Selma: The Real Story

Posted on December 23, 2014 at 2:00 pm

Here is some footage of the real-life march from Selma to Montgomery depicted in this week’s Martin Luther King film, “Selma.”

Governor George Wallace made his famous pledge of “segregation forever” in his inaugural address. That speech was written by Asa Carter, who later, under a pseudonym, wrote the popular book The Education of Little Tree.

Lyndon Johnson speaks about the Voting Rights Act.

And at the signing of the Act.

In Politico, Mark K. Updegrove, director of the L.B.J. Presidential Library and Museum, provides some fascinating transcripts of telephone conversations between King and LBJ, showing how they worked together to put pressure on Congress.

MLK: It’s very interesting, Mr. President, to notice that the only states you didn’t carry in the South , those five southern states, have less than forty percent of the Negroes registered to vote. I think it’s just so important to get Negroes registered to vote in large numbers in the South. It will be this coalition of the Negro vote and the moderate vote that will really make the New South.
LBJ: That’s exactly right. I think you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders, and you yourself, taking very simple examples of discrimination… If you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, or South Carolina—well, I think one of the worst I ever heard of was the president of a school at Tuskegee, or head of the Government department there or something, being denied the right to cast a vote. If you just take that one illustration and get it on radio, get it on television, get in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it every place you can; pretty soon, the fellow that didn’t do anything but drive a tractor will say, “that’s not right, that’s not fair.” And then, that’ll help us in what we’re going to shove through in the end.
MLK: You’re exactly right about that.
LBJ: And if we do that, we’ll break through—it’ll be the greatest breakthrough of anything, not even excepting the ’64 Act… because it’ll do things even that ’64 Act couldn’t do.

Matthew Yglisias has a thoughtful response to the Johnson insiders who object to the portrayal of LBJ’s views and actions in the film.

It would be more accurate to say that the film paints a nuanced picture of the interplay between activists and politicians. Johnson and King are at odds at times, but Johnson explicitly — and correctly — says there is an inherent tension between their roles even as they share a commitment to broadly similar goals.

Congressman John Lewis, portrayed as a young man by Stephan James in the film, talks about the Voting Rights Act.

A behind the scenes featurette pays tribute to the real-life marchers.

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The Real Story

Interview: Ava DuVernay of “Selma”

Posted on December 21, 2014 at 9:41 pm

Copyright 2014 Paramount Pictures
Copyright 2014 Paramount Pictures

My favorite movie of the year is “Selma,” the story of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital, Montgomery, to bring attention to the barriers the Southern states were using to prevent black citizens from registering to vote. It was a very great honor to talk to director Ava DuVernay, who is the first black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Director and is a good candidate for an Oscar nomination as well.

I have read a couple of times that you were hoping that this movie would change the conversation. So tell me how you want it to change the conversation.

I don’t know if I want it to change the conversation but I do want to be a part of the conversation. I feel that art meeting this cultural moment is an important thing. It is a little surreal that the film is ready at this particular moment. And so I think that you can’t help but say as an artist – Can we meet this cultural moment? Do we have something to say in this piece that might add to the energy that’s brewing right now? I think so. I can’t say what that will be because everyone will bring a different part of themselves to the film but certainly you are hoping as a storyteller that this story has some impact. So that’s my desire. We’ll see.

Copyright 2014 Ava DuVernay
Copyright 2014 Ava DuVernay

People are understandably unhappy right now about the persistence of racial divides in this country. But how do you convey to those too young to remember the Civil Rights era the pervasive bigotry and abuse of that era?

AI think the beautiful thing about with “Selma” coming out is that we don’t have to re-create what it’s like because they are feeling it right now. I don’t have to say in 1965 all this bad stuff was happening so people went on to the street. They are doing it. This is the energy that is ambient right now. It’s all over. The atmosphere right now is that of change, that of the power of people, that of unrest. And so even a year ago, you would have to really explain how this felt to be so outraged that you left your house and took to the street and it’s happening now, literally all over the country in vibrant ways.

So I feel like it’s a blessing that we don’t have to articulate tone because people are living in that right at the moment, right now.

One thing that is very striking to me about the film is the impact that television had on Dr. King’s message getting out and letting the rest of the world know what was actually happening in a way that would not have happened even five years earlier. How do you feel that today’s media environment has helped or hurt to the way we talk about race in this country?

Oh, it’s a good question. I am a proponent of social media because there is no barrier, there is no filter, there is no one interpreting what I say or what I mean. I can say it and broadcast it to whoever wants to listen and whoever is following and sometimes things are hitting your timeline or your radar on social media that you don’t want to listen to which is also interesting.  And so I just think this era where people can broadcast themselves, where people can really amplify their own voices is tied so much with what was happening during the time of 1965 in this film in particular.  King was a master of optics. Television was new and he used television as a tactic for protest for the movement.

