The Long Shadow


It’s a long road we’ve been walking and a long road yet to walk.

(2017) Documentary (Passion River) Frances Causey, John Powell, Leon F. Litwack, La Tonya Lawson-Jones, Ian Harvey Lopez, Sally Holst, Jody Allen, Gerald Horne, Paul Kivel, Anne Conkling, Mike Church, Tim Duckenfield, John Adams, Nadine Stark Sims, Karen Alexander, Lorne Hammond, Richard Rothstein, Erica Tanks, Bill Blair, Maureen Gosling, Laura Willis, Judy Sims, Yolanda Wells.  Directed by Frances Causey and Maureen Gosling

 

Race relations remain a defining issue in the United States. From slavery down to Jim Crow and into the Black Lives Matter movement today, America has been formed going all the way back to its founding by white supremacy.

Filmmaker and journalist Frances Causey grew up in a privileged neighborhood in Wilmington, North Carolina to prosperous parents. She had little contact with African-Americans beyond those that worked for the family, but she had eyes that could see and she was fully aware that her black neighbors weren’t treated the same way; they lived in terrible poverty, were prevented from drinking at the same water fountains as she, and were looked down upon as inferior to the white privileged class. It bothered her then and continues to bother her now

She is directly descended from Virginia lawyer and founding father Edmund Pendleton, who essentially wrote the verbiage into the Constitution that institutionalized slavery in the South. Because there were far more slaves in the South and far fewer whites, Pendleton came up with the 3/5 of a person compromise that gave the South disproportionate power in the Federal government for nearly a century.

Causey goes on to discuss the economic benefits of slavery that powered the engine of the slave trade; how Wall Street was essentially created to facilitate it and how the legacy of slavery informs our policies and politics now 150 years after the end of th Civil War. African Americans may have been emancipated but they continue to be victims of inequality.

Throughout Causey interjects commentary about various aspects, such as what happened to those runaway slaves who fled to Canada, an enlightened plantation owner who gradually freed his slaves and the difference it made to their descendants today. We see her horrified reaction to the massacre in the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston by a white supremacist and we see her genuine affection for her former nanny and the grown up children of her caregiver.

Causey utilizes a goodly number of academics to give some context to history and some of them, particularly John Powell (an expert on the effects of slavery on American society), historian Jody Allen (somewhat incongruously interviewed on the serene campus of the College of William and Mary considering the subject) and historian Leon Litwack who won a Pulitzer Prize on the subject. However some of the other talking heads can be a bit dry. Again, those with a personal story to tell are far more effective than those coming from a strictly academic standpoint.

The film is at its best when Causey is looking through her highly personal connection to white privilege and racism. There is no doubt she is aiming her film for white audiences in an effort to make them understand a history most of them don’t know or don’t want to know. Most of the final two thirds is really a more broad view of the reverberations of racism and violence through American history. I thought the first third was much more successful; the story of her ancestry and her experience growing up in the deep south are far more personal and relatable than the academic exercise that followed. However, that doesn’t man that interesting questions aren’t raised. For example, slavery was abolished in the British empire in 1772. Could the southern founding fathers have chosen to leave British rule in order to continue slavery here and keep the economic engine of the South running?

The movie was filmed before the 2016 presidential election which makes it in many ways all the more timely but in dire need of a new chapter that brings it all together with the current expressions of white nationalism that has reared its ugly head since then. Even in the days when the film was about to be released there were instances of hate crimes (a white racist opening fire on African-Americans in a Louisville Kroger). The movie does make for a good history lesson but quite frankly much of this material is covered elsewhere, particularly in Ava DuVernay’s compelling Netflix documentary 13th.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that slavery warped the soul of this nation and continues to. Just the extent of the damage that continues to be done is something even the most progressive of white liberals (myself included) fail to understand. It’s information that African-Americans know only all too well and if there ever is going to be real change and moving forward in this country, white people will have to not only understand it but own it as well.

