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“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:

“Believe me, that thought has crossed my mind,” he replies. “Which means that I cannot make it about King. King is a part of Selma. To me, what’s much more fascinating is the love that the southerner had for the black. You know, there’s a term – that I’m not allowed to use, because it’s so politically incorrect, but I have to use: it’s called ‘Ma Nigga’. ‘Ma Nigga’ is a term that people use. Blacks use it as a term of endearment – ‘You ma nigga’, you know? Well, it came from the south, because we were property to them. We were a car, we were a dog, we were their nigga. They loved us. They would take a bullet for us.”

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:

“Absuhfuckinlutely. James Baldwin put it brilliantly, by saying he’d much prefer to live in the south than in the north, because in the north they put you in suits and talked about you behind your back. You knew what time it was in the south – you were dealing with the truth in your face. I will die for you, but I will also kill you. Because they loved us. This was not Hitler. These were people… they were breastfed by us, we were their mammies. There was a bond that was so deep, that was so powerful, and that nobody wants to talk about because it’s politically incorrect to talk about it. That’s what I want to get at with this film.”

… 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:

“Martin Luther King is next to Jesus… So how do I make him human without getting the backlash? Because I want my kids to be able to aspire to be him. I want my kids to be able to touch him. You can’t touch Jesus.”

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.

6 comments to “Selma” – A Love Story Which Cannot Be About King…?

  • Art

    Now I’m beginning to understand Daniels’ colonized mind. This helps to better explain Shadowboxer and his general fascination with whiteness. I get it. I see who he is now.

  • I read the article earlier and was just as perplexed at the same points as you were.

    Given some of the responses to my post on the film’s casting possibilities, it’s safe to say that an onslaught is inevitable. But maybe that’s what he wants.

    These head-scratching soundbites of his, since “Precious” was released, may not be doing him any favors with some black Americans; but they are certainly keeping him in the news; and I’m sure when “Selma” hits theatres next year, or the year after, we’ll all be there in anticipation, for better or for worse.

    I’m still trying to figure out if he’s really trying to work out some personal shit, with his films, or whether he’s just the consummate showman who’s found a formula that works.

  • grace

    Daniels next film — a love story with the backdrop of emancipation and Jim Crowed: “My Lynched, My Love: she saved his burned balls ad enshrined the noosem”. This brother is sick.

  • ladybug

    Lee sounds a touch special . . . but most artists are . . . though he may be a bit extreme.

  • What we expect from a retrograde negroe? reactionary cinema directed in peppermint tights.

  • Perplexed was the least of my issues with some of what Daniels stated. But I do agree with both you, MsWOO and he about the portrayal of Martin Luther King. Some people do consider him next to Jesus, which is not only unfair but detrimental to his legacy.

    To show him as a fallible human being, as you said, “makes his life, death and achievements all the more remarkable.”

    I wonder if he’ll ramp down some of his more outrageous film tactics with this one. Cause he’s gone way out there in the past, almost to comical results.