Sunday, June 23, 2019
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
Well, here is another film, after last week’s The Last Picture Show, which takes place in Texas. Blood Simple (1984) is the Coen Brothers’ first feature film, and with it they pay homage to the elements in the noir tradition, but also subvert them. The noir derived from James M. Cain novels, such as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, contain a wife’s infidelity in the plots, with the woman acting as femme fatale as she manipulates the men. Even though we do have a philandering wife here, and she is a strong character, she is as much in the dark about what is happening as her lover. Usually in film noir stories, the private investigator, although usually a type of anti-hero, still has a code he follows as he tries to unravel a mystery, such as in The Maltese Falcon or Chinatown. Here, the PI undermines the tradition by having no moral center, but instead is a nihilistic killer just out to satisfy his own greed.
The first shot of the film is of a road, but there is a piece of tire tread on it, which fits in with the voice-over by the cynical PI, Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) who says life doesn’t come with a guarantee, and it doesn’t matter who you are, no matter how powerful or important, “Something can all go wrong.” But, he says people still whine as if they expected things to work out okay. He says the Russians at that time declared that their system of governing was based on everyone supposedly taking care of everyone else. But here, in the United States, he says, if you complain to a neighbor, “just watch him fly.” He says he knows Texas, “and down here, you’re on your own.” He is expressing the downside of the American belief that individualism reigns supreme. There is then a cut to a car by itself on a road, at night, in the rain, epitomizing that lonesome individuality.
Ray (John Getz) is driving Abby (Frances McDormand), but there appears to be a car following them which is a Volkswagen Beetle. Abby says that for their first anniversary, her husband, Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), gave her a gun. It is pearl handled, a sort of Texas version of jewelry. (If you introduce a gun in a story, as Anton Chekhov said, the writer better fire it later in the tale, and that is what happens here). Abby is planning to escape to Huston because, she says, that if she stayed, she would probably use the weapon on her husband. Her remark is sort of a version of “If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword,” or any other lethal device. (The fact that she refers to her husband by his last name shows the lack of emotional connection between them). Ray works at Marty’s bar, and says he tolerates the man because he’s not married to him, so he hasn’t had murderous feelings toward Marty. This statement is ironic considering what happens later in the film. But, Abby’s remark here about shooting her husband later comes back to haunt Ray. She asks why he offered to drive her, and he says that he likes her. She says they just passed a motel sign. It’s an implied suggestion to have sex. They are next seen in bed with trucks and cars whizzing by, casting ominous shadows, showing transience, not stability, and a noisy, not peaceful, coupling.
In the morning, Marty calls the motel room, surprising Ray that he knows of the infidelity. Marty is then seen with Visser who has taken pictures showing Ray in bed with Abby. Visser is cruelly sordid as he says, “I know where you can get those framed.” He seems to delight in commenting on the decadence of the world, like a man viewing the failings of humans as a sort of entertainment show. He has a cigarette lighter that has an inscription which reads, “Elk Man of the Year,” an ironic title, showing that there isn’t much in the world worthy of praise if Visser is receives an award (the lighter will be important later). Marty doesn’t like that Visser stayed there to watch the lovemaking, and he comments that there was no need for taking pictures since the PI reported that the two were together. Visser probably likes seeing Marty suffer by looking at the photos. Marty, in a threatening response to Visser saying he was just doing his job, says in ancient Greece they would cut off the head of the messenger that brought bad news. Visser laughs and says that doesn’t make sense. Marty agrees, but he notes that it made them feel better. Visser says that he isn’t a messenger, he’s an investigator, and that in Texas, killing is against the law (another ironic statement considering what Visser does later). He also says that the news could have been worse, because Marty expected Abby’s lover to be black, which shows the racism of the husband, but also Visser’s nasty comic sense. Even though Visser is the cynical one, he states with ironic humor that Marty is a pessimist, “always assuming the worst.” Marty throws his payment at the man, and tells him not to show up again. He says if he needs Visser, he’ll know what rock to look under. Visser just laughs and says Marty’s line is a good one. Visser isn’t even insulted, because he knows what he is, and doesn’t see the need to feel shame given how despicable people are, including himself.
At Marty’s bar a black bartender, Meurice, puts on “It’s the Same Old Song” by the Four Tops, an African American group, and the local whites shake their heads, which provides a feel for the prejudice in the community. But the title of the song also points to the Coens paying homage, as Adam Nayman says in his book, The Coen Brothers, to the noir stories that preceded this one. There is a young woman at the bar named Debra (Deborah Newman), who says she is an old friend, and that she has known Meurice for ten years, when in fact they just met. It is a ploy to keep Marty at a distance. Marty still tries to pick her up, probably to get revenge for Abby. Marty says to Debra to tell Meurice she can’t meet up with him later because she has a headache. But she says wittily of the headache excuse, “It’ll pass.” He persists but then she tells him flat out she doesn’t want anything to do with him. Marty is a loathsome, pathetic character who is continually humiliated during the course of the film.
In a scene at Abby’s place, ominous music plays consisting of bass sounds interspersed with steel-like instrumentals that sound like death knells. Abby goes through her purses looking for bullets and the anniversary gun, which suggests she may, as she noted earlier, ironically respond by shooting the person that gifted her the weapon. She secretly loads the pistol with three bullets. Ray says he has to see a guy, and Abby knows what he’s thinking and warns him not to go to the bar.
But Ray goes to the bar anyway. “Sweet Dreams” is playing in the background, which is obviously in counterpoint to what is happening here. Marty looks at the workers burning trash behind the establishment, the inferno mirroring Marty’s state of mind. A bug zapper is heard crackling, an unpleasant, destructive sound that reflects Marty’s emotions. Ray confronts Marty who says he doesn’t want to talk to him. Ray says if he’s not getting fired he might as well quit. Marty then asks him if he’s enjoying himself, an obvious reference to the infidelity, and Ray is now the one who doesn’t want to talk. Ray has the audacity, given the circumstances, to say he’s owed two weeks wages. Smoldering Marty says, “No,” but goes on to say that he thinks it’s funny Ray believes Abby just cared about him. Marty says she had her followed because he believes she has been unfaithful with other men. Marty predicts she will act innocent when Ray confronts her about her promiscuity. Marty warns Ray that he’ll shoot him if he shows up there again. We have a violent atmosphere growing here, but the violence plays out in unexpected ways.
Marty sits back in his chair and looks at the ceiling fan, with its suggestion of life going in circles and getting nowhere, a frustrating symbol of existence. He tells Meurice that he isn’t going home but just will remain where he is, in hell, which fits the fire imagery and reflects a depressing vision of life. He calls Abby at Ray’s, but doesn’t say anything, trying to be intimidating. Ray, made suspicious by Marty’s statement about Abby’s alleged sexual affairs, asks if the call was for her. She says she doesn’t know because “he” didn’t say anything. Ray, his jealousy growing, asks how she knew it was a “he” calling. She asks, jokingly, if Ray has a girl, and was she “screwing something up” for him. He then turns her remark back on her, asking was that what he was doing, implying that maybe he isn’t her only lover. Suspicion and mistrust inhabit these characters, which goes along with Visser’s statement about how in the end we are on our own. She says she can be out of his hair, and he says if that’s what she wants, telling her she can leave. She then says she can sleep on the couch, showing how Marty has created doubt between them.
The soundtrack now uses a piano to show the contrasting bass and treble sounds introduced earlier. Marty is again looking at the ceiling fan, and we see Abby looking at the one where she sleeps. It is Texas, which is hot, so the actual heat coincides with the passions of the characters which overcome reason, and no fan can cool the drives of lust and revenge. Abby goes to Ray’s bed, and he reaches for her, his attraction overcoming his reservations about Abby’s motives.
The next morning, Abby gets out of bed, thinking she is safe, but Opal, Marty’s dog is there, so she realizes so is her husband, and he grabs her before she can call for help. She reaches for her purse but the gun spills onto the floor. He says let’s go outside and “do it in nature,” suggesting the base, animalistic aspect of what drives these people, also symbolized by the dog being there. As the two struggle, there is the further connection to the bestial side of people as there is a sound that mimics the dog breathing quickly. Abby twists around, breaks Marty’s finger, and kicks him in the crotch, inverting the initial appearance of her being the weaker individual. The image of Abby’s attack is one suggesting castration which adds to Marty’s humiliation process. He drags himself away, vomits, and then Ray comes out with the gun he picked off of the floor, as Marty slinks off and drives away. Ray points out how Marty appears even more ridiculous because he drove in the wrong direction toward a dead end, which is a foreshadowing of what is to come.
