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Selma, Lord Selma

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  • Noel Vera
    Fight the power Noel Vera Charles Burnett s Selma, Lord Selma isn t on the level of his masterpieces, Killer of Sheep or To Sleep With Anger. He s out to
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 7, 2005
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      Fight the power

      Noel Vera

      Charles Burnett's "Selma, Lord Selma" isn't on the level of his
      masterpieces, "Killer of Sheep" or "To Sleep With Anger." He's out
      to depict one struggle out of many in the war for black equality in
      the '60s--a crucial one, but he's not trying to transform it, to
      show it through the same prismatic lenses he used to such great
      effect in "Killer" and "Sleep." The demarcation lines are clearly
      drawn, there is little ambiguity here: it's blacks and the few
      sympathetic whites helping them vs. the predominantly racist white
      community of Selma, Alabama.

      That said, and considering that this is of all things a Disney TV
      production, it's still a remarkable piece of work. We get to know
      the main protagonists quite well--Jonathan Daniels (Mackenzie
      Astin), the seminarian who comes to Selma wanting to help; Sheyann
      Webb (Jurnee Smollett) the lovely 11 year old girl through which the
      story is told; and even Martin Luther King Jr. who, as played by
      Clifton Powell, is a modest, warmly humorous man fretting over the
      people he leads into danger.

      The story is not altogether fresh--we have the usual drama about
      peoples' uprisings, and of children trying to convince their parents
      to allow them to pursue their beliefs, and there's some preciousness
      in having a precocious child tell the story (it's based on a book
      written by the actual Webb). But Burnett brings to the material his
      inimitable restraint, not so much good taste (something I'd sooner
      accuse Clint Eastwood of having) as a sort of simplicity of
      approach, a grace that manages to transform any subject, however
      idealistic or potentially mawkish.

      And then there's Burnett's attention to detail. The first march
      fails, of course, because King is needed elsewhere, so the police
      are free to beat the horde of uppity blacks that have crossed the
      bridge on their way to Montgomery (didn't matter if the crowd
      included women and children); a black man is killed by police
      officers in the middle of a riot, but even that's all right--the
      officers were only doing their duty. Killing a white man, however,
      is a different proposition--it has to be done on a deserted street,
      with no witnesses, and even then, the repercussions are enormous.

      This is different from the actual recorded death of said white man,
      a change for which I can think of only two reasons: Burnett may have
      felt the historical death too melodramatic to "play" in his film--
      the man saves a black woman from a shotgun blast--or he simply
      didn't have the budget to film it. Whatever the motive, Burnett does
      seem well acquainted with the calculus used by '60s America to
      determine the difference in value between the life of a white and
      black man.

      I noticed that whites other than Daniels are barely characterized,
      but this works too--we are seeing the world through black eyes,
      through people who have rarely had the privilege of getting to know
      many white people. From their point of view, anyone who isn't black
      isn't worth knowing well, or trusting.

      In the end, it's Burnett's gift for characterization that brings the
      film to life: moments of despair, of sudden violence, of glorious,
      unexpected hope are sharpened by the fact that we have come to know
      these characters, and cared for them deeply.

      That 'calculus of value' Burnett knows so well, it's equally
      instructive when applied to films. "Mississippi Burning" is a
      feature on roughly the same milieu, directed by a white director
      with two white Hollywood stars, and it won several Oscar nominations
      and is available for rent everywhere; "Selma, Lord Selma" has only
      recently been made available for sale in both DVD and VHS, and has
      attracted very little attention. "Burning" is chock full of
      grotesque distortions, everything from having blacks stand about in
      picturesque poses as helpless victims to making the FBI the hero
      (?!) of the story; "Selma" is full of rich emotional and historical
      detail, of the kind of poetically understated humanity that makes
      you feel better about the human race as a whole (that we're capable
      of this kind of moral, visual and artistic grace). Wonderful film,
      absolutely.

      2/24/04

      ("Selma Lord Selma" is available on Amazon.com)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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