All Hail the King! – A personal commentary on Selma and the Oscars


In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I have decided to finally join the discussion that has set social media on fire. When all the talk began, I was determined to keep silent on this issue. But the other day, while searching for “News”, I was bombarded three times by the Selma-Oh-So-White-Oscar headlines in both digital AND paper media. First of all, I am appalled that this is what we have come to deem as “News”. Secondly, I was finally pushed over the edge…I need to say something!

It is not my intent to push my opinions on anyone. It is not even in my nature to do so. I am only giving my own humble opinion of the matter, maybe just in the hope that it might continue to add dimension to a discussion that seems to be a little too Black and White (pun intended), not enough shades of grey (there are 50 of them…another lame joke LOL)

As a preface, I love historical pieces. I love civil rights movies. I love movies in which slaves overcame in some way or other, sometimes just by surviving. I love films that honor the black struggle and the sheer strength and incredible courage black people have displayed to bring us to where we are today.

Growing up in Nigeria, I devoured television series like North and South, Roots, movies like A woman called Moses and countless documentaries about the civil rights movement in America. I was amazed at what had evolved from the misery and gloom of slavery – talented, well-spoken people like Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, Harry Belafonte, Diahann Carroll, James Earl Jones, Oprah Winfrey etc etc etc What black person did not want to come to America where black people overcome?

I say all this to say, that I was looking forward to Selma. I was at the movie theatre on opening day not only to see it, but also to support it. And so my chagrin began…

A lack of support

We got to the movie theatre with a bare 15 minutes to spare before the movie began (meaning before the trailers began). At the box office, I was concerned that we would not get tickets because I had overheard a group of black folks nearby lamenting that something was sold out. But turns out, there were still tickets available. We ran up the 7 flights of stairs worried that we would not get a good seat but when we arrived at the theatre, it was empty but for four people. Yes…FOUR!!!! I was shocked! In the minutes that followed, before the film began, the theatre only got about half full! I also have to add that the demographic of the audience that was there was predictably predominantly white and older. My husband and I were just two of a handful of the younger black audience.

I was very annoyed! This was the first Martin Luther King biopic. Made by a female director of color. Where was everybody?? Where was the support??

Turns out, they were all in the theatre down the hall watching Annie – Which was SOLD OUT!

Ok fine! Maybe folks didn’t want to see a downer on Christmas day, Maybe they had plans to see it later, Maybe they had missed the ten million commercials and posters EVERYWHERE. I am sure they all had a jolly good reason for not supporting black history and black filmmaking. But as the weeks have passed by, looking at the box office numbers, there has not been much of an improvement.

We all hail Martin Luther King, sing songs about him, rap about him, call on his name and his dream every time we feel wronged and yet….here’s a film about a big turning point in the civil rights movement and…where are we now???

Questions Questions Questions

Putting my annoyance aside, I relaxed to enjoy the movie. It was well made, not a bad film, but leaving the theatre, I found myself filled with questions.

I said to my husband as we walked “do you really think all those conversations happened like that?”

Something in the way the story played, made me question it. Some of the conversations were so on the nose and unlikely sounding, that I just couldn’t help but wonder how much of the film was creative license and how much was historical fact. It is expected of course, that we can never know what was really said in certain historical situations, but then the job of the writer is to make it sound real enough to make the audience believe that it could have happened that way. Somehow that did not work for me. I left the theatre with so many questions, when I got home I got on the internet and began researching any and everything about the Selma march.

And so my chagrin grew.

I was extremely disappointed to find out how much of the film was factually inaccurate or incomplete. Things where added for dramatic effect while other things which would have had way more of a dramatic impact by being TRUE, were left out.

Now I was not sure whether to be mad that no one was seeing the film, because I was not sure if they should see a piece of history portrayed inaccurately.

I decided to remain silent about it, because as expected, it would become a discussion of black vs white and of LBJ vs MLK, which it did, and which it did not need to be. It is a simple matter of artistic choices which did not necessarily work for the film or for history.

Personally, I would have preferred a more honest portrayal. It would make Martin Luther King no less of the hero than he is and always will be.

And all this talk of not wanting to have a “white savior” in the film is hogwash. The reality is that we live in a country that is predominantly white, and especially in the time of Dr. King, the law was completely run by white folks, so guess what? You are not going to be able to do it on your own….yes…you DO need the “white savior”, except…that is the name you have given him…that is not what he is. He is a partner! A helper! Same as all the white people that came to join the march and any other white folks that supported the cause. Are we going to deny their help just because they are white?

