This film is nothing short of revolting, and is the direct descendant of ‘Argo‘ which set the tone and bad precedent for bastardising history and not only getting away with it, but being rewarded for doing so by winning best film at the Oscars – a feat which ‘Selma’ could technically repeat in a few hours time later this evening, but the fact is the only reason it’s been nominated is because it’s a film about the Civil Rights Movement, not because it is any good and as Dr King quotes in the interview below “I think it was T.S. Eliot who said that ‘there is no greater heresy than to do the right thing for the wrong reason’” (also, note how composed Dr King is compared to the interviewers that surround him in that clip) and as much as this episode in history has long deserved a proper retelling on the silver screen to be promoted and propagated, this is most certainly not it.
As far as The Red Dragon is concerned, Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most awesome human beings to have ever existed, and he is absolutely one of the most influential and important figures of the twentieth century and by extension the modern world. This film centers on the march from the city of Selma in Alabama to the state capital, Montgomery, which took place in 1965 and, occurring when the Civil Rights Movement was already in full swing, was to force the issue of equal voting rights for all people irrespective of colour onto the nationwide agenda. Taking place after the 1963 march to Washington, the Selma series of events would prove to be arguably even more galvanising with the aftershocks quickly swaying the mood of Washington as well as huge swathes of the American public.
Here David Oyelowo plays Dr King and much has been made of his ‘snub’ for best actor at the Oscars, but the truth of the matter is he simply isn’t good enough. At no point does he remind you of Dr King either in mannerism or accent, and if you are familiar with Oyelowo’s previous roles you can see precious little difference between them and this. His first line is ‘It ain’t right’ as he stands in front of the mirror dressing and talking to his out of shot wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), and you think to yourself, ‘hmm, this just seems a bit off – I can’t imagine the eloquent and extremely well spoken Dr King talking like that’, maybe he did when he wasn’t on camera, but it’s an instant bad start for the film. Oyelowo puts a lot of gusto into his delivery of the speeches but from an acting point of view this is arguably not all that difficult with a crowd of people you know are going to cheer you on.
Treated with a hideous and sickening level of triteness is Coretta herself – here there is not only a suggestion that her husband is sexually jealous because she has briefly spoken with Malcolm X, and indeed it is suggested that the government might be secretly trying to break up their marriage, but at one point she has a go at him for severely stressing her and their family out with the work he is doing. Bollocks. She was utterly supportive and understanding of the movement, eventually even leading it, and she was an extraordinarily strong character in real life. She also had way more right to be angry than most given her entire family were constantly threatened and indeed their home was bombed, this screenplay is quite content to reduce her to a useless device in service of an equally useless plot. During her ‘confrontation’ with Dr King she asks him if he first of all loves her, to which he replies in the affirmative, and then if he ‘loves the others’ – which others? He says no, but it is deliberately vague as to whom she is referring, it could be the kids, it could the people in the movement, but there is a horrible and sinister suggestion that it could be other women, but the film just wants to put that seed out there it doesn’t want to go so far as to accuse the devoutly faithful (he was after all a fully ordained Baptist minister who made sure he visited his congregation as often as he could even while trying to change history) Dr King of playing the field.
All of this leads to the primary cardinal sin of the movie – at one crucial point we watch as Dr King leads, after a previous violent encounter which he wasn’t present at, a sizeable march from Selma, and a wall of police that had been standing in front of them, the same police responsible for the previous violence, suddenly parts down the middle leaving the way open for the marchers. Dr. King stops, kneels on the ground in silent contemplation, or prayer, and then decides to turn the march around and head back to where they came from. Understandably, his supporters are a little confused by this and he simply tells them the equivalent of ‘I had a bad feeling about it’ as if it were a trap and he was concerned about more violence, but the audience share in the feelings of the marchers at having been let down – the way was after all clear and even if it was a trap and the lines of police were waiting to close in, it would have been the pinnacle of King’s strategy as the affair would have been caught on camera for the world to see and after that deed who could not stand with his cause. At this moment there is also a federal injunction against the march, but the movement had deliberated and decided they had a duty to march despite the temporary ruling. Point is, this critical event didn’t happen this way. Let’s see what Dr King himself has to say about the matter …
“I held on to my decision to march despite the fact that many people in the line were concerned about breaking the court injunction issued by one of the strongest and best judges in the South. I felt that we had to march at least to the point where the troopers had brutalized the people, even if it meant a recurrence of violence, arrest, or even death. As a nonviolent leader, I could not advocate breaking through a human wall set up by the policemen. While we desperately desired to proceed to Montgomery, we knew before we started our march that this human wall set up on Pettus Bridge would make it impossible for us to go beyond it. It was not that we didn’t intend to go on to Montgomery, but that, in consideration of our commitment to nonviolent action, we knew we could not go under those conditions.
We sought to find a middle course. We marched until we faced the troopers in their solid line shoulder to shoulder across Highway 80. We did not disengage until they made it clear they were going to use force. We disengaged then because we felt we had made our point, we had revealed the continued presence of violence.”
‘The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.’ Edited by Clayborne Carson, chapter 26 ‘Selma’, pages 281-282
In real life, if presented by the invented scenario of the film, Dr King would have continued the march – doing what the imaginary Dr King in the film does could very well have sounded the death knell of the movement, and the decision to do this with the plot breaks the entire spine of the movie. This insanity is continued with the choice of music in the film – at one point a music only version of ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ plays, which can have only negative connotations when played over a film like this, and then crucially, as the people march on one of their attempts to reach Montgomery we hear a version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’ play – let me reproduce some of the lyrics of the song, lyrics that are cut off in the film:
That even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do
And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand over your grave
‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead.
It’s a song brimming with bitter unforgiving hatred and diametrically opposed to the nonviolent and Christian philosophy of Dr King – a philosophy he learned and adopted after thinking for a long time about both the morally and politically correct way forward for equal civil rights for all people in America, and eventually he came across the achievements of Gandhi and realised nonviolent opposition was the way forward: meaning people fight for their rights but in a nonviolent way, such as with marches and demonstrations etc. to raise public awareness and shame the enemy, especially if they themselves react in a violent manner as had happened at the initial march attempt in Selma.
It’s very telling that at no point in the film is there any actual footage of Dr King, and at the very, very end of the credits there is a note saying the film is not meant to be a documentary, but they are basically hiding the statement and, frankly, no one should be able to make and release films like this about critically important events which sees the filmmakers’ egos supplant and rewrite history in the overt way that this attempts to.