Saturday, March 7, 2015

50 Years Ago Today

Memorial at Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma (CGG)
"Selma,” film directed by Ava Duvernay, written by Paul Webb and Duvernay, 2014

Given there are so many reviews of this film already, I’m going to give the film a ‘bullet-point’ review.  Duvernay is a black woman and Webb is a white guy that looks like Garrison Keillor.  Webb has this one film to his credit.

1.                  MLK’s speeches in this film might be more radical and less churchy than the actual ones he gave.  (The MLK family would not allow the actual texts…)  Even the conversations with LBJ sound more fraught than they were in reality.
2.                  It shows that this 1965 movement was a mass movement, not just preachers.
3.                  The film is a hagiography of King.  Beware of uncritical worship.  There were many other forces in the Civil Rights movement.  Boiling it down to one man is an inaccurate idea, one which this film and the bourgeois press promotes.
4.                  The film helps us remember the violence surrounding the vote protests – not just the beatings on the Pettus Bridge but the cold-blooded handgun murder of a black youth by an Alabama state trooper in a Selma café; the beating death of a white northern preacher at night on the streets of Selma by racists; the shooting of Viola Luizzo by the Klan after the Montgomery rally.
5.                  Malcolm X is portrayed as humble and apologetic when he visited Selma.  He was not.
6.                  SNCC loses every argument to King and the SCLC in the film.  They are browbeaten and shown to be just ‘one person’ in the end – James Forman.  Yet SNCC was the organization that called for the first Pettus Bridge protest march.  Over the long term, King could not succeed nationally because racism was not just about southern Jim Crow.  It ultimately involves the whole capitalist class/ethnic caste structure of society.  Which King was beginning to recognize, and which is why he was shot in 1968 by the Memphis police, with support from the FBI.
7.                  SNCC organized the Black Panther Party in Lowndes County just south of Selma.  It was an explicitly anti-Democratic Party organization that believed in self-defense, and not being a passive victim.  After all, at that time all the politicians in the Jim Crow South were DEMOCRATS, including George ‘Stand in the Doorway” Wallace, Alabama governor.
8.                  The film accurately shows that King wanted to use protesters and bloody beatings as sacrificial victims to sway the hearts of white people, ‘especially the white person in the White House.’  This was the same method used by Gandhi to influence the British imperialists to hand over power peacefully to the new Indian ruling class. (See review of Ambedkar “Annihilation of Caste,” below.)
9.                  When King turns away from the second unauthorized march across the Pettus bridge, the rationale is that “God” told him to.  King had no real evidence of an ambush  and none is shown in the film.  An ambush was a distinct possibility but that could have been anticipated.  Historians since have found it was not ‘God” that called the march off, (the explanation in the film) but a deal made behind the scenes with the federal government. 
10.              The eventual successful 3rd march to Montgomery was made under U.S. military protection.  As the film shows, it was a federally-sanctioned and protected march full of American flags. 
11.              LBJ clearly says several times that he wants King as the ‘leader’ so that the ‘militants’ will not lead the civil rights movement.  Again, the government was backing King at this point.
12.              The film shows quite accurately that even within this alliance, King pushed LBJ.  LBJ would not have initiated a ‘voting rights’ act if not for the events on the ground in Selma.
13.              LBJ worked with Hoover, giving him a life-time appointment as FBI director.  He did not shut down the FBI scandal mongering and attempt to break up King’s marriage, and certainly never investigated the FBI’s role in King’s assassination.  LBJ played both sides.
14.              The national historical context is that in 1964-1965 urban riots happened in Harlem and Watts.  Black self-defense groups like the Deacons for Defense, the Black Panther Party and Robert Williams’ ‘NRA” chapter were organizing in the south.  The pacifism of King was an outlier.
15.              The connection to Ferguson and other recent police shootings is implicitly and explicitly made several times, especially at the end through the theme song “Glory.”  Legal segregation has been ‘overcome,’ but that leaves many things still 'to overcome.'
16.              Today the questions of black, Latino and youth voting rights are again being curtailed. Economic and cultural conditions for the black working class have deteriorated.  Police murders continue, as they did in the 1960s.  The incarceration state is still functioning.  A thin layer of the black middle class exists, mostly based on the gains of the 1960s.  In this film Oprah is their signifier.  50 years later reality now shows that SNCC, the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X and the later MLK far better understood  the real underlying issues in the U.S. These are issues this film glosses over – settling only for the issue of formal democratic voting rights.  It will take more than tolerating beatings and killings or ‘moral witness’ to change this rigid and reactionary society. 

P.S. If you think I was pulling your leg about the memorials to the Selma struggle, here is the accurate report of David Masciotra, who recently went to Selma for the anniversary.  This is present Selma:
                     "At the foot of the bridge, and next to a sign welcoming visitors to Selma, sits a small park of dirt and gravel. Empty soda bottles and fast food wrappers litter the ground where plaques paying tribute to John Lewis and Hosea Williams stand, showing visible decay. It is the size of a children’s playground in a tiny village of the Midwest, and there is hardly anything there to indicate its meaning in American and world history. The edge of the park connects with a vacant strip mall, giving visitors a connection between the disgusting state of the park and the disrepair of the American economy. Across the street is an abandoned used car lot. With its broken surroundings, its dirty trappings, and its placement among the wreckage of bankruptcy, it is ugly; there is no other word for it. But far exceeding the aesthetic wound of the memorial is the grotesquery of the betrayal it represents. If America cannot pay proper respect to its bravest citizens, the citizens who cried and bled to give their country credibility, it belongs on a map far outside the moral universe." 

Red Frog
March 7, 2015

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