We had to find now how to use social media, how to use twitter as a tactic for the movie and what we found with the uprisings in the Middle East and Hong Kong and the Solidarity happening through this technological broadcast from individual to individual and so now the question is can tactical … Can tactics, can tools, can strategy be applied to this way of communicating with each other that’s kind of leaderless, it’s more people lead. So there’s a lot of ideas around… And I don’t know the answers but I don’t it is an exciting time and you just hope that the energy that’s happening right now is turbulent, toxic, triumphant time that we are in will equate to something very tangible.
One of the things about the Selma movement is they had a very specific ask.  It was all about voting rights. And now we have extraordinary optics of people having spontaneous protests around the country, around the world; we are able to see it on television, we are able to see it online, we are able to get messages on our text but what is the ask? What is the goal? I don’t know if that’s been as carefully defined.

Congratulations on the Golden Globe nominations!

It was exciting to share it with David . It was exciting because it was recognition for a film that we had worked long and hard on. And the most exciting thing about it that I know that it will bring attention to the film in a way that will get butts on seats. My highest hope is that people will see the work.

So many films are made every year.  Not a lot of those are made by women, even fewer of those are made by black women. The odds of those films being seen particularly when you have a black man in the lead about topics that are very closely aligned with the history of black people in this country around the politics of protest, there’s a good chance that might not get seen. We are doing okay right now but every little bit helps. And so I know what those Globe nominations mean in terms of validation and some people need that to say, “Hey, it would be good to check that out.” And that is a big deal so we are very happy about it.

And, I love David and to see “The world’s Best actor” next to his name – because he is the best actor, he is the best actor — that is wonderful.

Oprah Winfrey helped produce and plays an important role in the film.  Is it intimidating to direct her?

The day that I directed her, the first time that I directed her, Maya Angelou had died that morning.  So my heart was with her in a different way and all of my nerves were out the window.  I just really wanted to take care of her and make sure that she was taken care of.  Whenever I am directing anyone, for me it is all about them, trying to make them feel as comfortable as possible, as a safe as possible, as supported as possible in the performance. It’s not about me yelling, you know what I mean? Getting exactly what I want all the time. Maybe it is about making it what I want but they need to feel a true partner in it and we can only do that if you trust someone.  I think with someone that’s had as much experience as she has, she was just, especially on that such a hard day, so generous, so lonely, so nourishing to all of us.

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Directors Gender and Diversity Interview Race and Diversity Writers

The Help

Posted on August 9, 2011 at 6:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material
Profanity: Some strong language, racist terms of the era
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Some graphic scenes of a miscarriage, disturbing material about pre Civil Rights-era racial discrimination, references to murder of Medgar Evers
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 10, 2011
Date Released to DVD: December 5, 2011 ASIN: B005J6LKVI

The book-club favorite about African-American women working as domestics in the early Civil Rights era South has been lovingly turned into a film that like its source material engages with its sensitive subject matter humbly and sincerely.

Kathryn Stockett grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and was devoted to her family’s “help,” which inspired her first novel, the story of Skeeter, an awkward girl just out of college (Emma Stone) who persuades the women who work as domestics to tell her their stories for a book.  This is a minefield of an idea, which may be one reason the book was rejected 60 times.  We are rightly sensitive about the presumption of a white woman acting as interpreter or, even worse, as liberator.  And Stockett had her African-American characters speaking in dialect.  There can be no better proof that we have still not figured out how to handle these issues than this summer’s cover of Vanity Fair with a bikini-clad photo of Stone, describing her on the inside of the magazine as the “star” of “The Help.”  She is not the star, just as her character is not the author of the book she produces.  She is the ingenue.  The stars of the story are the maids played by Viola Davis (Aibileen Clark) and Octavia Spencer (Minny Jackson).  Entertainment Weekly did a much better job.  All three actresses appear on the cover, with a headline: “How do you turn a beloved, racially charged book into a moving, funny film?  Very carefully.”

That is thanks to Stockett’s closest childhood friend, Tate Taylor, who grew up with her in Jackson, who optioned the book before it was published, and who wrote and directed the film, and who insisted it be shot in Mississippi and that it reflect the South he knew.

Skeeter is accepted by the ladies who run things in Jackson, but she does not fit in.  She is not married and hopes for something beyond bridge club luncheons and dinner-dances.  She applies for a job at the local newspaper and is hired to do the household hints column.  Since she knows nothing about cooking, cleaning, or laundry, she asks her friend’s maid, Aibeleen, for help.  As they talk, she becomes more aware of the bigotry around her and of her own failure to oppose it.  She begins to wonder about the lives of the women who raise the children and feed the families in her community but are not permitted to use the bathrooms that they scrub.  A New York publisher (Mary Steenburgen) encourages her to collect their stories for a ground-breaking book.  Skeeter asks Aibeleen and Minny to help her, knowing that she may be putting them at risk of losing their jobs, or worse.  Privately, Skeeter works on the book.  Quietly, and then less quietly, she works to oppose a local initiative to require all homes to build separate “colored” bathrooms.

