“Selma” – A Love Story Which Cannot Be About King…?
Following the critical (and almost box-office, given its thus far limited release) success of Precious and given the comments generated by Tambay’s post here about casting news for Lee Daniels‘ next project, Selma, the much lauded and lambasted director’s recent interview in the Guardian/Observer and the film, once it’s finished, just might ignite a veritable conniption and/or full blown tirade from some of you out there – but he seems prepared for the onslaught.
It’s not unusual to hear complaints from the blackerati when mainstream films featuring real-life black characters are made – Biko, The Last King of Scotland, American Gangster, Invictus… It would seem that, despite (or maybe because of) the lack of high profile roles dedicated specifically to black characters in mainstream movies, when they do come up, even if they’re a pivotal part of the story, they’re not the main, or only, focus of the film. Despite stature, and even if a film is named after them or in reference to them, there must always be a white character, one who will take at least the same amount of screen time as the leading black character and a role of equal or greater imortance, in order to tell a um… I guess, well balanced story in which the white character is indespensable, either to the story or the black character.
And should these complaints be stumbled upon, there will always be some smug b’stard around to remind you, for instance, that Invictus is not about Nelson Mandela, but about his enlistment of the South African national rugby team on a mission to unite his racially fractured country; of Biko that, without consciencious whites supporting the cause, and helping people like Steve Biko, the fight against apartheid in South Africa might never have been won; or, of The Last King of Scotland, without the presence of whites to witness the barbaric lunacy of an African leader, the full extent of Idi Amin‘s treachary might never have been revealed; and of American Gangster that… Um, maybe someone could get back to me on that one. Basically, as long as a film has any plans of mainstream distribution, it seems there can be no fully rounded tales of blacks, be they courageous or outrageous, without whites to successfully translate the story into whitese (i.e. a language – visual, in this case, as it would seem the mere use of spoken English will not quite suffice – that whites can understand).
So, with Daniels agreeing to direct Selma, a film not about Martin Luther King but about the civil rights marches from Selma, Alabama, in 1965 that were led by Martin Luther King and eventually led to blacks in the US having the right to vote, Daniels was obviously under no illusion as to what was required of him. So that he himself likens the film Selma to Frost/Nixon, should come as no surprise to anyone and leave you with no doubt about its bifurcation. As Tambay said in his earlier mentioned post, the script is said to focus on the relationship between MLK and Lyndon B. Johnson. So I guess that’s two heroes, then.
The fact remains, however, that this is a story with race at its centre, a subject which Daniels is no stranger to, and a subject on which he tends to leave audineces divided – and that’s just the black folk!
When asked if he’s not afraid of being pigeon-holed in the racial commentary category Daniels replied, and also explains why the film CANNOT be about King:
Oh…! Not being African-American, and only having visited Southern US on a few brief occasions – Atlanta GA, Charlotte NC, and Miami FL (though Miami felt like a whole different ball game…) – I couldn’t help feeling that there must be a huge chunk of America’s history, particularly with regard to race, that had elluded me altogether. So when his interviewer, Gaby Wood, asked “They would?” I was right there behind her in the perplexity line as he went on to explain:
… I could only conclude that it wasn’t so much my knowledge of American history that was errant, as my understanding of its warped definition of love…!
Anyhow, whether MLK will take up 20, 40, 60 or 80 per cent of screen time in this bizarre love story, it will be how he is portrayed that will be the main concern for most African-Americans and many blacks across the diaspora.
Personally, I prefer a warts and all portrayal. Why? Like Malcom X, King was not a two dimensional character and, in my humble opinion, doesn’t deserve to be treated as such. Two dimensional characters tend to be polemical caricatures, one extreme or the other, saint or sinner. In reality, such characters tend to make better tyrants or puppets than actual leaders and, while it’s almost inevitable that they become cannonised by ardent followers and admirers (and demonised by detractors), as Daniels succinctly puts it:
Amen! A belief in saints and Gods tends to absolve us mere mortals of any responsibility for our own fate and leave the more gullible inclined to blindly follow any false prophet worthy of an equity card. Martin Luther King was not a saint which, to me, makes his life, death and achievements all the more remarkable.
Far from a non-saintly portrayal of MLK being seen as character assassination, I think it should serve as a reminder that it is men, mortals like you and I, albeit imbued with great passion and courage, who shape history and make their mark in putting the world to rights. The sooner we accept this, the sooner we might come to understand that the future rests in our hands, and not in the hands of some messiah, be he black, white or post-racial.
You can read the full article HERE.
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