Needless to say, the inaccuracy of the film led to a lot of controversy…but that was just the beginning.

Reviews and Critics

Before the movie opened nationwide, it had a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. However, when I saw it, I questioned that rating. Yes it was a decently made movie but 100%??? No way. And the more I thought about the film after seeing it, the more I disliked it.

The main problem with the film is that the script is not strong enough. It needed a great deal of tightening. Conversations, speeches and scenes dragged and felt cumbersome. Dialogue was heavy and on the nose. It was so unsubtle and in your face, it felt unreal. Like in the scene when J. Edgar Hoover was telling President Johnson that they could “silence” Dr. King or “get to his wife…since there are already problems in the marriage”. It just sounded ridiculous.

And there were way too many conversations anyway. Long, drawn-out, un-necessary for the story. They just slowed the story down way too much.

Scenes seemed to be thrown in for no strong reason, like Martin Luther King waking up Mahalia Jackson in the middle of the night to hear her sing to him over the phone. Really? You want to show me a man of faith and this is all you could come up with? Or what about the opening scene showing the famous church bombing killing four girls in Alabama? Yes, we know this was a tragedy but that was a whole other story happening in 1963, years before the Selma march. The bombing was not even mentioned again until later in the movie during Dr. King’s speech at Jimmy Lee Jackson’s funeral. In other words…it had nothing to do with the story at hand and if it did, it was not clearly shown. The movie could just as well have opened with the scene of Oprah playing Annie Lee Cooper, a woman who was rudely denied her right to vote. That felt real and was the basis of the whole darn march in Selma anyway.

Other scenes felt too staged for my liking, even the scene when James Reeb, the young minister from Boston was beaten by Klan members which should have had a profound impact. Little digression here, interesting fact; the minister died later after he had to be driven 2 hours to the nearest hospital in Birmingham after being turned away from the public hospital in Selma. That’s how bad it was in Selma. How is that for dramatic effect?

The wicked white men, were just that – wicked white men. They, like most people in the film, were so one dimensional, they felt like caricatures. Of course we know white men really did treat black people in the most evil of ways in those days, but the movie could have added some depth to make it a little more human. Even the vilest person you can think of has another side. Human nature is complex in that way. Look at 12 years a Slave – Michael Fassbender’s character. Evil! But layered! Not the same way all the time. Showed vulnerability, jealousy, fear, even love. A complete human, no matter how wicked.

I personally did not feel that the supporting characters were properly introduced, I realize there were many, but if they were important enough for a little blurb to be written about them at the end of the movie, then we should have known who they were during the movie. For example, I did not realize who Andrew Young was till the end of the movie.

It felt to me as though everyone of import had their chance to do some kind of a monologue. So the movie felt like it just moved between monologues and you just had to wait till the next person had their turn…like Coretta eventually got her moment when she responded to the recording the FBI had sent them of Martin Luther King supposedly making love to another woman. Too stagey!

And even though some people feel that this movie took a closer look at the relationship between Martin and Coretta, I felt that it was not strong enough. To me these scenes felt rushed and flushed over. At the risk of repeating myself – no depth.

I have too many complaints about this film to give it 100%. It’s more like a 60% to me. And much of that score is thanks to the good performances given by the ensemble cast.

I am a fan of David Oyelowo and I was thrilled that he was going to play this role. I thought this would do for him what Ray did for Jamie Foxx. But alas, Selma is no Ray. David is an excellent actor, but he did not have enough to work with here. Apart from being a great orator, he did not have a chance to really show the depth of the man. Like I mentioned when speaking about the wicked white men, his character was somewhat one dimensional. I guess we were supposed to take his implied infidelities as layers to his character? or maybe his blurting out that Coretta seemed enamored when she supported Malcolm X was supposed to add color? Well, if that is the case, the movie did not do a good job of it. Just briefly touching on it here and there and mostly from Coretta’s point of view. We still did not get to know how he really felt or what he really did. No, not enough to work with.

Selma was not an awful film, it was good, I just wish I could love it more.

And along came Oscar

And now we really got the controversy wheel turning. The “So-White Oscars snubbed Selma”!!!

I can’t believe we are having this discussion. Instead of realizing that maybe the film is not as strong as some may think, we immediately play the race card and accuse the Oscars of discrimination and exclusion.

One article pointed out that this will be the whitest Oscars since 1998. Okay, so I guess all those white Oscar people must have been sitting around all those years just waiting for a chance to NOT nominate a black film. Ludicrous!

Some say “No blacks were nominated”-False! Selma was, after all nominated for best picture and last time I checked John Legend and Common were still Black.