There is a shot of Marty’s middle finger in a splint, another emasculation image that reflects his cuckolded status. He meets with Visser in a parking lot next to his Volkswagen, so it is confirmed that he was the one following Abby and Ray to the motel. He has a doll hanging from his rearview mirror that has breasts that light up when the chain is pulled. He also asks if Marty injured himself by sticking his finger up the “wrong person’s ass.” The PI’s low moral personality is always on display. He goes on to tell a joke about a man who broke one hand, and then injured the other one protecting the first. Visser told the man that he has found true love if his wife will wipe his behind for him. For Visser, that is how low the measure of love has sunk.
Marty has a job for the PI. At first Visser says, “if the pay’s right, and it’s legal, I’ll do it.” When Marty says, “it’s not strictly legal,” (quite an understatement), Visser ethically edits his requirements by saying “if the pay’s right, I’ll do it.” Visser cackles all the time, but as he realizes Marty wants him to kill Abby and Ray, he is very serious. He doesn’t say he wouldn’t do it, but calls Marty an “idiot.” He believes Marty has been thinking about hurting his wife and her lover too much and, “it’s driving you simple.” The title of the movie comes from a Dashiell Hammett novel, Red Harvest, where “blood simple” refers to how people enter a state of mind that has regressed because of fear and violence. In this film, the characters, because of lust, jealousy, suspicion, and revenge, commit stupid acts, as Visser implies. But, the PI now refers back to his musings on Russia where people are supposed to stress the social good, and only make fifty cents a day. Marty offers to pay him ten grand. So, the “on your own” American way kicks in. Visser tells Marty to go fishing out of town and get noticed, so he has an alibi, and to hide the money transaction. Marty says to burn the bodies in the incinerator behind his place, which reflects his rage that has led him to his personal hell.
Abby finds an apartment to rent on her own, so her relationship with Ray has not been finalized. Abby is in bed at Ray’s place, wondering if she hears Marty. She tells Ray they would probably not hear him because Marty is “anal.” Instead of saying “anal retentive,” to show compulsiveness to detail, Abby unwittingly demeans her husband when she says Marty once said to her, “I’m here, I’m anal.” She points to her head, which makes the gesture imply that Marty is a shithead. She says that Marty doesn’t talk much, but when he does, it’s nasty, whereas Ray’s leanness of speech is “nice.” So, the same quality can be malevolent or benevolent, depending on the situation, which emphasizes how everything is relative, and not predictable. Outside the bedroom window there is at first nothing, but then we see Visser’s Volkswagen, the alternating shots helping to develop the menacing atmosphere.
Visser breaks in and takes Abby’s gun, which Marty probably told him about. He sees the couple sleeping together. The next shot is of the PI calling Marty, telling him the job is done. They meet at Marty’s bar after closing late at night. Marty, back from his alibi trip, slaps some dead fish on the table, their corpses creating an association with the murder plot. The PI again hands some photos to Marty. They appear to show Abby and Ray bleeding from gunshot wounds. Marty feels sick even though he ordered the hits, and vomits in the bathroom, which reflects on the disgusting events occurring. There is a fly buzzing around Visser near the dead fish, symbolizing the corrupt nature of the business at hand. Marty gets the money out of his safe and pays Visser. The PI says that doing this kind of killing is risky, to which Marty says then Visser shouldn’t have done it, which is exactly why we learn that Visser didn’t kill the lovers. He has a different type of murder planned that he thinks will protect his interests. The PI then shoots Marty with Abby’s gun, wipes it, and leaves it there, saying to Marty, “You look stupid now,” which is his view of humanity. There are camera shots of Marty through the circling blades of the ceiling fan, reminding us of the pointlessness of the actions of these characters, and as Nayman says, along with the repetition of “It’s the Same Old Song,” the vicious cycle of deaths that results from betrayals and violence. (The fan may be a nod to the noirish ceiling fans in Casablanca).
Ray then shows up at the bar to again try to secure his back pay, but there’s only change in the cash register. He goes in the back and accidentally kicks the gun on the floor, and the weapon discharges, jolting him out of a feeling of safety into a world of danger. He sees the blood dripping down Marty’s arm. He looks for the gun underneath the desk, which has the barrel pointing at him, which is another foreshadowing. He retrieves the pearl-handled pistol, that he knows belongs to Abby. Ray probably thinks he’s covering up Abby’s murder, but he’s not too bright in his attempt. He puts his fingerprints on the gun as he places it on the table next to the dead fish, linking the weapon to its deadly purpose. He tries to soak up the blood with his jacket and wash the garment in the sink, an almost impossible task. There is now talk outside the office and Meurice’s voice can be heard. He tries to wipe the wet floor, but it’s pointless. He at least takes the gun, but puts it in Marty’s jacket pocket instead of his own. He then hauls Marty’s body into his car. He drives by the furnace, its flames showing how Ray is now in the hell on earth that Marty mentioned earlier. But, he doesn’t burn the body, which creates problems, and shows how people immersed in violent events abdicate their reason.
As he drives, there is that lonesome ride on the road at night again, revisiting the opening scene, and reminding us of Visser’s comment about being “on your own.” On the radio is an evangelist, which adds detail to the setting, but it also is a reminder of the sins that are being committed. Also, the preacher is talking about how the end of the world is coming, which adds to the atmosphere of doom in the story. This talk is followed by the almost horror story effect of Ray hearing Marty breathing and groaning in the back seat. This realization freaks Ray out, as if he has been visited by a ghost, which is a reminder of how departed spirits are considered representative of wrongful deeds revisited on the living. As Nayman points out in his book, characters that are alive are believed to be dead. Such was the case with the doctored photos of Abby and Ray, and now, here, Marty is not dead yet. It’s similar to Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis acting like a cockroach before he actually becomes one, or Bottom (the name says it all) in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream being an ass prior to turning into a real jackass.
Ray stops the car and runs out of it. When he goes back to the vehicle, Marty is not there. He is crawling on the road. Ray backs up the car and acts like he’s going to run him over, but stops, most likely thinking that might be a too messy way of finally ending Marty. He takes a shovel instead and is ready to use it. The shovel scraping on the ground produces a sound that grates on the nerves. Marty grabs Ray’s leg, implying that Ray is being dragged into the hell that Marty’s violent plans have precipitated. A truck’s headlights are in the distance, and Ray drags Marty into the car, trying to cover-up his actions. He digs a hole in which to bury Marty. The man is not yet dead, writhing in the grave as Ray starts to cover him with dirt. But Marty pulls the gun out of his pocket and tries to shoot Ray, his anger and violence now infecting even his last actions on earth. But, there are only two bullets left in the revolver, so there are several empty chambers. Ray takes the pistol from him as Marty keeps pulling the trigger. Marty screams as Ray piles on the dirt, the ground pulsing under the surface as Marty moves, adding to the macabre, scary movie effect of the scene.
As day breaks, Ray drives off on that lonely road again. An approaching driver flashes his lights at him, which could signify a sort of warning, and is also consistent with a feeling that anything can now be thought of as a threat. But the driver is just telling Ray that he has left his lights on. As he passes, the other driver, in a Texas style greeting, smiles and points his fingers like a gun, which takes on an ominous feel given the circumstances. The shaken Ray calls Abby from a gas station, and tells her he loves her. He returns to his place with a smiling, unaware Abby in bed.
Meanwhile, Visser is burning the original photos. He pulls out a cigarette and realizes his Man of the Year lighter and the doctored photos are missing. He, too, has gone “simple” in this criminal activity, and his judgment has suffered. We then get a shot of a ceiling fan again, reminding us of the futility of actions.
Ray didn’t sleep in the bed with Abby, worrying about what has transpired. He is on alert, but maybe he is a little afraid of his lover. He tells Abby he went back to the bar and covered things up. He says that they have to be careful, and not go off “half-cocked,” which is a gun metaphor, and is an appropriate image for what happened to Marty. He says they have “to be smart,” which is the exact opposite of how these people are behaving. Ray says that if someone shoots a man, “you better make sure he’s dead,” as if giving Abby advice about what he thinks is her botched murder attempt. He was in the service, and says that the only thing worth learning there is that if you don’t kill the enemy, he can get up and kill you, which reveals his fearful state of mind. Abby is totally confused by what he is saying. The phone rings but all that is heard is that ominous ceiling fan. Abby says it must be Marty on the phone. Ray laughs, thinking Abby is trying to deceive him about Marty’s death, and says “I’ll get out of your way,” thinking that Marty might have been right, and it was one of Abby’s other lovers on the phone. He places the gun on the end table and says she “left her weapon behind.” He is assuming she shot Marty, which is what Visser wants others to believe. This world is full of treachery which spawns fear and suspicion.
