Despite the reverence that many people have for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., nearly a half-century after his assassination, he, and his philosophy of non-violent patriotic civil disobedience, has become a controversial figure for most African-Americans. King’s legacy has caused more than a few African-Americans to battle as if they are a modern-day manifestation of the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. King’s supporters freely dole out love and admiration that is usually reserved for a deity who possesses the ability to walk on water. Conversely, those who tend to cast a disparaging gauge upon King do so with a venomous hate that is usually reserved for enemies that are deemed to possess no redeeming qualities. Put simply, there is rarely a grey area in matters surrounding Dr. King. So when the movie Selma debuted, I knew this was yet another opportunity to view how King’s image was being considered in the twenty-first century.
I must admit that I have significant reservations regarding the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his storied career of non-violent civil disobedience. My admiration for King does not extend beyond an acknowledgment of his obvious bravery in the face of virulent white hatred, however, my admiration ends abruptly after such acknowledgement as I am not an advocate for either non-violent civil disobedience or integration, let alone assimilation. I have always thought that Dr. King refused to consider the depths of unregenerate evil that seemingly wrapped itself around some white Americans like a custom garment that brought them untold measure of comfort and coziness. Hence, I view any reconstruction of King’s life and by extension the storied history of my ancestors struggle for Civil Rights, with a curious eye.
However, I must admit that after watching the movie Selma, I was impressed with the manner in which the director, Ava DuVernay, handled this historic icon. Such a feat is all the more impressive when one realizes that DuVernay freely acknowledges that she is not a historian of any sort; a qualification that I think should be required for anyone seeking to direct a history period film. However, I do tip my hat to DuVernay for having the courage to present a conflicted, often troubled, King to the big screen. Selma firmly displays that the road that King and his entourage of Civil Rights compatriots traveled was far from smooth or absent miscalculations and errors.
Unfortunately, Selma has one major flaw; that being its portrayal of President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ). The historian in me cringed at the maligning of LBJ, King’s greatest supporter during the highly-volatile sixties protest era. LBJ was portrayed as the villain who resisted any overture toward racial equality and Civil Rights. In fact, LBJ served as not only an advocate for racial equality as evidenced by his signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, but also served as a blanket of protection for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unfortunately, LBJ is portrayed as having racial animosity that rivaled the morally repugnant views of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama. This portrayal is in a word, unfortunate.
When considered as a whole, Selma provides us a greater look into the personal life, trials and tribulations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And for that I would most definitely recommend that everyone goes to view this film.
James Thomas Jones III
© Manhood, Race, and Culture 2015