tn_selmaSELMA is a story about the influential social justice warrior Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Not a biopic, but a movie focused on one specific campaign, a march through Alabama to demand a law to protect voting rights. The importance of this legislation is illustrated by an old black woman who, though clearly exhausted from her shift at a nursing home, and intimidated by the experience of her previous attempts, tries to register to vote. The white clerk says she’s “stirring up trouble,” threatens to tell her boss about it, and gives her an impossible local government pop quiz before gleefully rejecting her. That the lady is played by Oprah Winfrey, who more than a few people wish would run for president, adds a little meta-weight.

At one point SELMA was gonna be directed by Oprah’s friend Lee Daniels, whose combination of talent and insane tastelessness could’ve been a problem for this story. But I think he was responsible for the brilliant stroke of casting David Oyelowo (the snobby reporter Yardley in THE PAPERBOY, the militant son in LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER) as King. Daniels was also gonna have Robert De Niro, Hugh Jackman, Cedric the Entertainer, Lenny Kravitz and Liam Neeson in the cast. I imagine Neeson would’ve been the voice on the phone harassing Coretta Scott King (played in the actual movie by Carmen Ejogo, who also played King in BOYCOTT, and other characters in ALEX CROSS and THE PURGE: ANARCHY).

Oyelowo (who had also worked with director Ava DuVernay in MIDDLE OF NOWHERE) somehow fattened his face to create a surprisingly good likeness. I’m told he just gained weight, it’s not makeup, but how the fuck do they do that? It’s not like his body is real fat, how did they know he’d gain the weight there? Do they have physical trainers that can focus your diet and workout that specifically? Do they use computers?

Anyway he looks great and he gets the voice and cadence down real good. I’ve enjoyed him in other movies but this is the most impressive I’ve seen him. We see King not just at work but also at home, trying to deal with a cooling in the marriage brought on by a combination of separation and by the FBI calling Coretta and playing recordings of him allegedly having sex with other women.

But in my opinion this is not so much a movie like CAPOTE that seeks to give a reflection of a man’s life through the microcosm of a major event. This is more about the event itself. It’s a protest procedural showing a group of people coming together, what their strategy is, what they disagree on, what they risk. It’s a team effort, coordinating various groups toward one goal, and in fact the aforementioned marital troubles prevent King from even attending one of the major events.

mp_selmaWhat’s upsetting about this movie is not just the tragedies it depicts, but how much it reminds us of America today. As much as things have changed, things have not fucking changed. It feels like almost every little outrage that happens in the movie has a modern equivalent. Our worst officials are still bending over backwards to prevent black people from being able to vote, they just do it in the name of partisan politics instead of only racism (and they are no longer encumbered by the Civil Rights Act this movie is all about, since part of it was recently struck down by the Supreme Court on a stupefying “Nah, racism isn’t really a thing anymore” basis). White people still sometimes kill black people and are let off by mostly white juries, but more commonly they are police so they aren’t even facing a jury or being charged with a crime, they just get a paid vacation until things cool down. When this is protested, police are still gassing and beating protesters, still blaming them for the violence, still charging into places like maniacs, terrorizing people for maybe being a part of a peaceful protest. Racist white garbage are still on the sidelines cheering, but more often they do it on the internet instead of in person, and they usually call them “thugs” instead of “niggers,” although sometimes that too.

A friend of mine pointed out that the idea of publishing the names and addresses of black voters in the newspapers  was like what the internet calls “doxxing.” Menacing people just by letting them know if somebody wants to harm them they’ll know where to find them.

I guess the main difference is that white people who follow their conscience and travel across the country to join in the protests just get ridiculed as whiny career protesters or loonies, not beaten to death in retaliation. So that’s progress.

It’s a period piece but it still, partly by skill and partly by coincidence, feels so very of the moment. The music of course is period appropriate (including a scene where the singer Ledisi performs as Mahalia Jackson), but Common (who also plays Rev. James Bevel, a King adviser who started the idea of the march) has an impassioned rap song on the end credits. In talking about acts of defiance he says “that’s why we’re walking through Ferguson with our hands up” and I was actually startled. I’m pretty sure this movie screened before that even went down. But it’s in the movie.

(On a lighter note, thinking of Common’s acting career reminds me of the Ain’t It Cool talkback where I defended his role in the never-made George Miller JUSTICE LEAGUE by calling him “a noted rapper and hat collector.” I can’t find it but I seem to remember some guy going after me for that.)

(And as long as I completely derailed myself here, let me assure you in case you were wondering that yes, Cuba Gooding Jr. does in fact show up briefly, as he does in all historic movies.)