So is the complaint that Selma did not get more nominations? Or that there are not more films being nominated. Well, to address the second question…what other films should have been nominated? Ride Along? Fact is…there are not that many good black films being made, seen and supported enough for us to have more contenders. How about we start there? Support these talented black filmmakers who are telling wonderful stories that are just not getting told.

As to Selma getting more nominations….for what? Screenplay? Directing? Performance?

As the saying goes, “you can make a good screenplay into a bad film, but you cannot make a bad screenplay into a good film” It all starts with the screenplay, and unfortunately the Selma screenplay is not nearly strong enough. And with that, a lot of the other things fly out the window.

Ava DuVernay did what she believed was best for the film, and I, for one, am ecstatic to have a black woman directing a film of such caliber, but just the fact that she is black or a woman is not enough to garner a nomination. The work has to speak for itself. It needs to be “great” or at the least “very good” to be nominated, not just “good enough”. No matter! Ava has made it into the big league. She has a career ahead of her. We rejoice with her for that.

Performances? These were killed by the screenplay. Like I said before, David Oyelowo could have been great, if he’d had more to work with other than just being a gifted orator.

Before we all cry wolf, it is important to understand the Oscar rating and voting system to understand how movies are chosen for nominations. If we would do our homework better, we would save ourselves a lot of misplaced aggravation about racism. I believe that even Dr. Martin Luther King would seek to understand it better before he called a meeting to discuss Oscar racism as Rev. Sharpton is doing. We are too ready to jump on the band wagon the media builds for us before really asking where it is heading or what it involves. So the Huffington Post (which I usually love) and many other outlets declare the Oscars are too white and take the Black anger upon themselves to promote and they rile up everyone else so that once again we have a black vs white discussion. But before all the followers began to follow, did we look up what films there were to choose from? Did we watch every film and break it down by art and craft to determine which was the better film? Did learn what directing is and why a person would be voted as being a good director? Did we look up the Oscar Preferential Voting System (Google it! – there are several articles out there) to understand how all this works? Of course we didn’t! We just did what they knew we would do, What we have been programmed to do – join in the uproar and shout “RACE!” We need to learn to do our own homework and think for ourselves. Not the Media, nor the government, nor our black leaders should be doing the thinking for us.

People please!!! Deciding what film to nominate is a lot more subjective and a whole lot less serious than judging whether a policeman used inappropriate force against an innocent man. Let’s not make this subjective entertainment matter as serious as Ferguson or Staten Island.

Jennifer Aniston did not get nominated for her performance in Cake which everyone said was Oscar worthy….oh, but she’s white…so there’s no controversy in that.

Unbroken was touted as an Oscar contender when it came out – But nope, did not get the Oscar nod! But then that was a white Angelina Jolie…so who cares? Right?

Look, I am not naïve enough to think that race never comes up. This is America after all, EVERYTHING is tarnished by race.

Last year, 2014 we had ample black Oscar nominations – Chiwetel Ejiofor, Barkhad Abdi, Lupita Nyong’o, Steve McQueen…And guess what? 12 years a Slave actually WON Best Picture!!! And Lupita won best actress!!

Chiwetel’s performance as Solomon Northup was totally deserving of best actor, but I don’t recall everyone up in arms calling racism when Matthew McConaughey won instead.

Steve McQueen could have had best director over Alfonso Cuaron. But where was Al Sharpton then???

Oh, I get it….Hollywood is racist when the film WE want is not accepted as good enough (i.e.Selma) but at other times it’s not so racist?!?!

My dear people, it is not ALL about race, we need to accept that sometimes it actually has a lot to do with quality? Do we want to be handed Oscars based on race? Or based on being the best?

Selma got nominated as best picture, Yay! We should rejoice at this triumph. It is not likely to win!

The song Glory was nominated as Best Song and will most likely win, not because it is black, but because it is truly the best song.

And that is the way Dr. King would have wanted it. Dr. King would have wanted a black film to actually BE the best film to be voted as such. Dr. King would encourage us to support each other, to support our black talent, to make better, stronger films.

Instead of calling out the “Oh-So-White-Oscars”, let’s come together and build up and lift up new black talent. Let’s support our films, help out when we can and put an end to the crab-in-the-barrel syndrome so common among people of color. We have come a long way, but have a long way yet to go. But the great news is that we will get to Dr. King’s proverbial mountain top.

And as we make our way, here’s something to add to the soundtrack of our journey, Glory by Common and John Legend…

And after that, if you have not already done so, go see Selma – show your support for Black Cinema where it matters – in Dollars!

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