There is a brief scene which shows how Marty, after returning from his fishing trip, left a voice message accusing Meurice of stealing from his safe and wanting to talk to him and Ray. This story was how Marty was going to explain the missing cash he was actually giving to Visser for the murders. There is a cut to Ray checking out the blood stains in his car as Meurice shows up. Ray quickly covers the blood as Meurice tells him he’s sloppy for stealing the money since he, along with Meurice and maybe Abby are the only ones, other than Marty, who know the combination to the safe. Here again deception leads to false conclusions. There is a bit of dark, foreboding humor as Meurice flicks the cigarette out of Ray’s mouth saying they are like “coffin nails.” He then lights up one himself as he leaves. There is more humor as Meurice also drives the wrong way toward the dead end of Ray’s street, as did Marty, which suggests how all people are heading to a “dead end” on their earthly journeys.
Looking for his lighter, Visser goes to the bar and sees that Marty’s body is not there. He hides when surprised by Abby, who sees that the back door window has been broken and the bolt slid open. To emphasize the “simple” nature of these people wrapped up in their irrational states of mind, she slides the bolt closed, reminding one of the saying about closing the barn door after the horses have escaped. She discovers a hammer that Visser was using to break the safe. The spooky-looking dead fish are staring at her, looking like animal ghosts. She returns to Ray’s place, probably thinking that maybe it was Ray who tried to steal money from the safe and possibly killed Marty. Nothing is as it seems in this morally compromised upside-down world.
It appears Abby wakes up and hears heavy footsteps as she washes up in the bathroom. The creaking of the bathroom door adds to the list of creepy sounds as she sees Marty somehow still alive sitting in the living room, saying, “Lover boy ought to lock the door.” He tells her he loves her. She tells him that she loves him too, but he says that she is just saying it because she is scared. He repeats Ray’s words about how she “left her weapon behind,” but he tosses her a make-up compact, emphasizing her role as a film noir femme fatale. But she, unlike others fitting the genre type, never plotted to actually kill her husband, and is not especially manipulative. Marty then throws up gallons of blood and Abby wakes up as this scene turns out to be a nightmare, but not one far removed from what is happening in the waking world of the story.
Abby returns to Ray’s place. He is packing up and says isn’t that what she wants. He does ask if she wants to go with him. They don’t know what’s happening because they are unaware of Visser’s role in the goings on, so they suspect each other. He says he can’t sleep or eat. He then says that Marty was alive when he buried him, which confounds Abby. Ray finds the altered pictures at the bar that pretend to show he and Abby were shot. He sees the Volkswagen outside that he saw in the first scene, and Ray drives away. Abby enters her apartment and Ray is there. He tells her to turn out the lights, so as not to be an easy target, since he now knows that someone is threatening them. Visser, believing Ray and Abby are a threat to him now after discovering what he left behind at the bar, is outside with a gun. Abby turns the light back on, and they say they love each other just as Ray is shot. She jumps out of the way and knocks out the light with her shoe. She hides. Visser gets into the apartment and is searching Ray for the lighter. He clubs Ray to make sure he’s dead.
The PI looks for Abby. He has gloves on to cover up his crime. He tries to open a window to the room next to the bathroom where Abby is hiding. She grabs his hand, slams the window down, and puts a knife through his hand. Nayman points out that his bleeding extremity could mean he has been caught red-handed. But, Except Abby doesn’t even know whose hand she has impaled. He starts shooting holes through the wall erratically, which is another of several references to impotence, as Nayman notes. Then he just bangs against the wall making howling sounds since he is caught like an animal in a trap, emphasizing the evolutionary reversal that takes place when violence turns people “simple.” He breaks through the wall and pulls the knife out of his hand. Abby finds her gun. She steadies herself on the floor and shoots him through the wall. She says, “I’m not afraid of you Marty,” because she knows nothing about Visser, and has no idea that her husband is actually dead. He just laughs out loud and says, “If I see him, I’ll sure give him the message.” Once violence predominates, and the “blood simple” factor kicks in, his parting remark paints life as just one dark, absurd joke.
The next film is Before Sunset.
Monday, June 17, 2019
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
Sometimes I like to write a post about a film discussed at a movie class at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. I hadn’t seen this film since it was initially released so I thought I would revisit it by attending a recent viewing and analysis at the theater. The Last Picture Show (1971), adapted from the novel of the same name, was directed by Peter Bogdanovich, and takes place from November, 1951 to October, 1952 in the fictional Texas town of Anarene (the name sounds like Abilene in the 1948 western, Red River), which was based on author Larry McMurtry’s home town of Archer City, where the movie was shot. This period in American history is a scary time since the end of WWII introduced the specter of a mushroom cloud hanging over civilization as the fear of a nuclear confrontation existed in the background of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Pessimism replaced optimism for the future. The technology of television drew people away from the communal gathering to watch movies at a theater to the seclusion of the living room.
The closest literary equivalents to this tale are the valley of ashes depicted in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s elegiac The Great Gatsby, and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, both works commenting on the spiritual barrenness of the human soul in modern times. Bogdanovich wanted to show the town in decay, bleak and colorless, and his houseguest, the great Orson Welles, encouraged the director to shoot the movie in black and white, which was unheard of at the time of its making, since Hollywood had been filming its feature films in color. The opening of the film has a shot of the town’s movie theater, the Royal, its name conjuring up images of the past majesty of classic cinema. That image is followed by a pan to the left to reveal a main street that looks like a ghost town, with howling wind the only sound heard, as if people have been blown off the face of the earth. The town’s population is so small that the cafe waitress, Genevieve (Eileen Brennan) says at one point, “A person can’t sneeze in this town without somebody offering them a handkerchief.”
Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) is trying to get his dilapidated truck to start. He keeps pulling on the choke knob as the engine sounds like an old man coughing. Our instructor pointed out that the effect was to make the audience feel that the whole place was choking on the dust that seemed to be replacing the town. The sound could signify the community’s death rattle. Sonny and his high school friend, Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) are on the football team, and they just played the last game of the season. They were badly beaten by their opponents, and the fact that it is the last game and they failed so miserably lends to the atmosphere of defeat that permeates the area. Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson, in a Best Supporting Actor Oscar win for his brief performance, the shortest ever to win the award) says, “This is what I get for betting on my hometown ball team. I ought’a have better sense.” To which oil driller Abilene (Clu Gulager) comments, “Wouldn’t hurt to have a better hometown.” This exchange is darkly funny, but it also shows the awareness of how decrepit the location has become. Even understanding that dire reality, Sam, financially and spiritually, continues to invest in the town, despite the odds. He owns the cafe, the theater, and the pool hall. (There is a bit of foreshadowing as to what will happen to Sonny when, in the pool hall, Abilene tells Sonny to be careful with a pool cue so as not to poke out Abilene’s eye). Sam shows old movies, many of them western classics made by John Ford and Howard Hawks, which depict heroic versions of real-life cowboys who now can only exist, like ghosts, on the theater’s screen.
Sonny and Duane share the truck and live in a boarding house, instead of with their parents, suggesting how the family units here are falling apart. The boys take their girlfriends to Sam’s movie theater, with Duane and Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd) arriving in the truck a bit later, and using the theater to neck. (The movie being shown is Father of the Bride, an idealized version of a marriage and parent-child relationship that ironically contrasts with what happens to Jacy later). Sonny is attracted to Jacy, wanting to share more than just the truck, the football experience, and the place where they live with Duane. Sonny now takes his turn using the truck and parks with his girlfriend, Charlene (Sharon Taggart). Their interaction is anything but romantic. With no foreplay, she mechanically takes off her top and Sonny fondles her breasts as they kiss. Sonny wants to have intercourse, but she seems to think that she is keeping her chaste reputation despite her sexual behavior. She also is angry with Sonny because he hasn’t remembered the one-year anniversary of when they began dating. Her being upset about an anniversary is only a hollow pretense of a bygone romantic era, like a false building front on a movie lot. Preoccupied with his thoughts about Jacy, and not feeling any fulfillment, emotionally or physically with Charlene, he abruptly and inconsiderately breaks off the relationship, a foreshadowing of how he acts later.
As our class instructor stated in his handout, the characters from the younger and older generations “try to find solace and escape from boredom in lost dreams, drinking, temporary and manipulative sexual encounters” and “the local movie theater’s shows.” Roger Ebert, who considered the movie the best film of 1971, said the inhabitants of Anarene seem to have lost their “reason to exist,” and their “only hope is in transgression.” Maybe many of the characters are sexually promiscuous and adulterous because subconsciously they are revolting against the choices they made and the cards that fate has dealt them. We do have a sort of sexual liberation theme here on the part of the women in that characters such as Lois and Ruth seek physical fulfillment for themselves instead of adopting the traditional female role of satisfying male needs.