There’s so much more about the story of SELMA that’s so true today, and probly always, I’m afraid. From what I’ve read it’s true that the student group, the SNCC, resented King and his group coming in to protest. According to this New Yorker article, “They felt that they had done the hard work, and then King had shown up and got all the attention. And they didn’t believe in leaders.” Man, that’s every left wing political cause ever. So much infighting. So much letting the perfect be the enemy of the whatever the saying is. SNCC doesn’t want to join the march and then when they do they get mad at King for backing down in one police skirmish that they think they wouldn’t have. It’s so hard to unite for the common good. There’s always gonna be some fuckin drama.

In fact, even Dr. King is shown to not be able to put aside differences for the cause. Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) comes into town and wants to sort of be the bad cop to King’s good cop to help him out, but King’s still mad that X talked shit about him before.

It also shows that even great men are flawed and that this will always be used against the cause. So many leaders seem to not be able to keep it in their pants, I don’t know what it is. That’s always been the rumor about Dr. King, and this movie just lays it down on the table. And if you want an extreme example to be depressed by you can look up what became of Bevel after King’s death. Not pretty. People fighting for important causes are probly not gonna be perfect, and maybe extremely flawed, so the enemies of progress will surely zero in on that and try to ruin them. Make them the story. “Well, Dr. King cheated on his lady, so much for his points about justice.”

I think SELMA also explains the strategy of non-violent protest in an interesting way, explaining things about Dr. King’s methods that I think most people don’t understand. According to the movie, part of the goal is to make the police do something stupid and get that mess on the front page. Expose what the system is really about, put it out in the open, see how long the people in charge can stomach it. It’s very dramatic on a human level, because you can see the weight that puts on his decision making, like a military leader sending his soldiers into battle, taking every death personally. He clearly struggles with bringing people into harm’s way, knowing that being harmed is part of what will change the world. It’s true. It has worked.

That’s why now they always change the story to looting. Zero in on a couple yahoos stealing shit or burning down a store instead of the whole world seeing, as in this movie, a cop slamming defenseless old Oprah on the pavement. That way we can all focus on protecting our property from roving bandits instead of creating a society that respects human dignity. The status quo is safe.

Speaking of which, they’re doing the same fucking thing with this movie. The controversy that has become the big story is that people in the Johnson administration have objected to the portrayal of LBJ as having dragged his feet on voting rights, that he was all about getting it done. The implication I guess is that those silly negroes and lefty white Christians got killed for nothing, they shoulda just been patient. One op-ed also claimed the march was Johnson’s idea. I don’t buy it, but it’s a distraction anyway. While not shown in a glorious light, the President (played by Tom Wilkinson) is not the bad guy either. He’s clearly trying to do good things and he has his strategy, he even attempts to talk sense into segregationist governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), who we last discussed in relation to THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, strangely. But of course the president’s priorities are not the same as King’s.

I noticed that this movie had the most over-the-top disclaimer I’ve ever seen about it being a dramatization of history, not a fucking security camera video of the events as they happened. I wish I had the exact language, but it definitely said something about wanting to “emphatically” stress that it was “not a documentary.” DuVernay knew that somebody would argue about this or that being not 100% what really happened and that would become the story, and she tried to get out ahead of it. But she should know not everybody stays for the credits. I mean, you got a rap song on the credits, of course a guy from the Johnson administration is not gonna stick around.

Another thing not entirely accurate: King’s speeches. In a weird fucking turn of events the estate sold the movie rights to Dreamworks, so DuVernay had to write fake ones. She did a great job though, I don’t think most of us would notice.

I mentioned BOYCOTT before. That’s a really good made-for-cable movie with an excellent Jeffrey Wright portrayal of Dr. King, directed by Meldrick Lewis from Homicide. It focuses on the famous Montgomery bus boycott, which brought attention to racial segregation on buses in Alabama and led to it being declared unconstitutional. But because forced segregation in the U.S. is one thing that really is long behind us, it’s easy for some to think of that as a historic document, a thing of the past. And that was how Dr. King made everything okay forever, don’t worry about it guys.

That SELMA focuses on voting rights I think makes it feel more vital today. The end of the movie gives one example of its immediate effect: the sheriff getting his dumb ass tossed the fuck out the second he had to be re-elected by his actual constituents/victims. As many reasons as we have to be cynical about politics and voting, SELMA is a reminder that it’s the building block of everything else we achieve in a democracy. It’s the closest thing we have to accountability for the people we count on for justice in our country. Forget whether or not your vote for president makes a difference, what if you were in St. Louis County and had to vote on whether or not to re-elect the prosecutor who did the Darren Wilson grand jury and later admitted he put a woman on the stand who he knew was just a crazy person who wasn’t even there? That is the power of voting rights, and that’s why we still have people all over the place trying to get away with voter ID laws, creating unbearably long lines at the polls, etc. You know what, why don’t I go ahead and hold onto the bullets and the ballots.

