years in Mississippi as an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. He says Hollywood often gets civil rights wrong because it doesn't have many people who know the movement well enough to make it accurate or believable.

That's why he was gratified to learn that some of the less nationally well-known characters involved in Selma were getting their due in this film — people like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's James Bevel, played by rapper Common. Bevel advised Martin Luther King Jr. to go forward with the march for voter's rights.

"He was the preeminent organizer in SCLC, so you can't possibly talk about Selma without really talking a lot about Bevel," Cobb says. "So to hear that he's in the film prominently — I find encouraging and also unusual, I must say, because Hollywood usually tries to ignore these kinds of people."

A Black Director Telling A Story About Black People

In addition to highlighting less famous movement leaders, of course, director Ava DuVernay also included the most famous face of the movement. Reviewers say she has done something previous films featuring King haven't managed: She's made him human, but also part of something larger than himself.

Another way DuVernay has parted from her predecessors, according to Grantland culture critic Wesley Morris, is that she looks at an entire moment in American history instead of just one person. That's important, Morris says, and makes the film feel right: "I find that that is usually what happens when a black director tells a story about black people," Morris says.

At the same time, Bonnie Boswell, a journalist turned director, says stories of the civil rights movement deserve better than to be pigeonholed by race.

Boswell made a PBS documentary in 2013 about her uncle, Whitney Young, who was one of King's colleagues. Boswell says these kinds of stories — about her uncle's work with the Urban League and about the Selma push for voter registration — are good American stories, making history deeper and richer for citizens of all races.

"Civil rights has been racialized in terms of the public consciousness about it," Boswell says. "When we look at these stories, we tend to label them according to the color of the people who participated, and therefore we miss out on a broader perspective."

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

But first, the civil rights drama "Selma" had a warm reception from audiences and critics on Christmas Day. Director Ava DuVernay's film do follows the 1965 voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery. Critics have been impressed with the film's unflinching portrayal of police brutality. And the film is unusual for other reasons, as Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Code Switch team reports. A warning - this story contains strong language.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: There have been civil rights movies from major studios before, but those have focused on the movement through the prism of white characters. Here's Gene Hackman as an FBI agent interrogating hostile locals as he tries to discover who murdered three abducted civil rights workers in "Mississippi Burning."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MISSISSIPPI BURNING")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Unidentified Ku Klux Klan Member) Well, if that's how you feel about it, Mr. FBI Man, why don't you drink up that beer and get the hell on out of here and back to your commie, nigger-loving bosses up North.

GENE HACKMAN: (As Rupert Anderson) You must not know my boss, Mr. Hoover. He's not too fond of commies. He'd be on your side there.

BATES: The film angered a lot of black moviegoers because it made the FBI heroes, when, says civil rights activist Charles Cobb, in the early '60s, the bureau often looked the other way as black Southerners were beaten and murdered.

CHARLES COBB: The position of the federal government, at that point, was that it couldn't interfere with local affairs, that the FBI was purely an investigative organization. It was not the business of the FBI or the federal government to protect the people from local violence. That was their official position.

BATES: Cobb spent five years in Mississippi as an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. He says Hollywood often gets civil rights wrong because it doesn't have many people who know the movement well enough to make it accurate or believable. That's why he was gratified to learn that some of the less nationally well-known characters involved in Selma were getting their due in this film, like the Southern Christian Leadership Conferences' James Bevel, played by rapper Common. Bevel advised King to go forward with the big march for voters' rights.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SELMA")

COMMON: (As James Bevel) Selma's the place, and they're ready.

COBB: He was the preeminent organization organizer in SCLC, so you can't possibly talk about Selma without really talking a lot about Bevel.

BATES: Again, Charles Cobb...

COBB: So just to hear that he's in the film prominently I find encouraging and also unusual, I must say, 'cause Hollywood usually tries to ignore these kinds of people.

BATES: Reviewers say director Ava DuVernay has also done something previous films featuring Martin Luther King haven't managed. She's made him human, but also part of something larger than himself...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SELMA")

DAVID OYELOWO: (As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) It is unacceptable that they use their power to keep us voiceless.

(APPLAUSE)

OYELOWO: (As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) Those that have gone before us say no more.

BATES: ...Another way DuVernay has parted from her predecessors.

WESLEY MORRIS: The idea of this movie sort of taking into account an entire moment in American history, as opposed to a person, is really important.

BATES: Wesley Morris is a cultural critic for Grantland, the ESPN spinoff blog devoted to sports and pop culture. He believes there's an obvious reason "Selma" feels so right.

MORRIS: I find that that it is usually what happens when a black director tells a story about black people.

BONNIE BOSWELL: Civil rights has been racialized, in terms of the public consciousness about it.

BATES: Bonnie Boswell is a journalist-turned-director. She created a documentary on her uncle Whitney Young, one of King's colleagues, for PBS last year. Boswell says these kinds of stories about her uncle's work with the Urban League, about the Selma push for voter registration deserve better than to be pigeonholed by race.

BOSWELL: When we look at these stories, we tend to label them according to the color of the people who participated, and therefore, we miss out on a broader perspective.

BATES: Stories like "Selma" are good American stories, which, Boswell says, make the country's history deeper and richer for all its citizens. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.