Coach Popper (Bill Thurman), at a basketball practice session, tells Sonny that he can get him excused from a class if he will drive his wife, Ruth (Cloris Leachman, winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this role) to a doctor appointment. He agrees, but when he shows up to give Ruth the ride, she is disappointed that her husband delegated the job to a student. Ruth is an introvert, but she can’t hide her longstanding emotional pain any longer, and on the way home she starts to cry. She invites Sonny into her home for some soda, and he tries to awkwardly console her, although he appears out of his maturity depth as to what to do to help.
In contrast to the sensitivity between a child and parent in Father of the Bride shown at the movie house, Jacy has a cynical encounter with her mother, Lois (Ellen Burstyn). She is married to a man that has struck it rich in the oil industry, but that hasn’t made her life happy, and Lois doesn’t expect that her daughter will turn out any better than she did. She drinks a great deal, and is having an extramarital affair with Abilene (his name, recalling Red River, indicates how the noble cowboy of western mythology has declined into this womanizing driller who plunders the land, and who does his drilling in places other than the oil fields). She tells Jacy not to marry Duane, but just go to bed with him. Lois says then her daughter will realize that “there is nothing magic about it.” Lois’s jaded view on her current life is devoid of any real connection to another person, and she sees life as a tease heading to a big letdown.
Perhaps because of the negative view on life that her mother dispenses to Jacy, the young woman accepts an invitation from Lester Marlow (Randy Quaid), a rich kid, like herself, to go to a nude swimming party at the house of a wealthy boy, Bobby Sheen (Gary Brockette). Jacy most likely wants to transcend the limitations on life that her mother predicted for her and seeks excitement, acceptance, and maybe adulation from others. She tries to gain being the center of attention by being sexually manipulative. The film is not shy about displaying nudity, and in this pool scene there is, again, no romance or happiness, only sordid lustful preoccupation.
There are other instances in which the movie presents an unseemly sexual environment. The male youths joke about wanting to have sex, and even bring up the idea of bestiality (which apparently was more overt in the book). Later in the movie, one youth, Joe Bob Blanton (Barc Doyle), who is supposedly a religious person, is apprehended before he molests a small girl, implying that religion has fallen on hard times in the twentieth century. The character of Billy (Timothy’s actual brother, Sam Bottoms) is Sonny’s young friend. He is mentally challenged, and is always smiling and friendly. Sonny, and, later, even Duane, have an affectionate ritual they perform with Billy, taking his cap off and turning the bill backwards, a gesture that seems to want to preserve his childlike personality. He is the representation of pure innocence in this fallen world. However, Duane, upset by Jacy’s abandonment of him in favor of the rich crowd, joins his friends in an attempt to get Billy to lose his virginity. Here, the young men act as if they are doing him a favor by introducing Billy to sex, but there is no affection in the encounter, no fulfilling intimacy here. They bring Billy to a woman (Helena Humann) who will agree to having sex for money. She is crude and cruel to Billy, punching him after he prematurely climaxes without successfully having intercourse. Sonny shows up but is too late to stop the prank.
Sam the Lion takes care of Billy, and is outraged at how the boys treated the youth. As Duane cowardly hides in the truck, Sam tells the young men, “You boys can get on out of here, I don’t want to have no more to do with you. Scarin’ a poor, unfortunate creature like Billy so’s you could have a few laughs. I’ve been around that trashy behavior all my life. I’m gettin’ tired of puttin’ up with it.” Sam bans the boys from his cafe, pool hall, and theater as punishment for their behavior. The older man is the moral center of the story and knows the importance of forgiveness. Later, when Genevieve, who is another kind soul in the town, allows Sonny to have some food in the cafe, Sam shows up and allows her to serve Sonny.
Sam takes Sonny and Billy on a fishing trip out to the local pond. Sam reminisces about how he had an exciting love affair with a woman twenty years prior. They would go skinny-dipping in the water next to where he now sits, an older man who has no love in his life. But, the thoughts of her are strong and have fueled him through the years. He tells Sonny, “If she was here, I’d probably be just as crazy now as I was then in about five minutes. Ain’t that ridiculous? Naw, it ain’t really. ‘Cause being crazy about a woman like her is always the right thing to do. Being an old decrepit bag of bones, that’s what’s ridiculous. Gettin’ old.” She was already married, so they could not have a life together. He at least was able to have experienced a true, passionate love, unlike the empty sexual experiences of those in the present. But he, like the town, maybe the country, is in a state of decline, and all he has left are memories, which are sort of like a movie projection in his mind.
Sonny and Duane are looking for some escape from their dull lives and decide to take a short holiday to Mexico to celebrate New Year’s Eve (although the new year doesn’t promise to be any improvement over the old one). Before leaving they encounter Sam, who seems to have regrets about not being carefree like the boys. They ask Sam if he wants to join him. There is a significant pause as he weighs the possibility, (which will be echoed later in a scene with Lois and Sonny). But, he realizes that kind of partying is in his past. He gives the boys some money in a form of vicarious enabling of the younger generation to enjoy the exuberance and thrills he once experienced. After they return from their trip, the boys learn that Sam died of a heart attack. It’s as if whatever was left of the meaningful old times passed away with him. Sam left the theater to Jessie Mosey (Jessie Lee Fulton), who worked there. He gave the cafe to Genevieve, and he left the pool hall to Sonny, which surprises the young man.
Sonny and Ruth begin an affair. It is uncomfortable at first, and they appear unable to communicate their feelings as they go through the physical motions. They probably feel strange about the age difference between them and the fact that Ruth is married. She hints at the problem as to why she has had such a sterile love life. Despite everybody supposedly knowing each other’s business in the town, Ruth asks Sony, “Don’t you know?” Apparently, her husband is gay, so in Ruth’s marriage we have another example of the lack of a meaningful connection. As time passes however, the two become comfortable and happy with each other, and this period of their relationship is a bright spot in an otherwise psychologically overcast world.
The lack of any belief in romantic love is mirrored by how the rich kid, Bobby Sheen, tells Jacy that he won’t have anything to do with her until she loses her virginity. It’s as if the lost souls here don’t want anyone uncorrupted to exist in their defiled existence. Jacy, trying to find her place of acceptance, now recruits Duane to have sex with her so she can be initiated into Bobby’s world. Duane has been treated dismissively by Jacy, and, although he wants to have sex with her, must realize subconsciously, that she is not sincere about caring for him. He is impotent in the encounter, and she scolds him in humiliating fashion. In a reversal of ideas about traditionally acceptable behavior, Jacy complains that she does not want the other young people in the town to think she is still a virgin. Duane is eventually able to do the deed. The unscrupulous Jacy breaks up with him, saying she would rather be with Bobby. Duane, devastated by Jacy’s rejection, again, leaves for an oil drilling job. However, Jacy’s plans are thwarted when Bobby marries someone else, demonstrating a sort of retribution cycle for bad behavior. Jacy is constantly looking for adoration, and comes on to Lois’s lover, Abilene, in a strange bit of competition, as if she is trying to out-seduce her mother. They desecrate the memory of the moral Sam by having sex on one of the pool tables there after hours. But, she does not get the adulation she seeks from Abilene. He has only used her for carnal satisfaction, and coldly disposes of her after they have sex.
Jacy, now feeling rejected herself, and seeking attention again in this vacuous world, finds out from her mother, Lois, (who tries to comfort her daughter since she, too, has some redeemable qualities) about the affair between Sonny and Ruth. Jacy now sets her sights on Sonny, who she knows is attracted to her. Sonny, despite his kindness toward Bobby and his admiration of the ethical Sam, allows himself to be manipulated by Jacy. As he did with his girlfriend, Charlene, he now dumps Ruth. In a heartbreaking scene, the happy Ruth is painting her bedroom blue, Sonny’s favorite color, at the same time he betrays her. As our class instructor pointed out, In the background the song “Blue Velvet” is heard, whose romantic lyrics echo her actions. But, the reality is that her heart will be broken when Sonny does not appear to appreciate her efforts to make him happy. (The songs in the soundtrack are mostly country western, which have a tendency to emphasize the pain of failed romances, which is appropriate for this story).
Duane returns home and has learned that Jacy is dating Sonny. Duane now feels betrayed by his best friend, and the two get into a fight. Duane is holding a beer bottle which breaks, and Sonny’s eye is injured, causing him to have impaired vision. Duane has lost the girl he loved and the loyalty of his best friend. He feels that he has nothing left for him in Anarene, and leaves to join the Army. Sonny, maybe out of guilt for also betraying Ruth, refuses to see her when she comes to visit him at the hospital.
Jacy, in her distorted view of love which amounts to narcissism in this emotionally disconnected environment, feels special because there was a fight between two men for her affection. She tells Sonny that they should elope, which they do, but it is just a pretend marriage, another romantic facade without substance. She left a note for her parents to discover what Jacy planned to do. It was as if the young woman wanted to get caught, and only wished to attain recognition, like a current reality star, who can’t become popular through meritorious achievement, but only through being infamous. They are caught by a policeman and returned home. The marriage is eventually annulled since there wasn’t even time for a consummation, and Jacy eventually goes away to college. Will she find a purposeful path elsewhere? The movie does not offer us any hope that such will be the case.
