Shining in Selma: Odetta, Dylan and Len Chandler

Preview Screening, Discussion and a Knockdown Drag-out Argument

At The Museum of Tolerance - December 20, 2014

By Ross Altman, PhD

Selma

Odetta, Oprah and Oyelowo—there are some big “O’s” in Selma, the movie, and judging from the audience response I heard last night at its premiere local screening another big “O” may be in its future; that would be the Oscar. The film’s producer Oprah Winfrey will certainly be nominated for her resounding portrayal of a middle-aged black woman in Selma trying simply to vote, only to face the County Registrar’s post-graduate series of questions she must answer to enter the voting booth. After reciting so movingly word-for-word the Preamble to the Constitution she is asked how many county judges there are in the state of Alabama. She replies, as if this was common knowledge, and again correctly, “sixty-seven.” But instead of being given her ballot, the registrar now delivers the coup de grace: “Can you name them all?” When she finally draws a blank, he triumphantly stamps her application, in big bold letters, “Denied.” Oprah delivers a stellar performance throughout, during which she endures beating after beating as she seeks her rights. And this timely movie recounts in painstaking detail just how difficult and deadly a journey that was, and how many lives it cost.

Filmmaker and Director Ava DuVernay, rapper Common and cast and crew members (not Oprah) came to the Museum of Tolerance last night to support their soon-to-be-released fictionalized version of an epic chapter in American civil rights history, Selma, the behind-the-scenes story of how Dr. Martin Luther King led the struggle to achieve passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965—the one that was just gutted by today’s US Supreme Court. My friend, Museum of Tolerance member, Marlen Mertz invited me to see it. I am very grateful she did. This review is dedicated to Marlen.

The movie was eloquently introduced by Museum of Tolerance Director Rabbi Marvin Hier; an epic story it was, with King arrayed on one side against more radical members of his own movement—Malcolm X and SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee)—and on the other racist Selma Sherriff Jim Clark, power-grabbing, limelight-seeking opportunist Governor George C. Wallace, conniving, meddling, red-baiting, race-hating, sex-obsessed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and image-conscious, put-upon, ruthless, distracted but ultimately historic President Lyndon Baines Johnson—LBJ.

But the unsung hero of the movie was Dr. King’s un-appointed deputy, SNCC founder and future Georgia Congressman John L. Lewis—the leader of the initial march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge that became known as Bloody Sunday (never so-named in the movie) in which Lewis was beaten within an inch of his life by Alabama State Troopers.

The soundtrack of the movie was also heroic—based as it was on the most powerful American folk songs of the era—civil rights and antiwar anthems that eventually made their way from the streets of Selma and the long march to State Capitol Montgomery—where the civil rights movement had begun on December 1, 1955 with Rosa Parks refusal to move to the back of the bus—around the world to Tiananmen Square, where Chinese students sang We Shall Overcome in the Beijing Spring of 1989.

The fourth hero of the movie was Dr. King’s wife Coretta Scott King. It was she who took the brunt of J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with destroying King’s reputation and ability to lead the movement by tapping his phones and bugging every hotel room he was in to capture his occasional extra-marital relationship. Hoover then had the tapes sent to King’s home for Coretta to be assaulted by and drive a wedge between them. The movie’s saddest scene was thus not King’s public confrontations with southern racists and segregationist politicians but the excruciatingly private confrontation with Coretta, as she plays him one of the FBI Director’s greatest hits—and King at first denies that it is him on the tape. When he finally admits that it is him Coretta asks him the hardest question he must face, “Will you tell me the truth?” The man whose entire reputation was based on speaking truth to power, had finally to speak truth to his own wife, and it was not his finest hour.

At that point Coretta Scott King disappears from the movie until the critical scene later on when she shows up unannounced to buoy his spirits when he faces the judicial hearing to give him permission to march to Montgomery—after he had alienated some of his staunchest supporters by refusing to lead an illegal march. Coretta rescues him from the depths of despair by forgiving him and standing by him when the judge (in perhaps the film’s most moving scene) played indelibly by Hollywood’s great liberal Martin Sheen decides in King and the civil rights movement favor by noting “the great wrong” that has been committed against them. Sheen, who marches in real life and has risked much in standing up for the causes he believes in, including getting arrested at the Nevada nuclear test site Yucca Flats. The casting was thus perfect as Sheen brought real-life commitment and believability to the role of one Southern judge who stood up to his own community in recognizing King’s right to march.

Selma moves quickly to the sixty-mile march to Montgomery, where King delivered one of his three greatest speeches—the others being I Have a Dream on August 28, 1963 at the March on Washington and I’ve Been to the Mountaintop on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, the night he was assassinated (April 4th because he died after midnight.)

