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On “Selma” and the fine cinema of political strategy

Sections: Essays, Movie Review, Movies

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A still from "Selma"

MLK… standing tall like always.

Yes, “Selma” is everything you’ve heard it is, and more.

It’s beautiful, emotional and resonant.   It’s wonderfully acted, expertly directed by Ava DuVernay, and very well written by Paul Webb, who not only assembled the film’s great structure but, due to the lack of access to King’s actual speeches, needed to write new ones which not only sound believable, but are nearly as powerful as the real thing (The director and writer, I gather, are in a credit dispute and who contributed what is unclear.)

This film was put into the hands of a not-that-experienced director (DuVernay) and a virtually unknown leading man- and they both knock it out of the park.

It’s absolutely astonishing that, 47 years after Dr. King’s death, this is the first movie Hollywood has made with him as the protagonist. Think about that for a second- one of the most important Americans in history, whose life was full of amazing stories of great heroism, didn’t get a movie made about him until 2014. I mean, there have been FIVE movies about Spider-man, just in the last 15 years, and only one of them was good.

But there’s one thing in particular that I especially loved about “Selma”: It’s part of a mini-genre that’s risen in recent years that I’d like to see more of: The biopic of a major political figure, in which we’re shown an elaborate tick-tock of them actually doing politics.

“Selma” does the same thing that Gus Van Sant and Dustin Lance Black did in “Milk,” and Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner did in “Lincoln,” “Selma” shows us Martin Luther King’s political genius not just with great oratory, by taking us through the process of how he did it. And yes, I realize that all three of the subjects of those movies are men who were ultimately assassinated. Goes to show that in America, politics has its limits.

These films show that while great speeches are unquestionably cinematic, depiction of savvy political strategy, and a plan coming together, can be even more captivating on screen.A lot of “great man” biopics would show us the protagonist merely giving public speeches, and doing everything he did that’s a matter of public record. “Selma” takes us behind the scenes and guides us through the process of King’s political strategy, his planning and how it all came together. And that’s something that’s as wonderfully cinematic as the depiction of the march itself.

“Lincoln” did this too, of course- it could have just guided us through the “greatest hits” of what Lincoln did. But instead, like “Selma,” it focuses on one particular political battle, and shows us- in enlightening and hugely entertaining fashion- the exact strategy and execution that led to the passage of the 13th Amendment. “Milk” took a longer view of Harvey Milk’s life than did the other two films, but by far the most fascinating part of the film was its depiction of Milk’s political campaigning, both for office and against the gay-baiting ballot initiative.

I’m kind of looking forward to this type of approach being taken more in the future, whether it’s for passage of certain legislation, or even successful election campaigns. This is a time of great cynicism about politics, and for very good reason. But “Selma,” on top of all of its many other virtues, is an inspiring movie about politics being done right.

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