These people followed their conscience, they put themselves on the line, they were threatened and beaten, some of them were killed, but not to get to the Promised Land. Just to get to square one. Just to get to the part where you try to figure out how to vote the right way to make the country better. And some people even want to take that away.

I hope I’m not making SELMA sound like a lesson or a sermon. It’s a powerful emotional experience, it makes you think, it works you up, but it inspires you. It’s a great movie.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 13th, 2015 at 2:14 pm and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

44 Responses to “Selma”

  1. “Paid vacation”? “Always change the story to looting”?!? Are you serious? Vern, friggin’ wake up and spare us this utter bullshit. Times have changed. Times have changed A LOT. I don’t seem to recall the thousands of protesters filling the streets after the grand jury decisions being beaten or teargassed, perhaps because they didn’t loot anything, break anything, burn anything, or attack anybody. Because, y’know, property damage and violent assault does kind’ve have consequences, whether from the police or somebody else.

  2. When I was a kid growing up in the 90’s I was taught that racism was a thing of the past (thanks in no small part to MLK), that only dumb hillbillies were still racist, the first wake up call I got was on the internet when I saw just how common racist talk was on the net and the whole casualness of it was especially shocking to me, that’s when I realized that no, racism is still a big problem in America and it doesn’t surprise me that it’s been coming to a head in recent times.

  3. Right on, JD. I’m sure all those Ferguson livestreams I watched of people milling and shouting but not much else that climaxed in the police repeatedly demanding all recording devices be turned off before breaking out the teargas were carefully framing out the instigating assaults of Lord Humungus and his wasteland horde.

  4. The one thing that truly annoyed me (then and now) about the Michael Brown incident was how all those people who were so angry about his death ignored the fact that Brown was accountable for his own actions.

    Real simple:
    1.) If you openly shoplift in a store with surveillance cameras, chances are you’re going to be readily identified as the criminal.
    2.) If you leave the scene of such a crime on foot (rather that by vehicle), chances are you’re going to be apprehended by the police.
    3.) If the police do attempt to apprehend you, and you resist arrest, you are asking for trouble.
    4.) Whatever the outcome of your resisting arrest is, it’s ultimately your own fault.

    But for some reason, in the public outcry of the indignant masses, any measure of personal responsibility Michael Brown should have had flew out the window real, real fast. Because Brown was black and the police officer who shot & killed him was white, the officer’s response automatically became a racially motivated act of injustice, and the crime that precipitated it became a moot point.

    One can only imagine what MLK Jr. would have made of the whole sordid business.

  5. I’d imagine he’d be against a kid being shot to death by a cop for no good reason. Just my guess.

  6. SELMA is a story about the influential social justice warrior Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    It is for sentences like these, Vern, that I love you.

  7. Right on cue, JD and Larry. I should add your two comments to the body of the review as an appendix. Larry, do you think you would be supporting this JUDGE DREDD idea of justice if someone in your family was executed on the spot for shoplifting? Personally I think it’s a terrible idea.

    Winona Ryder stole way more than a cigar. If somebody smoked her and left her corpse in the street for hours who would’ve been in HOMEFRONT?

  8. Just remember folks: Amazing Larry is the one who linked to a white supremacist website on the Django Unchained review as proof of some insane point about how PC the film is. That’s probably relevant to his opinions here.

  9. Also, you know why we don’t know what MLK or Malcolm X would’ve thought about Michael Brown and Eric Garner? Because they were assassinated. Because black people who don’t submit perfectly and unquestioningly to authority get murdered at a disgusting rate. We don’t know what MLK would’ve thought of what happened to Michael Brown because they’re on the same list of threatening black men shot in cold blood for failing correctly obey.

  10. The LBJ misrepresentation controversy scared me away from this thing (Yeah, I remain sensitive to historical fuck-ups in biopics.), but I reckon Vern’s closing sentence will punch the Mouth blowup bouncy doll back in the direction of upright ticket-buyership.

    Not worth a response to our white supremacist talkback contingent but I’ll do one anyway:

    1.) I, as a teenager, have openly shoplifted in several stores with surveillance cameras.

    2.) I have left the scene of such a crime on foot, armed with as much an arsenal as the late Michael Brown possessed (nada).

    3.) The security/police did attempt to apprehend me, and I successfully ran away on one occasion but didn’t technically resist arrest on the other occasions.

    4.) Whatever the outcome of my [resisting] arrest[s] was, there was not one hint of an instant of a possibility that involved guns being pointed at me.

    5.) My eyes on these occasions were Snoop-red enough to cause someone to [theoretically/retroactively] describe me as “like a demon.”

