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Tuesday 20 January 2015, by Coco Green

MLK was vilified during his life, martyred after his death and has proved more valuable dead than alive. Now his words are hijacked to support everything from conservative ’individual responsibility’ initiatives to sales during his birthday celebration weekend. Making a film which captured the violence and resilience of the moment without resorting to clichés was almost as impossible as it was for a Negro to vote in 1964 Selma.

Everyone’s a critic, but what’s right about Selma (2014) is very right. Rather than a sell-out tale about faith or the American Dream, the film conveys the spirit of uncertainty and the electric charge of an inspirational sermon. After violent scenes the viewer has to see beyond the obvious brutality and almost saintly hope of the movement to understand the personal sacrifices and ambitions of marchers, politicians and religious leaders. Of course the women, particularly Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson), Amelia Boynton Robinson (Lorraine Toussaint), Mahalia Jackson (Ledisi Young) and Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) should’ve featured more prominently. However, given writer Paul Webb’s affecting depiction of the synergy between people power, charismatic leadership and political opportunity he’s forgiven. This time.

Chris Rock once joked that if white people like a film about civil rights it can’t be that good. So Selma should wear its Oscar snub as a badge of honour. Honest films about black oppression shouldn’t please the establishment, let alone be rewarded. If a film dares to take MLK off his pedestal and away from hero worship, framing him as an activist-preacher, with his own demons and failures, then what chance did Selma really have for ’Best Director’?

Selma is timely because the movement fighting state violence against black people builds momentum, the factions between young and old-guard activists battle it out, and the dialogue around expectations of artists and the rich and famous in social movements heats up (FYI, Harry Belafonte was the model then and now); it’s truly back to the future. So go see Selma, ask critical questions and think about the role of black militancy in the long quest for justice.

Dir: Ava DuVernay, 2014

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