Lois drives Sonny home after he and Jacy are caught. She seems to understand Sonny’s desire to have a special relationship with someone. She reveals that she is the woman who was Sam the Lion’s great love. She, like him, felt alive in that time together, but all she has now are those memories to remind her of what true love was really like. She is different from other women around her because Sam showed her how alive life can be. She says, “If it wasn’t for Sam, I would have missed it, whatever it is. I’d have been one of them amity types that thinks that playin’ bridge is about the best thing that life has to offer.” But, she stayed in her unfulfilling marriage for the money, and sacrificed an enhanced life with Sam. She now pauses, as did Sam when he contemplated about going with the boys to Mexico. She is thinking about being intimate with Sonny, who may be able to give her back that optimism that young love once promised. But, she passes, realizing, just as did Sam, that the time has passed, and she can’t return to it.
Months pass, and Sonny is at a football game, the sport now a part of his past that can’t be recovered. He learns that Duane is on leave from the Army and he seeks out his old friend. The two reconcile, with Sonny forgiving Duane for the eye injury and Duane renewing their friendship despite Sonny’s relationship with Jacy. It’s as if they are channeling Sam’s quality of compassion. They attend the last movie to be shown at the Royal, which is closing because of poor attendance. The film is Red River, the classic movie about heroes that are now anachronistic in a cynical time. The next day, Sonny sees Duane off at the bus station. He and Jacy could not find meaning for themselves there, and those who have stayed seem to simply exist without purpose.
After Duane leaves, Sonny sees men crowded together on the main street of the town. He finds Billy on the ground after being hit and killed by a truck. The men assembled don’t show any strong feelings, as if dead inside. They just seem to wonder what the boy was doing with a broom in the middle of the street. Sonny is outraged at their lack of compassion. He yells that Billy was just “sweeping.” The boy symbolically seems to be a type of Sisyphus, trying to perform the pointless act of spiritually cleaning a place whose soul had become buried in hopelessness.
With Billy’s death, we have an end to the purity of innocence. Sonny drives out of town, but he can’t leave, and returns. Mythical stories seem to require suffering in order to gain understanding. Sonny is sort of like Oedipus. He has slept with a mother figure in the form of Ruth, and, like Oedipus, sees his wrongdoings only after he is blind. He has hurt others by his betrayals, but he now returns to the town and to Ruth. Perhaps he must symbolically take up Billy’s broom, a sort of moralistic baton inherited by him from Sam. She is angry at him for how she has irreparably hurt her, yelling, “You’ve ruined it and it’s lost completely. Just you needing me won’t make it come back.” Her words could refer to the world’s spiritual loss at large. He silently reaches out to her and gently holds her hand. This simple physical act carries more feeling, caring, and intimacy than all of the detached sexual couplings between the others in the story. Ruth now also shows the genuine human quality of forgiveness that can heal emotional wounds, and she comforts Sonny by saying, in a motherly tone, “Never you mind, honey. Never you mind.”
At the end of the film, we have a sort of bookend to the beginning. The story started in the fall and ends there, showing there has been no progress in the town. The howling wind is back. The camera now pans from left to right and stops as the movie began with a shot of the Royal movie theater, its marquee blank, now dethroned. All that remains are fleeting happy moments and memories.
The next film is Blood Simple.
Sunday, June 9, 2019
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
Selma (2014), directed by Ava DuVernay (amazing that she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination) finds its dramatic center by zeroing in on one event in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. The march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery highlighted possibly the most important goal that Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders wanted to achieve: the elimination of impediments established to prevent African Americans from voting. In the course of this story King is seen as a master strategist who was dedicated to his cause, but who was also filled with guilt about the collateral damage that resulted along the road to justice.
The film opens with King (David Oyelowo, another absurd omission from Oscar consideration) looking at himself in a mirror, preparing the acceptance speech for the 1963 Nobel Peace Prize. But, he tells his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), that it’s not right. He’s looks too dressed up, too fancy, and that doesn’t sit well with how it will play with the disadvantaged back home. He truly feels that the ceremony makes him feel strange since he is used to being in places where poor people just try to get by each day. But he also understands the media, so he knows that the optics of himself in opulent surroundings will not play well. But, given how the stress level of their lives is always in the red zone they both agree it’s nice to get away a bit. King says he longs for being a pastor in a small college community. But, he does allow for giving a speech occasionally, so even in his daydream he sees himself trying to influence others. Then they both look sad as they realize this version of King’s dream can’t materialize if he wants his other dream about racial equality to become a reality.
The voice-over of King’s uplifting acceptance speech is undercut by the segue to the next shot of the explosion at a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four young girls. This horrendous act shows how the racial war is still being waged. The next scene is of Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, who is one of the film’s producers) filling out a voter registration form. There were state laws in force in the South that suppressed African American voting by placing restrictions on the process, such as administering tests that could not be passed. The man at the county registrar desk is condescending, saying he doesn’t have all day, and that Cooper is causing a fuss. He implies a threat to her job, saying that her boss wouldn't’ want to hear that she was making trouble. She says she did the paperwork correctly, but he shows his power by saying, “It’s right when I say it’s right.” She is told to recite the preamble the U. S. Constitution (the man is again belittling toward Cooper, asking if she knows what “preamble” means). She does so correctly, which the man testing her probably couldn’t do. She knows that there are sixty-seven county judges in Alabama, but he says she must name them. So, she is again denied her legal right to vote.
President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), a stubborn and proud man, does not like being pressured by King, saying to his aid that King has to get on board with his program, not the other way around. He ascribes arrogance to King about not settling for anything else but his “dream.” This attitude reflects a form of white privilege. (The film’s depiction of Johnson has been criticized by some as not accurately reflecting Johnson's commitment to the civil rights movement). In a meeting with King, Johnson says he was proud of the Civil Rights Act that was meant to end segregation. He apparently wanted King to work as an official member of his White House team, but that would mean King would have to pledge loyalty to one man, and he needs that uncompromising distance to advocate for change. Johnson is glad that King, and not the militant Malcolm X, is the main leader of the civil rights movement. His approach mirrors the white resistance to, and fear of, abrupt change in the relationship between the races, even if the current conditions are intolerable for a vast segment of the population. King raises the impediments to registering to vote for blacks. Johnson says that his priorities are to allow desegregation to work its way through the South, and then he wants to start his “War on Poverty” program. He says enforcing changes to local voter registration must wait. King says it can’t wait because murderers go unpunished, protected by white government officials put in office by white voters. Killers are acquitted by all-white juries because blacks are not registered to vote and can’t get on juries. King’s argument is flawless. But, political practicality can be an enemy of what is obviously rational. Johnson says he has to set the voting rights issue aside for a little while. After leaving the meeting, King tells his staff members that they must go to Selma to protest and thus put pressure on Johnson by swaying public opinion.
On the drive to Selma with black leaders Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), James Orange (Omar J. Dorsey), and Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson), King says he doesn’t want to rush into anything, showing how he wants to have a solid plan in place before acting. Instead, he wants to get a feel for the situation, showing his wariness of potentially inflaming an already heated confrontation between the white and black residents. One of his companions says with ominous humor that Selma is a nice place to die.
We immediately see the racial divide when they pull up to a hotel that declares, in defiance of the current law, that it’s for whites only. They go into the hotel, and a white man punches King in the face, an act which undermines the reputation of Southern Hospitality. (The film displays typed notes introducing various scenes that provide context for what is happening. But, these bits of information ironically are from FBI surveillance logs, creating a chilling effect as to how a hostile government can monitor the everyday actions of citizens that it deems as subversive).
Johnson asks FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) what his investigative agency knows about King. Hoover declares that “King is a political and moral degenerate.” Johnson, a strong figure, must still be careful not to irritate Hoover, whose powerful position can bring a politician down just by insinuating that there is anything negative about a person. So, he accommodates the Director by saying that if Hoover thinks King is a “degenerate” he’ll accept his finding. But, Johnson notes that King is non-violent, and reiterates his preference for King as opposed to the more incendiary civil rights leaders. Hoover is menacing when he tells the President, “we can shut men with power down, permanently and unequivocally,” which sounds as if he is offering to have King assassinated. Johnson, of course, backs away from such an implication, saying he just wants to know what the FBI knows about King’s future plans that may cause problems. Hoover reveals that he knows that there is friction in King’s home and says that they can use it to destroy his family life, thus weakening King through distraction. This scene adds to the film’s theme that suggests the only place to go when the heads of law enforcement are corrupted by their own bigotry is outside of the system to seek justice. Like Gandhi, King knows that one has to humiliate the oppressors by revealing their crimes to everyone to get backing for change.