Unfortunately for movie-goers, students and those who remember many of King’s immortal words by heart, the movie could only approximate that speech due to the expensive licensing fees for using King’s actual recorded texts required by his surviving family who have prevailed in court to keep virtually all of King’s public speeches out of the public domain. For the foreseeable future therefore filmmakers will have to write their own speeches to create the impression of King’s voice and cadences that lifted his words to the same immortality as great poetry. Screenwriter Paul Webb made a valiant effort to emulate this black preacher’s rhythms and moral insights, but the weakest part of the movie for me was the grating distance between the original in my memory and the well-meaning imitation on screen, despite the lead actor David Oyelowo’s deeply felt identification with the role of a lifetime. Just as with Coke, there is no substitute for the real thing. For those who want to hear the real thing, therefore, I recommend you finding and watching the best documentary about his life, King:A Filmed Record From Montgomery to Memphis.

But that is not the fault of Ava DuVernay and Paul Webb; they made the best of a bad situation in that one regard, and you will still be profoundly moved by the image of King in “the seat of power” (words from his real speech left out of the movie) in Montgomery, Alabama at the end of the march, where they had finally arrived “to tell Governor Wallace, ‘We ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around.’”; (also left out of the movie).

That is however, also the point at which you will see one of its true highlights, archival footage from the end of the march where my friend folk singer Len Chandler is on stage serenading hundreds of marchers (including Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett and Marlon Brando) with his triumphant smile and glorious sunburst vintage Gibson J-45. Len was no Johnny-come-lately who joined the march for the last ten miles at the behest of march organizer Bayard Rustin; Len marched with them all the way from Selma and made up songs throughout, singing truth to power on the most dangerous highway in America.

It was on that highway that a white Unitarian-Universalist Michigan housewife who had come to show her solidarity with black people seeking nothing more than full citizenship—i.e. the right to vote—in the land their enslaved ancestors had built—was murdered on March 25 just a few hours after King’s speech on the drive back to Selma where she was taking fellow marchers. Her name is Viola Liuzzo. She is one of the martyrs of the civil rights movement, who gave her life for freedom for all Americans. Another martyr splendidly depicted in the movie was the white Unitarian Reverend James Reeb, who was beaten to death by local racists who descended upon him screaming the epithet “White nigger!” It was chilling, and horrifying, and should not be missed by anyone who claims to love this country.

This movie, despite its few (unavoidable) shortcomings succeeds on the grand scale of bringing this essential, heroic and patriotic story to life for a new generation—including the closing song Glory, co-written by star rapper Common and soul singer John Legend—in hip hop style that will communicate this 1960s epic to a generation raised not on Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Odetta, but on Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, and Em & Em.

For me, however, the second musical highlight was hearing Odetta’s matchless voice sing Dylan’s matchless words from Masters of War accompanying the marchers as they left Selma and crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the second time, this time legally sanctioned, on their way to Montgomery. Her voice rose up like the sun behind a cloud bank, singing the greatest antiwar song of the decade, and swept away all in its path—even the State Troopers who appeared threateningly on the horizon. At that critical juncture in American history our best folk music captured the American rebel spirit as nothing else could—and three great folk singers—Odetta, Bob Dylan and Len Chandler, embodied its purity and power to change the world.

After two hours the movie was over, but the evening in all its raw aftermath was just getting started. That was the discussion period for which the Museum of Tolerance is noted, where the panelists describe the making of the film we just saw, and leave room for questions by the audience—including one whose remarks were described by an angry audience member as “highly inappropriate and out of place.” Guess who made them.

What could I have said to arouse such contumely? Unexpectedly, and I assure you without malice aforethought, I said a kind word about one of the film’s chief villains, Governor Wallace himself. I hadn’t planned to say anything, much less about Wallace, who has earned his rightful lowly place in history as the unfortunate author of one of the 1960s benchmarks of racial injustice, “Segregation now, Segregation tomorrow, Segregation forever,” his entire simply worded platform when he ran for president the first of four times in 1968.

His name came up during the discussion when director Ava DuVernay was asked by someone in the audience (not me) if they had any plans “to screen the movie in Selma.”

Ms. DuVernay—who was gracious throughout, with one exception—provoked by guess who—revealed to us to my frank astonishment that there are no movie theatres in Selma, Alabama—not even one, where they could show the movie Selma. However, and this is what got me into trouble, she rebounded by saying they would nonetheless be able to show the movie in history’s Heart of Darkness by screening it at—who knew?—George Wallace Junior College.

The words “George Wallace Junior College” barely escaped her lips when they aroused an audible reaction of groans from an audience filled predominantly with white liberals—whose subliminal message was of utter condemnation that any town could be so dumb as to disgrace the idea of “college” with the name “George C. Wallace.” This implied affront to education was then quickly reinforced by the panel-wide expression of raised eyebrows of sanctimonious superiority to this historic bastion of racial intolerance—the perfect comic foil to this preview screening’s venue The Museum of Tolerance.