REASONS TO GO: The archival photos and drawings are extremely effective.
REASONS TO STAY: The film begins by connecting Causey to the slavery issue on a personal level and then veers away from that into a standard PBS-like documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing and occasionally graphic photos of brutalized slaves and lynchings.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Causey worked as a journalist at CNN for 14 years; it was the events in Ferguson following the murder of Michael Brown that galvanized her to make this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13th
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Outlawed

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Selma


Marching into history.

Marching into history.

(2014) True Life Drama (Paramount) David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Andre Holland, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Colman Domingo, Omar J. Dorsey, Common, Tessa Thompson, Dylan Baker, Stephan James, Trai Byers, Henry G. Sanders, Keith Stanfield, Charity Jordan, Tim Roth, Stan Houston, Stephen Root, Nigel Thatch, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alessandro Nivola, Jeremy Strong, Lorraine Toussaint, Tara Ochs. Directed by Ava DuVernay

Selma is a watershed moment in American history and in particular the history of the civil rights movement. The brutality of Southern oppression on its African-American citizen was beamed to all our living rooms for all to see. Martin Luther King’s efforts to organize and call attention on the suppression of voting rights for African-Americans would lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that he had long championed and ended decades of African-Americans having no voice in the governing of their communities, states and country.

In 1965 the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has just come into law and while it is a magnificent piece of legislation preventing discrimination, in the South it may not have been signed into law at all. Those African-Americans attempting to register to vote, much as activist Annie Lee Cooper (Winfrey) was, were met with poll taxes, or impromptu quizzes that nobody could answer, white or black in a desperate attempt for white racist Southerners to hold onto power in Dixie.

Martin Luther King (Oyelowo), already a landmark civil rights activist or, as he is known by those who oppose him, agitator as J. Edgar Hoover (Baker) puts it, approaches President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Wilkinson) to enact legislation that will prevent the kinds of abuses taking place in voter registration in the South but LBJ is less inclined to do that; he has his War on Poverty to consider, which he feels will ultimately be more beneficial to the black community. He has just too much going on to put any energy into King’s demands at the moment, but being the consummate politician he assures the civil rights leader that he will get right on it…in a couple of years. Hoover, on the other hand, wants this whole civil rights thing nipped in the bud. His surveillance of Dr. King has revealed some strain in his marriage to his wife Coretta (Ejogo) and he wants to exploit that, but Johnson prevents it.

With the violence escalating in the South, King knows he can’t wait. He decides to go to Selma, a small town in Alabama whose sheriff Jim Clark (Houston) is particularly mean and stupid and likely to do something that will give King the ammunition he needs. Activists in the Selma area are only too happy to see a national figure like Dr. King arrive on the scene, although John Lewis (James) – a future congressman who is still serving today – and James Foreman (Byers) of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, are suspicious of his motives.

During an evening non-violent march, the protestors are attacked by police. Three of them – Cager Lee (Sanders), his daughter Viola Lee Jackson (Jordan) and his grandson Jimmy Lee Jackson (Stanfield) are chased into a diner. When the police arrive, they make a point of beating the crap out of the old man and his kin. When Jimmy Lee tries to protect them, he is shot in the abdomen and killed. This galvanizes the organizers, leading Rev. James Bevel (Common) to suggest a march from Selma to Montgomery.

This is exactly what Governor George Wallace (Roth) doesn’t want. His right hand man in the state troopers, Colonel Al Lingo (Root) is enlisted to take care of things. In the meantime, in order to prevent the march, the President allows Hoover to carry on with his plans, delivering a tape of Dr. King allegedly having sex with another woman. While the tape is clearly fabricated, she gets King to admit to having had affairs. In order to repair things with his family, King decides to skip the March which is set for March 7, 1965. On that day, Alabama troopers face about 600 marchers and attack them on national television, bloodying the peaceful protesters – some of them, like Amelia Boynton (Toussaint) into unconsciousness – and horrifying a nation.