Hoover’s police-state-like targeting of King’s family is effectively followed by a scene showing King back home in Atlanta with his wife and children. Coretta receives a call threatening her children, but she handles it without hysteria. King asks if the call was like the others, showing that they must be courageous daily in the face of hatred. King is leaving the next day for Selma, and despite Coretta admitting there are a lot of good people living there, King says he’s worried by those that aren’t so good, since those are the ones that can do harm. He says that the local sheriff, Jim Clark (Stan Houston), won’t concede anything without a fight. Since they are nonviolent, he repeats the phrase about it being a good place to die. Coretta does not like the joke since she has not developed the thick skin needed to hear gallows humor. King wakes up gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (Ledisi Young), who sings a hymn over the phone. King feels he needs “to hear the Lord’s voice,” most likely to give him strength and hope for the fight ahead, as he goes “through the storm/ Through the night.”
At a local church in Selma, King’s speech points out what amounts to the devil’s arithmetic (the title of a young adult book about the Holocaust) which shows that African Americans number fifty per cent of the population there, but only make up less than two per cent of the registered voters. King’s evangelical way of getting his points across and galvanizing others to action is seen here in Oyelowo’s interpretation of the great man (the actor spent seven years trying to get the film made with him in the lead role). He gets the crowd to repeat “No More!” as he states that there have been too many people who did not have control over their own destinies because they were denied the right to vote. He asks them to protest, to march, and to disturb the peace, which means that they must accept going to jail and suffering as the consequences for their willing to take a stand. He wants to expose the bigots so they can be seen as the hateful people they are instead of allowing them to hide their awful actions with the help of local government officials.
John and James of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) are also there, and these students have some jurisdictional concerns because it’s their territory. They don’t want to be pushed aside by outsiders coming in to take over their cause and then leaving, with the locals having to continue the long-term fight to, as King says, “raise the consciousness” of the local black people. Those with King say that SNCC hasn’t accomplished enough concerning voting rights. King interrupts the disagreement saying there is no time for this internal bickering. He says their national movement does three things: negotiate, demonstrate, and resist. That is their game plan, and if it causes their opponents to make mistakes, it helps the cause. When they were in Albany, the sheriff treated them humanely, and so there was no “drama,” and as the James adds, “No cameras.” King agrees, implying that publicity derived from sensationalism is required to address wrongs. King says they have to raise white consciousness, too, in particular the President’s, and they must be on the front page of the newspapers and on the TV so Johnson will be forced to not ignore their fight. King says that the short-tempered Sheriff Clark will provide the necessary drama. He doesn’t control the streets, only the county courthouse, so King says, “we have clear avenues of approach to a defined battle zone.” This scene illustrates the planning, diplomacy, and strategy that King mastered to get the job done.
In a voice-over, King continues his analysis of the battlefield. He notes that when segregation is everywhere it is a harder task to concentrate the drama. But, in Selma, the focus is on the courthouse, a place of laws, which, ironically, has illegally denied voting rights, and which they can pinpoint as “a citadel, defended by fanatics.” So, King, his leaders, and the locals march the streets (where he noted the sheriff could not stop them) and go to the courthouse, whose tyranny is “defended,” as King observed, by police with their clubs. King poetically calls the courthouse “a perfect stage” for the “drama” he wants to play out. Sheriff Clark uses the excuse that there are too many of them there for the general public to gain access to the building and that they have to go in the back door, which is a form of segregation, which King tells him is illegal. Clark uses his bullying size to push people out of the way under the pretense that they must keep the sidewalk clear. He knocks over an old man. When he starts to jab his club into a young black man’s chest, Oprah’s Cooper whacks the Sheriff on the head. King winces as he sees the confrontation leading to the violence he abhors but must tolerate as Cooper is hit and wrestled to the ground.
The scene flows into the voice-over words of then Governor of Alabama George Wallace (Tim Roth), a major proponent of segregation, stating in a public address that he won’t tolerate “A bunch of nigra agitators.” Wallace, like other Southerners at the time, used the word “nigra” as a way of not using the “N” word, but communicating that was exactly the racial slur they meant. King is in jail having been arrested for disturbing the peace. Wallace is then seen talking about how liberals and progressives have undermined the intent of the Founding Fathers to make us one “mongrel” (a demonization of the process of diversification) nation instead of keeping the races separate. Unfortunately, the architects of American democracy did not grant the equal rights to blacks or women. But, they did allow for amendments to the Constitution, the type of change that Wallace decries in his speech.
Johnson listens to Wallace speak, and he sees a picture of Cooper being manhandled by the Alabama cops on the front page of the newspaper put on his breakfast table, probably giving him indigestion. Of course, Johnson’s inability to escape the disturbing behavior of his fellow Southerners is exactly what King intended.
In the Selma jail, King feels the heartbreaking frustration of their cause as he speaks to Abernathy. His words are like a confession for his part in adding to how much torment his people have endured. Abernathy offers encouragement and says President Johnson will be moved to act. But King wonders what they have accomplished if a black person can be served food anywhere, but can’t afford to pay for it, or is unable to read the menu. The civil rights activist Medgar Evers stood up against injustice and was shot in his own driveway. King has empathy for the sense of futility experienced by those that follow a leader who is then struck down (a sort of foreshadowing of what will happen once he meets his fatal end). Abernathy says that they just have to work “piece by piece,” laying down the road for others to follow. He quotes scripture which again seems to be the well from which these civil rights leaders sustained themselves, despite, as Malcolm X noted in his speeches, those same biblical teachings were used to placate blacks by urging them to tolerate their earthly plight for delayed happiness in heaven. Although being in jail, King is still able to use humor to lighten the dire situation, saying that the cell was “probably bugged.”
Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint), a civil rights activist, encourages Coretta, who feels unsure of herself as she heads toward a secret meeting with Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch). Boynton says they are descended from a mighty civilization that persevered despite crushing obstacles, so she is basically telling Coretta she will find her strength in her bond with her cultural past. The meeting with Malcolm X takes place in a church, the stained-glass windows again suggesting how religion was a key force behind the civil rights movement. Malcolm, who at this point has alienated himself from the Black Muslim establishment, now allows for other possibilities to achieve the goals of black people, including letting white people join the movement. He assures Coretta that he respects what her husband is trying to do. She is her husband’s defender and points out that Malcolm has said disrespectful things about her husband, and Malcolm agrees that he has been outspoken against the non-violent path. He stresses that although they have disagreements, he is not the “enemy.” She does not want his militance to destroy what her husband is trying to achieve in Selma. He counters by offering a strategy of his own, asking that he be the alternative to King that will scare whites to the point that many will rush to King’s side. In this war, allies must come from different camps and many tactics are advanced to defeat the real “enemy.”
King, still in jail, is upset with Coretta’s advocating for Malcolm, since at one point he called King and fellow leaders, “ignorant Negro preachers,” and said King was an Uncle Tom who the white man paid to keep “Negroes defenseless.” Coretta says Malcolm was different now, and his disagreements were not aimed in the form of personal attacks against King. King says that their movement made conditions better by actually passing laws, which he says Malcolm has not done. He blurts out that Coretta seems “enamored” of Malcolm, then immediately apologizes, saying he didn’t mean it. The disparity in the ways to improve African Americans is examined here, and it shows how those impassioned alternative ways of seeking progress sometimes led to jealousy and animosity.
Wallace is not happy about both King and Malcolm X stirring up the black people in his state at the same time. He is worried that Johnson might be provoked to push for voting reform, which Wallace doesn’t want since elections are coming up, and he wants to maintain a predominantly white electorate. A sharp increase in black voters could throw segregationist leaders such as himself out of office. He tells Colonel Al Lingo (Stephen Root) that he wants “white trash” Sheriff Clark restrained so that physically abused blacks don’t appear on the news, generating sympathy for their cause. Wallace, despite his racist leanings, somehow sees himself as better than violent bigots. But he also is being politically practical, not condemning the violence, just not wanting it displayed in public. But, Lingo, to stress the local Sheriff’s uncontrollable hatred of African Americans, tells Wallace that even if Elvis Presley and Jesus came back and told Clark to be nice to the blacks he would beat them both and put them in jail. Then, astonishingly, he says that Clark is an okay person, but has been aggravated by outside influences. Apparently the bar for constitutes a good person is pretty low for Colonel Lingo. Then a dark strategy sanctioned by the state is proposed. Lingo says that King will be released and is going out of town to a rally elsewhere. Lingo received information from Hoover about a march at night where it will be easy to terrorize the local blacks so they won’t want to cause any disturbances in the future. Since Hoover is aiding the segregationists, the racial bigotry is not just local and is here abetted, ironically, by the FBI, who are supposed to enforce civil rights laws. Wallace realizes that with King not there and the demonstration being at night, the press won’t be around to generate that “drama” that will expose the ugliness of what these two are planning.