Never one to miss an opportunity to make a fool of myself, into this sea of raised eyebrows and orgasmic groans of intellectual superiority like Moses I gamely waded. I diffidently raised my hand. The moderator called on me. I replied, “You know George Wallace did not remain the racist he is rightfully portrayed as for the rest of his life. In fact he recanted his segregationist views and later apologized for them. He became a very different person.” I was trying to say—not very successfully I’m afraid—that the George Wallace for whom the college was named was not the George Wallace who defended segregation and exploited white racism for political gain. I was somewhat offended that the end-of-the-movie scrolls that had a paragraph for each of the principal figures depicted to bring their post-1965 lives up to date, had only this to say about Wallace, “He ran unsuccessfully for president four times.” The only reply I got from the stage was from the director herself, “Duly noted.”

Mine was supposed to have been the last question, but when the black moderator heard it he quickly responded by saying, “Well we can’t end on that note,” (that is, a note of tolerance for the intolerant at the Museum of Tolerance) and made time for another final question—a politically correct thank you to the movie’s director “for inspiring all women to achieve their dreams.” Who can disagree with that? Certainly not me—and with that the screening discussion was tastefully concluded.

At least I thought it was. However, and much to my surprise, a knockdown, drag-out argument ensued—out in the foyer amidst the bountiful reception plates and tables bedecked with fancy bottles of white and red wine, cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses, Wheat Thins, Ritz Crackers, hummus, Middle Eastern crackers and cookies and glorious-looking pastries for every palette. Unfortunately, since I am about to celebrate my second year of sobriety and not-quite successful weight-loss efforts, I could only ogle the wine and drool over the pastries—not a delectable drop or tasty morsel passed my lips.

I was thus sipping on a glass of Pellegrino mineral water on ice and chatting pleasantly with Marlen when an earnest young man approached me and said in the most definite terms imaginable that what I had said during the discussion was “most unwelcome, inappropriate and unacceptable.” “You should be ashamed of yourself for bringing up any kind of apology for Wallace at this screening.” “Well,” I replied, “I wasn’t apologizing for what he had done in the movie, and further I wasn’t really apologizing for him at all; all I said was that he had recognized his wrong-doing and made many efforts to redeem himself later on in life.” This did not mollify my accuser. “I frankly don’t care what he did later on, when he had no power; nothing can change the evil of what he did when he had power.” “I can see your point of view,” I responded, “since I feel very much the same way about Robert McNamara’s apology for some of his actions during the Vietnam War—that it was too little and too late.”

After nodding in agreement to that point he reiterated that nonetheless I should have recognized where I was and realized that it was quite out of place to try and defend a man on any grounds at all in the face of what he had done and failed to do in Selma in 1965.

I considered the implications of what he was saying—and was about to apologize for my insensitive and misunderstood words on behalf of a man whose reputation is frozen in time and place. And then I remembered Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, which has become a staple of my repertoire and belief system. Instead I looked him in the eye and said, “As a Jew I believe in redemption, don’t you?” That flustered him, but only for a moment. He wouldn’t give an inch: “That doesn’t change the fact that this was the wrong time and place to bring forth such thoughts.”

And that’s when I remembered Tom Petty’s advice, and decided to stand my ground, and not back down. “On the contrary, I think this was just the place and time to address an issue like this—after all, Jews [and this was primarily a Jewish audience—including I was 100% sure, the young disputant I was talking to] are famous for arguing about everything. As the old saying goes, get any two Jews together and you’ll have three opinions.” Finally, I think, the humor disarmed him, and he thanked me for at least hearing him out without judgment. We shook hands, he left, and I was able to go back to enjoying my host’s more pleasant company.

Until I got home—and was plagued by my own doubts about what I had remembered about Wallace’s later career. I did my own research—not on Google or Wikipedia—but the old-fashioned way, in my large reference book, The Reader’s Companion to American History by Eric Foner and John A. Garraty. And that’s where my doubts came to an end. Governor George Wallace had done a great deal more than issue “token but meaningless apologies” as my interlocutor had ungraciously put it. In fact, when the new and repentant Wallace ran for Governor in 1982 (permanently wheelchair bound after surviving an unsuccessful assassination attempt in 1972 by the white Arthur Bremmer) he won with the “overwhelming support of black voters.” More to the point, “In an ironic conclusion to his career, the man who had promised segregation forever made more black political appointments than any figure in Alabama history.” My memory was intact.

Notwithstanding F. Scott Fitzgerald’s apothegm, “There are no second acts in American lives,” Governor Wallace had a successful and redemptive second act.” The true irony, given the chilly reception from stage and auditorium to my spur-of-the-moment remark is that the first person who would have acknowledged this was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself.

We Shall Overcome

Selma has been officially released December 25th with limited screenings in the L.A. area and will be generally released January 9, 2015, the 50th anniversary year of the events depicted. Check local listings for showtimes.

Los Angeles folk singer Ross Altman may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com