The woman behind the initiative is Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), ostensibly Skeeter’s best friend and the alpha girl in their community.  It is less a matter of prejudice than a struggle for power, but that just makes Skeeter’s refusal to go along more inflammatory.  Meanwhile, Hilly has fired Minny, who goes to work for Celia (Jessica Chastain), a pretty blonde from the lower class who does not realize that she is being frozen out by the society ladies of the town.  And the more Hilly feels threatened, the more the pushes for her “sanitation” initiative.

Taylor said that Greenwood, Mississippi is closer to what Jackson looked like in the 60’s than Jackson is now and the period detail pulls us into the story.  Octavia Spencer, playing a part she helped to inspire, does not let Minny become a caricature and Viola Davis gives another richly layered performance as the quieter Aibeleen.  If Howard makes Hilly a little too shrill (and the ending more upbeat than would have been possible in that era) it is understandable given the changing times.  No one would believe today that such a short time ago, blatant virulence could be so casual, which is why the conversations this movie will prompt are so important.  And Stockett deserves credit for her care in acknowledging moments of generosity and affection on all sides in spite of the restrictions of the era.

This is an involving drama with respect for its characters that has some important points to make about race and gender, about the past that still haunts us, about friendship and passion, and most of all about the transformative power of stories, the ones we tell and the ones we listen to.  As Douglas Adams wrote:

It is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion about them.   On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to sit all day, every day, on top of another creature and not have the slightest thought about them whatsoever.

“The Help” does not pretend to be perfect, but it is an honorable step forward and one of the most heartwarming dramas of the year.


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Based on a book Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week

Movies to Celebrate the Life and Work of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Posted on January 13, 2011 at 3:56 pm

This weekend we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King and every family should take time to talk about this great American leader and hero of the Civil Rights Movement. There are outstanding films for all ages.

Every family should watch the magnificent movie Boycott, starring Jeffrey Wright as Dr. King, and should study the history of the Montgomery bus boycott that changed the world. This website has video interviews with the people who were there. This newspaper article describes Dr. King’s meeting with the bus line officials. It is important to note that he was not asking for complete desegregation; that seemed too unrealistic a goal. And this website has assembled teaching materials, including the modest reminder to the boycotters once segregation had been ruled unconstitutional that they should “demonstrate calm dignity,” “pray for guidance,” and refrain from boasting or bragging. Families should also read They Walked To Freedom 1955-1956: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Paul Winfield has the lead in King, a brilliant and meticulously researched NBC miniseries co-starring Cecily Tyson that covers King’s entire career.

The Long Walk Home, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek, makes clear that the boycott was a reminder to black and white women of their rights and opportunities — and risk of change.

Citizen King is a PBS documentary with archival footage of Dr. King and his colleagues. Martin Luther King Jr. – I Have a Dream has his famous speech in full, still one of the most powerful moments in the history of oratory and one of the most meaningful moments in the history of freedom.

For children, Our Friend, Martin and Martin’s Big Words are a good introduction to Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement.

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Biography Documentary Epic/Historical For the Whole Family Lists

Tribute: Lena Horne

Posted on May 10, 2010 at 5:24 pm

Lena Horne, who graced our planet with her exquisite beauty, smoky sensuality, and stunning musicality, died yesterday at age 92.

Ms. Horne was the first African-American to sign a major studio contract, in the 1940’s. It specifically provided that she would never have to play a maid. She started singing at the Cotton Club when she was only sixteen years old. She had major roles in the earliest studio films featuring an all-black cast, “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather,” named for her signature song. She was a star of movies, television, night clubs, theater, and recordings, and was awarded both four Grammys, an Emmy, a Tony, and a Kennedy Center Honor.

Wikipedia notes that she

was never featured in a leading role because of her race and the fact that films featuring her had to be re-edited for showing in states where theaters could not show films with black performers. As a result, most of Horne’s film appearances were stand-alone sequences that had no bearing on the rest of the film, so editing caused no disruption to the storyline; a notable exception was the all-black musical Cabin in the Sky, although one number was cut because it was considered too suggestive by the censors. “Ain’t it the Truth” was the song (and scene) cut before the release of the film Cabin in the Sky. It featured Horne singing “Ain’t it the Truth”, while taking a bubble bath (considered too “risqué” by the film’s executives). This scene and song are featured in the film That’s Entertainment! III (1994) which also featured commentary from Horne on why the scene was deleted prior to the film’s release.

And during the Red Scare, she was black-listed and not allowed to appear in films. But she continued to work for civil rights, and refused to perform for segregated audiences. Her example of courage and integrity and her matchless voice will continue to inspire us.

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Music Tribute
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