By Tom Cushing
Selma SoliloquyUploaded: Jan 23, 2015
I got to see the movie 'Selma,' recently. It's an important film, lest those events and dynamics fade from our national consciousness. I recall as a teen being transfixed by the first black-and-white television images of the Pettus Bridge police riot. With most other folks sheltered in suburbia, I was aghast at brutal suffering and remarkable restraint of the marchers, apostles of non-violence. TV's role in accelerating reform confirms the saying that if wars were really televised, there'd be a lot fewer of them.
In retrospect, I was way too accepting of the American apartheid generally, in those early days before the Civil Rights Act really took hold, and the Voting Rights Act was still pending. I didn't think too much of the fact that the City of Wilmington DE, the Howard Career Center, Wilmington High and PS Du Pont High were mostly black, and the 'burbs where I attended AI Du Pont High were white. At the time, it was, for me, the stuff of great sports rivalries (except for basketball, golf and tennis) ? but otherwise, it just 'was.'
In historical terms, that era was a remarkable fewer than fifty years ago (which is not at all to say that all the battles are won, but the issues have evolved more than a little bit).
The historical accuracy controversy surrounding the movie has been fascinating, albeit not rising to the cultural primacy of the Super Bowl-hyping 'deflategate.' Critics, especially LBJ partisans, have leapt to his defense in objecting to the portrayal of tensions between the President and Dr. King. In 'Selma,' King repeatedly withstood condescension, cajoling and anger from the Prez, designed to make him back-off, be patient and abide things that just 'were.'
Defenders of 'Selma' answered back that it is not a documentary, and that the conflict is only a minor contributor to the movie's arc. I see truth, nonsense and food for thought in both sides' positions, which is part of why the argument is so interesting.
First, to call it a minor element is to badly alter the record. It is The central conflict in the movie ? otherwise, it's just another rural Alabama race riot, of which there have been plenty whose names are lost on most Americans. The stakes were enormous, and LBJ was the audience to whom the demonstrators were appealing. Only he had the power to move ahead on the voting rights agenda ? so soon on the heels of the Civil Rights Act. He needed to be horrified into action by those events, and he was.
That said, for it to have ruined the movie, as some folks have expressed, is also unfortunate. 'Selma' is indeed Not a documentary, but a film with a viewpoint that includes historical news footage closely approximating the re-enactment. The resolve of the marchers, to face down certain suffering or death in the uncertain hope of results, and King's own inner human struggles are still the primary take-aways . To lose sight of them is really too bad for those who hang-up in the LBJ portrayal.
Further, let's consider that viewpoint. The makers of 'Selma' saw it, and told it, through an African American lens. That lens puts low priority on the motives of the white President, and may also mistrust those purposes as they've been restated by various white biographers and former staff. Part of white folks' upset may derive from being in the unaccustomed position of having to accept another person's 'take' whose experience differs from our own. I'm not taking sides, necessarily ? indeed, there's a pretty good argument that No history can be truly objective and disinterested. I do think that some of the hyperbole surrounding LBJ's depiction springs from white folks' discomfort in ceding that interpretation to others. Part of it may also derive from the fact that really exemplary Caucasians are hard to find in 'Selma,' except for a few who paid dearly ? even ultimately for their ethics.
Moreover, this dust-up has peaked my curiosity to learn more about LBJ. He's a towering figure in the 20th century, and an apparent mass of contradictory forces and instincts. He was sacred in his lifelong commitment to human dignity, and profane in many of his habits and appetites. He's been described as a predator, constantly on the prowl for your weaknesses, which he would then ruthlessly exploit. I'm not sure I'll wade through multi-volume bios in search of whatever 'truth' they reveal, but a thoughtful film ought to make you ponder on it later, and 'Selma' has done that for me.
Finally, if we're going to go off on historical accuracy, there's another character with an even better claim than LBJ's, at least when you consider the price he paid. James Reeb, whom Maureen Dowd identified as a 'priest from Boston' in her by-line last week complaining about the movie, was savagely beaten to death by persons who were never convicted of their crime. But he wasn't a priest ? he was a Unitarian minister. And he wasn't from Boston -- he moved there with his wife and daughters, into the mostly black Roxbury section, because he believed in sharing the experiences and tribulations of his parishioners. He came to Selma in solidarity with the marchers.
For James Reeb, there was no "just is." He lived his values, and he died in their service. Dr. King eulogized him in powerful words that also find expression in the movie, mostly in funeral service for another martyr to the cause: Jimmy Lee Jackson. King properly identified apathy in the face of injustice as sinful, but found no such sin in Mr. Reeb:
"And if he should die,
Take his body, and cut it into little stars.
He will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
"These beautiful words from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet so eloquently describe the radiant life of James Reeb. He entered the stage of history just 38 years ago, and in the brief years that he was privileged to act on this mortal stage, he played his part exceedingly well. James Reeb was martyred in the Judeo-Christian faith that all men are brothers. His death was a result of a sensitive religious spirit. His crime was that he dared to live his faith; he placed himself alongside the disinherited black brethren of this community."
"The world is aroused over the murder of James Reeb. For he symbolizes the forces of good will in our nation. He demonstrated the conscience of the nation. He was a witness to the truth that men of different races and classes might live, eat, and work together as brothers?.
Again, we must ask the question: Why must good men die for doing good? "O Jerusalem, why did you murder the prophets and persecute those who come to preach your salvation?" So the Reverend James Reeb has something to say to all of us in his death."
"Naturally, we are compelled to ask the question, Who killed James Reeb? The answer is he was murdered by a few sick, demented, and misguided men who have the strange notion that you express dissent through murder. There is another haunting, poignant, desperate question we are forced to ask this afternoon, that I asked a few days ago as we funeralized James Jackson. It is the question, What killed James Reeb? When we move from the who to the what, the blame is wide and the responsibility grows."
"James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice. He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician who has moved down the path of demagoguery, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. He was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff and law enforcement agent who practices lawlessness in the name of law ... Yes, he was even murdered by the cowardice of every Negro who tacitly accepts the evil system of segregation, who stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice."
"So in his death, James Reeb says something to each of us, black and white alike-says that we must substitute courage for caution, says to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered him, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murder. His death says to us that we must work passionately, unrelentingly, to make the American dream a reality, so he did not die in vain."
"I say, in conclusion, the greatest tribute that we can pay to James Reeb this afternoon is to continue the work he so nobly started but could not finish because his life-like the Schubert "Unfinished Symphony"-was cut off at an early age. We have the challenge and charge to continue. We must work right here in Alabama, and all over the United States, till men everywhere will respect the dignity and worth of human personalities?. "
"So we thank God for the life of James Reeb. We thank God for his goodness. We thank God that he was willing to lay down his life in order to redeem the soul of our nation. So I say-so Horatio said as he stood over the dead body of Hamlet-'Good night sweet prince: may the flight of angels take thee to thy eternal rest.'"
Nothing 'just is,' unless we, each of us, allows it to be so.
Re: the Genghis Chron Trilogy ? I'm having a few technical difficulties ? it should go up soon.