The next scene, which is one of the two most brutal in the film, shows the authorities not warning the night marchers to disperse, but rushing toward them and beating them. They pursue them, as if they were hunters, going in for the kill. Some of the African American protestors try to lay low in a restaurant, but the troopers rush in and brutally beat them, including one man and his mother. When the man, Jimmie Lee Jackson (LaKeith Stanfield), tries to resist, a trooper shoots the unarmed man to death. This horrible event is followed by King meeting with Mr. Lee (Henry G. Sanders), Jimmie’s grandfather, to offer his condolences. Lee says that Jimmie promised that Lee would be able to vote before the old man died, something that he already had the right to do when he was a young man himself. The movie wants the audience to see that the fact that there has to be a battle with fatalities to attain what is obviously just is truly unbelievable.
King asks in an impassioned speech, “Who killed Jimmie Lee?” He lets nobody off the hook. He answers his question by saying that although one trooper pulled the trigger, the guilt is shared by the law enforcement officers in general who terrorize minorities. So are the politicians who create an environment that feeds “on prejudice and hatred.” He also incriminates white preachers who are supposed to stand for morality and do not protest these crimes. And, he also blames blacks who don’t fight with their brothers and sisters in trying to overcome this violence against other African Americans. King suggests that they all contribute to a climate that permits tragic crimes such as this one to take place. He notes the death of President Kennedy, and the recent assassination of Malcolm X, to point out that there have been deaths of those at all levels of society due to the struggle for equality. He says that they will continue to fight for what Jimmie Lee died for. He promises to go to Washington to tell the President that his administration caused the death of Jimmie Lee by spending millions of dollars every day for a foreign war in Vietnam, while lacking the “moral courage to defend the lives of its own people here in America.” King here accuses the Federal Government of hypocrisy because its image as a protector of democracy is a sham if it doesn’t ensure liberty in the homeland.
In a strategy meeting discussing the voting rights abuses, King says they need to be specific about what they want done. Unfortunately, the list of obstacles is daunting. The poll taxes exploit the poverty of people, and there is an exorbitant provision that makes an individual pay back taxes for the years one wasn’t registered. The voucher system requires an established voter to vouch for the prospective voter. In many instances, there are no black registered voters, so it’s impossible to get someone to vouch for a black citizen. It’s a sort of Catch-22. The chain of linked impediments to prevent African Americans from voting makes prioritizing what to attack difficult. First, it is difficult to get someone to vouch for a black person. Even if that were accomplished, overcoming that hurdle would only allow admittance into the court house, where a poll tax must be paid, followed by the publication of the name and address of the person trying to register, and which eventually could lead to that person’s death at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan.
King meets with Johnson again and says he is planning a march from Selma to Montgomery to “amplify” the need for a change in the voter registration process.
Johnson says that King’s tactic will put his marchers in danger. King again is negotiating, putting pressure on the President, hoping he will push for voting rights legislation. Johnson, however, is a stubborn and willful man and does not like to be manipulated.
We get a quick cut to one of Johnson’s advisors, Lee White (Giovanni Ribisi), where he tells black leaders working with King that there are credible threats against the civil rights leader’s life, and he shouldn’t be on the front line of the march. Later, Johnson says he wants to talk to Hoover and we know that he is ready to try to undermine King by getting Hoover to release information implicating King in extramarital affairs. These scenes emphasize that there is an inherent danger when one challenges an entrenched system fortified by appealing to the darkest impulses of human prejudices, and that even the President will compromise his morals to maintain political power.
Hoover sends recordings anonymously to King. The audio tapes have sounds of two people having sex. King and Coretta say they know that it is not him on the tapes. But she knows that there were other women with whom her husband was involved and asks if he loved any of them. King’s extended pause before answering is an admission of guilt about his affairs. He is honest with her and says he never loved anyone else. Coretta, crying, admits that what really shakes her are the threats of death to her family, which foreshadow what is to come for her and her husband.
There is voice-over conversation detailing plans to march from Selma to Montgomery, and, again, the exchange sounds like it comes from FBI recordings which, while telling of the strategy of these civil rights leaders, also reminds us that they were constantly being monitored by obstructive forces within the government. There is a cut to Wallace saying there will be no march because it will be disruptive to traffic, his excuse for trying to shut down any demonstration that will be covered by the national press. On the protesting side, strategies are discussed about closing ranks among the marchers and not having all of the civil rights leaders arrested at the same time. They even do role playing to prepare for confrontations with the local citizens. The participants are told that non-violence is not “passive” but instead is quite courageous, indicating that standing up against violence offers a higher moral alternative. The SNCC member John questions his fellow member James for saying King is just grandstanding for himself since he isn’t there in Selma right then (he feels he must be close to his family at this time after his talk with Coretta). John says that the people of Selma want King to lead them, and he will march to Montgomery. We learn that John is John Lewis who has become a leader in the civil rights movement for decades. The local cops, standing literally in the grass roots of the rural white areas, advocate the usual states’ rights call to keep outsiders away from their local domain. They basically are telling the Alabama residents to maintain state sovereignty, that point seeming to be more important to them than just doing what is right. The back-and-forth cuts give the impression of two armies preparing for battle. The effect is to ramp up the tension for the film audience.
In place of the FBI narration we now get a reporter’s description of the marchers as we see these people carrying supplies as they begin their historic journey. The press is there to deliver the “drama” to the American public. Both the FBI reports and the coverage by the journalists add a feeling of accuracy to the proceedings and lend weight to their significance. The state troopers are waiting for the marchers, along with local white spectators. The music combines strings, which seem plaintive reflecting the plight of the protesters, with drums, which provide marching rhythms, indicating the act of the demonstrators, but which also sound ominous. A policeman warns the protesters that their activity is illegal, and tells them to go back to their homes or their “churches,” which is a subversive way of introducing a comforting religious element while also threatening to end the march. King and his companions find justification from religious texts for their efforts, while their adversaries use religion to back up their opposition.
The troopers will not agree to any discussions to prevent violence. They put on gas masks and helmets and charge into the marchers in the other horrific scene in the movie. They knock people down, gas them, and beat the protesters with clubs while on foot and on horses. One uses a whip, a reminder of how slaves were brutalized on Southern plantations during the time of slavery. John Lewis receives a head wound but leads people back to safety. The white spectators cheer the troopers, using the “N” word and displaying the Confederate flag, showing that for them the Civil War continues. The event is broadcast to millions on television, which shows what a sad situation it is that people have to be brutalized before progress can be achieved. The reporter notes that Lewis said he could not see how President Johnson could send troops to Vietnam but not to Selma, implying that the country says it is fighting for freedom abroad while allowing tyranny to exist at home.
While some blacks look for guns to fight back, Young warns them that they don’t have a chance against the firepower of the troopers. One black man quotes the Old Testament about how it preaches “an eye for an eye.” The thrust here is that religion, which, as was shown, can be a source of inspiration for those who want to do good can also be perverted to promulgate violence. Young counters by saying, “I ain’t talking what’s right by God. I am talking facts, Cold, hard facts.” He says, “We have to win another way.” Young tries to temper the understandable desire to retaliate against those that have attacked them. He, being a follower of King, knows that they can only fight for their cause against superior numbers and arms by exposing the hatred of others while not indulging their own violent tendencies.
King returns to Selma and says that they will walk again over the bridge that leads to Montgomery. In front of the reporters he gets the word out by saying that responsibility for the hateful violence inflicted on the “unarmed” (important word, which would not have its sympathetic force if guns were used by the protesters) people of Selma must be shared by all citizens if they let injustice and repression to continue. King uses the situation as a rallying call to recruit all races to join their nonviolent army.
We again have a voice-over which accompanies shots of people leaving their homes, the images backing up what is said by Fred Gray (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) as he tells Judge Frank Johnson (Martin Sheen) that many white people, most of them from the clergy, are coming to Selma. Gray, representing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, is trying to get a Federal court order to stop the state of Alabama from interfering with the marchers. Judge Johnson says he will not overturn the state mandate without proper proceedings that are scheduled, unfortunately, after the date on which the march is to occur. There is an attempt here by the civil rights movement to prevent violence despite its pragmatic “drama,” but not to the point of rescheduling the protest. The civil rights leaders probably don’t want to allow Wallace the chance to have the court rule in his favor.