King, horrified beyond measure, returns to Selma with his wife’s blessing. He knows that the march needs to take place or else it would all be for nothing. He calls on the nation, to people of conscience of all colors to come to Selma and march with him. Many do come, including Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, Michigan activist Viola Liuzzo (Ochs) and Unitarian minister James Reeb (Strong). With a tense stand-off between the forces of racism and the forces of freedom, would the march take place and would change come to the South?

History tells us that the March did finally take place successfully and that the Voter Rights Act of 1965 that Johnson championed would become law (until it was dismantled by the Supreme Court two years ago). Like Titanic, most of us know how the story ends. In the hands of a gifted director, we would feel the tension of those participating because they, unlike us, did not know how the story would end.

DuVernay for the most part accomplishes this. She is aided in this to a very large extent by Oyelowo who delivers a remarkable performance as the late Dr. King. There is a tendency for us to deify certain people – Dr. King, Gandhi, President Lincoln and so forth – to the point that we forget that they are human beings, far from perfect and full of frailties. DuVernay impressively gets that point across that Dr. King, as great a man and courageous a man as he was, also did things that he wasn’t proud of, also made mistakes and also had a playful sense of humor. At times he needed encouragement, phoning Mahalia Jackson in the middle of the night to hear her sing a gospel song so that he might be reassured. At times he wasn’t as strong as his iron-willed wife Coretta was. Oyelowo captures these moments and makes the man relatable to all of us.

In fact most of the cast is impressive although Wilkinson is miscast as LBJ. The LBJ I remember was a force of nature and larger than life and Wilkinson makes him more of a backrooms conniver, which he also was but there was a charisma to him that Wilkinson doesn’t capture. Many who knew the late President have complained that the film does an injustice to his memory in its portrayal of him as obstructive and unsupportive which history tells us he was not, but this isn’t the LBJ story.

It’s not even Dr. King’s story, although he naturally dominates the screen time here. It is a story for all of us, about the tribulations of the Civil Rights activists and what they actually went through to get the rights we take for granted today. It also is a stark reminder of how far we have yet to go, with events in Ferguson, Missouri mentioned pointedly in the movie’s post-credits Oscar-nominated song and parallels to modern oppression of the African American community.

Near the end we see footage purportedly of the actual March with some of it archival, although we mostly see celebrity marchers like Davis and Belafonte. Due to the rights to Dr. King’s speeches being owned by DreamWorks for a Steven Spielberg movie about the Civil Rights era that has not yet come to fruition, we don’t get to hear the actual words of Dr. King’s speeches; instead, DuVernay had to rewrite them so that they were in the style of his oratory but not his actual words. Shame on DreamWorks for not allowing the film to use the words inspiring to so many.

This is one of the better movies of the Holiday Awards season and it justly received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Some are moaning about DuVernay not receiving a nomination for Best Director but truth be told those that did receive the nomination also deserved to be nominated; what separated the five films that got the nod and this one are essentially splitting hairs; to my mind, she had a tendency to be a bit ham-handed in some of the activism scenes with swelling strings to the point that you couldn’t hear the dialogue but were supposed to feel inspired. It is a bit manipulative and could have been handled better. She should have trusted the material to bring out those feelings without hitting us in the head with them.

Nitpicking aside, this should be mandatory viewing for all of us who think that the need for activism has ended. We should all understand what was endured by those who fought for the rights of African-Americans and continue to be endured. Freedom is not given, it must be fought for and so many continue to fight. The legacy of Selma is with us still and should inspire all of us to rise up and support those who still need to shine the light on practices that should outrage all Americans – but still doesn’t. We shall overcome indeed, but we haven’t yet.

REASONS TO GO: MLK is humanized here. Captures the scope of the march and the events surrounding it. About damn time there was a movie about Selma.
REASONS TO STAY: Not sure about the LBJ portrayal. Could have used archival footage better.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some disturbing violence of defenseless people being beaten, some brief strong language, adult themes and some suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Free screenings of the film were made available to 275,000 high school and middle school students.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Detachment