A SNCC Photographer reviews “Selma”
James Agee wrote that mediocre films are alot more interesting to discuss than great ones. “Selma” is a very stimulating film but not a very good one.
Made by the director Ava DuVernay , it was her first chance to make a big budget film, a very ambitious film, and in that alone is a remarkable achievement. “Selma” opens with MLK at home with Coretta fixing his tie in preparation for receiving the Noble Peace Prize. There is a brief scene in Oslo followed by the young girls in the 16th Street Baptist Birmingham Church fixing their hair. A bomb explodes, and sadly the young girls lie dead in the ruins of brick, a powerful image.
In fact the bomb placed under the 16th Street Baptist Church, that killed the four young girls exploded a year prior to Dr King winning the Noble.
Whatever the film “Selma” is, it is poor history. Below is the correct historical order of the dramatic events during time the film seeks to portray:
Aug 29, 1963The March on Washington (250,000 to 400,000 people)
(I sleep on the floor of John Lewis’s hotel room floor. In the morning, Malcolm X, who denounces the March, is talking with reporters in the lobby)
Two weeks after the March, the bomb explodes in the 16th Street Baptist Church . Sept 11, 1963 SNCC workers pour into Birmingham, an SCLC town, for the funeral of three of the girls. Nothing happens.
Barnard Lafayette, SNCC field secretary , who has been organizing in Selma for a year , brings hundreds of people to the court house to register to vote. This is Freedom Day in Selma, October 7, 1963
James Baldwin is there. (I drove with James Forman to pick Baldwin up at the Birmingham airport and bring him to Selma). The participation of children
and the singing in Brown’s Chapel is extraordinary.
Nov 22, 1963 JFK is assassinated in Dallas
One and half years after these events, on February 26, 1965, Jimmie Lee Jackson is murdered in Marion, Alabama (not in Selma) by an Alabama state trooper. With SNCC much changed, the Movement demonstrations heat up in Selma. SNCC refuses to participate in a planned march because of the near certainty of violence. John Lewis, a native of Alabama, insists on participating despite SNCC.
On March the 7th, 1965 on live national television, the Marchers, led by John and Hoseah Williams, are brutalized on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Dr. King was not there.
The Movement was a very emotional, stressful time. There was not only the constant threat of real violence in the field, conflicts within generations,and there were emerging tensions within the SNCC itself. On March 7th, 1965, I was in Chicago, watching on small a B&W television as Bloody Sunday occurred. “How stupid can they be?” I thought, meaning, how stupid can the powers in Alabama to commit this outrage in broad day light with film and TV cameras pointed right at them.. The results were predicatable.
One week later, on March the 15th, LBJ made a speech before Congress introducing the Voting Rights Act . In the middle of the speech he used the words of the movement anthem, “We Shall Overcome”. There has been much comment on this speech and moment in history every since. Reading it today, it seems a great speech. Age twenty three at the time, my own personal and immediate reaction to hearing LBJ say “We Shall Overcome”, was to want to vomit. This was the LBJ of “Hay Hay how many kids did you kill today?” I heard it as pure hypocrisy.
On March 21, 1965 with 3,000 people standing behind them, including whites and people from the North, one of whom would be murdered, Dr King and John Lewis led a successful march over the bridge that ended in Montgomery Alabama, 50 miles away. Many more thousands joined them there.
Later in the spring of 1965, on assignment for Ramparts Magazine, I photographed King and James Forman together in Montgomery for a court hearing. They were extremely friendly. These are the last pictures I made in the Movement. The negatives have been lost.
I remember watching a movie in Miami with Muhammad Ali in 1972. The Champ leaned towards me and said, “It’s strange watching a film when I know everyone in the film.” He meant the actors Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and whomever else was in the film. Ali knew them as people. I of course knew John Lewis, but I also knew James Bevel, Diane Nash, and best of all James Forman, all of whom appeared in “Selma”.. It’s the transformation of James Forman that is by far the most disturbing. The film casts a young body builder to play Forman . This is like casting Arnold Schwarzenegger to play Leon Trotsky. Forman, who led SNCC, was as old as Dr King ,older actually by a month, a deep intellectual, a more than brilliant political strategist and a PHD, as was Dr King. Because of this weird stand in, all his angry lines just came across as ridiculous.
A more effective scene is when John and Dr King are alone in a car together and the two talk, John reminding King of how he had heard the call to join the Movement by hearing Dr King speak on the radio.
“Selma” suffers from its ambitions. It wants King to be The Leader and uses that term twice in the opening lines and again when LBJ says, “King is the leader of the Movement”. The trouble is Dr King was not the leader of the Movement. Nor was the Movement a monolithic event. Nor did I ever meet any people in the Movement, who told me they had been inspired to join the Movement because of a film. And if they were moved by history, it was the history they learned from their parents and grand parents, those who had lived that history themselves. It was the humiliations they experienced , the moment they ventured into what was then “the white world.” The Movement spread like a fire across the South. Sparks had been falling for years. Then one too many fell and like a glorious wind of flame, it exploded.. The Selma that was organized by the SNCC and the Marchs that occurred a year and a half later, were glorious moments, battle grounds of the Movement that affected people all over the world. So were Albany, Danville, Nashville, Jackson, Ruleville, and Hattiesburg. It’s a long ,long list.
As the credits roll we hear some rap music and references to Ferguson.
Will this film drive young people to action? Or will it make them think that another King will arrive, another Leader, and then they will know what to do and when to move? That’s the opposite of what the Movement was about. It certainly is the opposite of how SNCC acted and what SNCC did. And John Lewis is an excellent example of that. John could speak well. But what John really did best was lead by example, by action. It’s amazing he survived. Some people did not. Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were voter registration workers who died. If “Selma” is about securing
the Voting Rights Act, why aren’t they mentioned?
At the very end of the film, director Ava DuVernay introduces some authentic television footage, first on old television sets. Then the entire end of the film is made from news footage of the final Selma to Montgomery March. Much more effective, interesting and moving to me than everything that proceeded it.
And finally a civil rights song, “This Little Light of Mine” recorded in Browns Chapel,
the only one used in the film. Where was the music? One of my greatest memories of the Movement was the music . Used to organize and inspire, music was everywhere. Dr Martin Luther King was one of the greatest speakers of the twentieth century, but he was not everywhere. The Montgomery Bus Boycott needed someone who spoke clear distinct English, understandable by news men in the north. “They picked King and they got de Lawd.”
Dr King will be long be remembered. And James Forman? And Sam Shirah? And June Johnson? Who will speak for the dead, for the folks whose words are not copyrighted? For the children that filled the jails, F or all those that followed their own courage and heart and will, their friends all around them. Who will remember them?
My heart lept to hear the word “SNCC” appear and re-appear in the film. But that doesn’t make it a good film. If everyone loves this film because it “teaches” young people, what exactly does it teach? That you can learn history from a film full of errors? That you don’t have to read books to learn how complicated, how inspiring the Movement actually was?
How do you transform reality, a reality that is gone, into the present? And if you want to teach children something, teach them that it cannot be done. That’s why people made photographs in the Movement, or at least that is why I did. That is why SNCC left such an incredible paper trail, writing down every meeting, every event. Jim encouraged people to leave a record. We knew that history was being made. That is why some very brave camera men stood there taking 16mm films. And what about “Eyes On The Prize”, an amazing compelation of real material? Is that required viewing inside the schools?
Danny Lyon, February 2015.