“Selma” is a Valuable History Lesson, but “Dear White People” Speaks for Now

Selma

A Peruvian college student recently asked me why, whenever a black person  appeared in a gringo movie, that person was always Morgan Freeman.  After much consideration, I answered that perhaps the only movies the gringos cared to export to the third world were the ones in which all black characters were played by Morgan Freeman.  There were, I assured the student, many other kinds of black characters in gringo movies, and many fine actors to play them.

Morgan Freeman was not cast in “Selma,” a faithful but drab re-enactment of the incidents leading to the march from Selma to Montgomery led by Martin Luther King to  call attention to the need for a voter protection act.  He would not have been out of place, though.  Oprah Winfrey was there.  Whenever there was a close-up of an  elderly black woman being knocked to the ground by police, that woman was symbolically represented by Oprah Winfrey. And her screen presence is somewhat similar to that of Mr. Freeman’s.

Despite it being one of those deadly period pieces in which everything is painted one shade or another of brown, “Selma” has value as a history lesson for young people who haven’t properly studied the civil rights movement of the American South. Most of it seems fairly accurate, although I had my doubts about King telephoning Mahalia Jackson in the middle of the night so she could edify him with a gospel song.   And about that color scheme.  I have never known a black family to favor the color brown in their interior decoration, either in real life or in the movies. In Jamaa Fanaka’s “Emma Rae,  “red is the dominant color.  Spike Lee uses bright primary colors for his Brooklyn summer in “Do the Right Thing.”  That was just one of the things gringo critics didn’t understand about Lee’s picture.

Selma” demands a director of Lee’s skill and stature.  Instead, its producers have chosen Ava DuVernay, a well-intentioned neophyte with only two features to her credit.  DuVernay would have been employable as a director of made for television movies in the 1970’s, but she seriously inhibits the potential for greatness in the telling of this story.  She rises to the occasion on several scenes, especially those between King and President Johnson, but her handling of the film as a whole is messy.  There is a scene near the end where historical newsreel footage is intercut with  the fictional re-enactment. The real footage elicits an emotional response, while the other leaves you feeling you have just watched a line of actors leading a mob of extras down a street that has been roped off to keep the public from interfering with a film crew.

Her choices of music are also questionable.  Dylan’s “Masters of War,” a diatribe against munitions manufacturers, is sung (off-screen) by Odetta as police attack the marchers as they cross the  Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday.  This march was to lobby for a voting protection act; it had nothing to do with the Vietnam war. Why not settle for something simple like “We Shall Overcome,” which is quoted by LBJ in his speech endorsing the Voter Protection Act.  The use of a new song by John Legend and Common during the end credits is more understandable, as it reinforces the relevance of the story to modern times.

Four Englanders (David Oyelowo as King, Carmen Ejogo as his wife Coretta, Tom Wilkinson as LBJ, and Tim Roth as George Wallace) turn in excellent  performances, although there are dozens of black Americans who  might feel slighted by DuVernay’s choice of Oyelowo and Ejogo.  Although Oyelowo’s acting is superb, he never gets truly inside the character, as Denzel Washington did in Lee’s monumental “Malcolm X.” And Ejogo has one good scene with Malcolm X and  a lot of forgettable eyebrow raising in the scenes in which she questions her husband’s fidelity.  Angela Bassett would have raised the roof, and  given us a Coretta to remember.  Wilkinson and Roth, both who have played convincing Americans in the past, are equally fine here, although the script pulls to many punches in playing down the hypocrisy of the president, who was one of the most evil son of a bitches in US history.

Dear White People

DuVernay may be this year’s flavor, but I foresee a longer and more glorious future for Justin Simien, writer/director of “Dear White People.” It is his first feature, but is marginally better than Spike Lee’s second, “School Daze,” which was the 80’s version of the same thing.  Lee’s movie addressed the issue of skin color at an all-black University where the lighter skinned students ruled over those with darker skin. Simien focuses on an integrated college where the black kids want to be white and the white kids want to be black.  It is all about identity stress in a society that labels itself post-racist.

Produced by Stephanie Allain, who found the financing for “Hustle and Flow”  when White Hollywood was telling director Craig Brewer that it would only back a white director on a black movie if it was a comedy, “Dear White People” is a gamble on a new black artist who has a lot on his mind and isn’t about to  water it down in order to qualify for a BET Award. It starts out as a mediocre fraternity house comedy and then starts laying in some hard reality lessons for the Obama era.  The cast is mostly made up of unseasoned television actors, but they are a talented bunch, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some of them are among the next generation of bankable stars.

To be perfectly frank, “Dear White People” is not one of the best movies you will see this year, but it is one that you must see.  Simien still has plenty to learn about his chosen craft.  His pacing is off and his plot is sometimes muddled, but there are plenty of original ideas that are well-executed, including a silhouette of two heads in bed that is unlike any image  of its kind. Simien also has  the knack of communicating heavy thoughts in light dialogue. He gives his audience the pleasure of a laugh before they start thinking about what they have laughed at. Best of all, he is a whizz with actors, and that is what gives his movie a flavor that will still linger long after reality  has washed the taste of “Selma” out of your mind.

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