President Johnson fumes about all of the protesters he is witnessing outside the White House who are probably increasing due to witnessing the beatings in Selma shown on the TV. White advises the President to allow the march. Then, the Selma event will be over, and he will be in control again. But, Johnson worries that the divide over the civil rights issue in the country is getting too extreme. The President wants both Wallace to call off his “hicks” and King to cancel the march. If they don’t cease what they are doing, he says, “I’ll stop them both.” Johnson is caught in the middle between these opposing forces because he does not want to take a side. But, the opposing forces are increasingly not allowing him to stay on the sidelines.
Assistant Attorney General Joan Doar (Alessandro Nivola) meets with King and Young and asks them not to march. King, who knows how to speak intelligently and persuasively, tells the man that Doar should talk with Wallace and Sheriff Clark about stopping their violence instead of trying to prevent “a peaceful protest.” Doar wants to make a deal to postpone the march, and says the President will back King down the road. Although not stated, King knows he must use the forces that have already gathered and keep up the momentum, or it will dissipate with further delays. Instead, he simply says that those that have gathered want to show their “dignity.” He puts the responsibility on the Federal Government by saying that Johnson can end all of the tensions with “a stroke of the pen,” by securing voting rights. King’s stance, which is politically impressive, is that his way is the only just way, so there is no alternative course of action for him to choose. By taking the higher moral ground, King is saying the President must take responsibility for any violence that results from the peaceful protest if he is not willing to do the right thing.
Many white people of different faiths are welcomed by the black leaders in Selma for the march. One man, James Reeb (Jeremy Strong), a clergyman from Boston, tells a reporter (the film emphasizing the importance of the press) that he traveled there because he heard King’s call to help “innocent people” being denied their “rights.” The point stressed here is that differences in creeds and denominations don’t matter when people are being oppressed. King says to those assembled that despite the government of Alabama and the President not wanting them to march, they must do so because of their “moral certainty.” Although holy wars have been fought based on self-righteous “moral certainty,” King ties his quest not to forcing others to think like him, but instead to have them gain a say in choosing their own paths. The loss of freedom is what he wants to “overcome.”
There is a shot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge (dedicated in commemoration of a Confederate soldier, the name adding more sodium chloride to the African American wounds). This structure is a literal expanse they must cross, but it also takes on symbolic meaning. It can represent the challenge for those who seek justice and freedom to endure, despite the danger, to vanquish those that preach (in a demonic sense) hate and the violence that is the expression of their bigoted rage. They march as a version of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” plays, which emphasizes the deadly control that rulers have over their citizens (as you Game of Thrones fans have seen). The troopers unexpectedly withdraw. It seems like a victory, but King is unconvinced. He kneels, and the other marchers follow his lead, as it appears that they are offering thankful praise to God. King then withdraws from the battlefield.
The movement’s leaders question why King did not keep going. King says that the troopers could have sealed off the road behind them, denying them the chance to get supplies or help. Although not stated, the plan of withdrawing the troopers may also have been to eliminate the media focus on the crossing of the bridge where the police beatings occurred before. James from SNCC says there was no trap and that the only reason the troopers didn’t attack was because there were many white people marching alongside the blacks. In this instance, King decided to forego the publicity generated from racially motivated violence. He was willing to have people be angry at him instead of taking the risk that followers might be injured or killed. He writes a letter to Coretta which voices the pain he feels for asking others to sacrifice for the cause.
His words set up the next scene where white racists beat to death two white preachers from Boston, one of them being James Reeb, showing how hatred once unleashed will target anyone. President Johnson keeps trying to maintain a separation between himself and the civil rights movement. Earlier, he told King that the preacher was an activist with one concern, while Johnson was the national leader who had many issues to deal with. He wants to distance himself from the bigots, but that doesn’t prevent him from yelling at King on the phone. He is upset because King’s rallying of the citizens led to some of them pretending to be on a tour and then staging a protest within the walls of the White House. King wants to make sure Johnson realizes he can’t escape the injustices. By influencing the American public with his acts and powerful words, King has been increasing the political pressure on Johnson, wanting to show Johnson that it is the President’s struggle, too. King tells the President that he can stop the unrest. He was elected President only four months prior by the largest margin in U. S. history, and he has the power to change things. King does not buckle under, but keeps advancing his efforts as he tells Johnson that he is “dismantling” his presidential legacy by dragging his feet on getting the voting rights bill passed.
King rides in a car with Lewis and tells him that Johnson won’t act. King is feeling dejected, saying protests aren’t enough. He is expressing feelings of defeat. Lewis now takes a turn inspiring the one who inspired him before. He says he was among a group that was attacked by whites that grabbed anything they could get their hands on to use as weapons. A little girl gouged her nails into Lewis’s friend’s face as the girl’s father beat the man, showing how the poison of hate is passed from parent to child. But, Lewis says that King gave him hope in a speech that declared they will not give up and will triumph. Lewis realizes that King must hear his own words so that he will continue the fight.
The civil rights movement takes the issue of the right to march to the court presided over by Judge Johnson. Coretta, despite their domestic problems, shows up to lend King moral support. While on the stand, King once again shows his intelligence by effectively arguing that he had to defy the order not to march because there were thousands of people who showed up to demonstrate and he thought if he didn’t let a peaceful demonstration proceed there may have been an unleashing of violent, pent-up emotions, causing harm to both sides. The judge decides in favor of letting the march take place because he says that the enormity of the wrongs against the people protesting far outweighs Alabama’s argument that a peaceful march will disrupt traffic. The judge is basically telling the state of Alabama that their argument is ridiculous given the circumstances of how the demonstration is to be conducted and the reasons for it taking place.
Wallace meets with Johnson, and the difference between these two types of Southern gentlemen is contrasted in this scene. Wallace tells the President in a snide, passive-aggressive manner that it’s Johnson’s “responsibility” to stop “malcontents” from disrupting his state. Johnson comes back at Wallace by saying the protests are about voting in his state and how his people are being treated. Thus, he says, “that’s your problem, your responsibility,” (using Wallace’s own word). Johnson points out that Wallace has always wanted to help the poor, so why is he going “off on this black thing?” Wallace shows his prejudice by saying that “you can’t ever satisfy them.” As if it’s too much to ask for someone to have the same rights as any other citizen. Wallace sees blacks as not deserving of sitting at the front of the bus, occupying parks, being allowed to be in the same schools as whites, getting the right to vote, and having an equal opportunity to get a job. Johnson says that they can go out in front of the White House and get rid of the protestors. That way, Wallace won’t have to worry about the President drafting invasive legislation if Wallace just declares that the blacks will be able to vote in Alabama. Wallace agrees that the law of the land states that African Americans have the right to vote, but he has no legal control over county registrars. Johnson knows that Wallace is just being obstructive since the Governor has the political power to influence what happens in the counties. King’s line about worrying about his legacy hit home with Johnson. He questions what will people think of them in 1985? Wallace reveals his narrow way of thinking by saying he doesn’t care what they will think of him. Johnson does, and he shows his contempt for Wallace when he says, “I’ll be damned if I’m gonna’ let history put me in the same place as the likes of you.”
Johnson addresses Congress. He says he is there for “dignity” and “democracy.” Referencing Selma, he says “there is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.” Johnson has embraced King’s proclamation that everyone is responsible when injustice occurs. To make sure that the Constitution is enforced, Johnson says he is sending a bill to Congress to strike down all restrictions to voting in every kind of election in the country. He then echoes King by saying, “we shall overcome.”
Assistant Attorney General Doar urges caution for King since he fears for the preacher’s safety. He says he knows that King wants to live to witness the fruits of his labor. His words are, of course, tragically ironic, since King reaches the height of his influence only to be assassinated in a few years. King looks wary, saying he must not hide even though he may not be able to see the results of his actions. Of course, we know he will be killed at a young age, and this scene is especially sad.
The movie’s final march alternates with the footage of the actual events, merging the real story with the cinematic one. King gives a speech about the lies of bigotry that proclaim the white race as being superior to the black one, and that deny the truth about how people are entitled to the same rights. Notes at the end of the movie inform us of how Andrew Young and John Lewis excelled in public service. Wallace ran unsuccessfully four times for President, and was paralyzed in an attempted assassination. Sheriff Clark was defeated because of the black vote in the next election, never to hold that office again. But, in the midst of King’s hopeful speech there is a reminder of how deadly hatred can be. Viola Liuzzo, a white woman, driving marchers back to Selma, was murdered by Klansmen five hours after King’s speech. Coretta continued her husband’s legacy, and never married again. Five months after the Selma march, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, with King at his side, the two finally joined in a righteous cause.
At the end of his speech, King asks “when will we be free?” He says soon, and that God’s truth keeps marching on. Many may still be asking whether freedom is safe from jeopardy, and must continue to be defended. There are those that are fighting for truth, because they believe it is currently under siege. The film’s Oscar winning song “Glory” notes that these wars are still being waged.
The next film is The Last Picture Show.