    6.) I have never felt at fear of losing my life as a result of interaction with law enforcement officers.

    7.) I am white.

    8.) Every interaction I’ve ever had with a state/county/municipal-level cop has been with a white male cop,

    9.) and every single time that white male cop has been a fucking incompetent asshole hothead dickhead who was obviously picked on in junior high and still thinks the present is an extension of his fanciful misguided re-making of junior high reality redux,
    with the exception of one speeding ticket where I think the patrolman cut me some slack for being a fellow USAA insurance customer.

    And I love cops. I give annual donations to more than one “Troopers Association”s to score that window decal and all that, and yet the 5-0 are utter redneck dipshits in my opinion experience.

    You people amaze/sicken me. What a wonderful nation we could be living in if it weren’t for the racists & retrograde right-wingers who disproportionately overwhelm the voting booths every coupla years.

  11. For a second there I thought Larry and JD were being ironic…

  12. You just don’t get it, Cassidy. JD talked to a police officer for 8 hours on a movie set, so if you have anything bad to say about the police you’re a blind stoner-libertarian-anarchist.

  13. Let me try to respond respectfully to you, JD, without flying off the handle like I tend to. When I saw that the very first response to this review was so angry, I thought jeez, only I could make a pro-Martin Luther King piece be controversial. I still got it!

    But the truth is it feels really shitty when I start arguments like that. It stresses me out. I want to make people happy and I know I can be wrong about many things, but also I want to stand up for what I think is right. I say this not to say that you shouldn’t get mad at me, but because I want you to know that I’m not trying to stir shit, I don’t get off on conflict. I’m instinctively a peacemaker most of the time.

    So when we’re at odds like this I wish I knew how to discuss it and try to understand each other. But I have to come back to the argument we had before where you said that anyone who said the police were militarized was a crazy moron (or whatever specifically you called us). You have to understand that from my perspective, that’s like saying “anyone who says that record stores are dying out is a fucking dipshit who has no clue what they’re talking about.” Because the militarization of the police is a trend that we all have watched happen over our lifetimes, it is widely discussed and, until you denied it, I would say undeniable. So it is just a bizarre and befuddling stance that you’re taking there.

    Then, a day or two after we had that argument it was a big nationwide front page story that yes, the tanks and other equipment being used in Ferguson and other cities were literally military surplus. There were stories about how much of this stuff is out there, questions about why it’s necessary or how well trained they are to use it, and about politicians who were looking into possible legislation to limit its use and availability. I decided I would be nice and not rub your face in it, I figured obviously you saw those stories and I didn’t want to say “ha ha, I told you.”

    And then a couple weeks later you insulted someone else over that point! I just don’t know how you can possibly be sticking with it. So how can I think we could discuss any police issue and get anywhere with each other? We’re not on the same planet on this stuff. We both think the other position is insane and indefensible and I don’t see either of us budging. So of course you don’t agree that getting months of paid leave for killing unarmed citizens is more of a paid vacation than a punishment. And how could we even get into the $300,000 bounty raised for Darren Wilson online, and partly funded by the actual Ku Klux Klan! I would be crazy to know or discuss that documented fact.

    I forgot until the above comment that your history with the police has to do with working with them on movies. I did seem to remember saying you were not in law enforcement, and was trying to figure out where your bias comes from on this protest thing. Let me restate where mine comes from: it’s from watching and participating in peaceful protests over the years and seeing with my own eyes how these things can go down. I think I mentioned some of it before. I haven’t been in anything near the worst ones but I have seen how it happens and I have experienced what it feels like to be looked at as human garbage by platoons of angry dudes with guns wearing armor. I’ve never been at one that included looting or serious vandalism but I’ve seen many with tear gas, batons and crying women being dragged across pavement for questionable arrests.

    The way it generally goes down – and this even happens in SELMA – is that after a violent police riot gets in the newspaper, or after it happens a few times, then the mayor or somebody makes them calm the fuck down and then the next protest is policed the way it should’ve been in the first place and everyone praises everybody for a peaceful protest. In Seattle they’ve wised up after years of WTO and Iraq war protests and usually skip the first part, they just use bike cops for protests and then everything is fine.

    But from what we see in SELMA, maybe this is a clever ploy by The Man, because maybe protests that go smoothly and peacefully don’t affect anything.

    Anyway, I wonder if you’ve ever seen a police riot in person. If you have then it sounds like the ones you’ve seen have been drastically different from mine. Just take my word for it that there are many police riots that have nothing to do with looting or assault by protesters.

    I also want to defend my writing. I think I did enough to make it clear that I’m describing what I think is a common impression of what we’re going through today. I say that it “reminds” us of today. Please note the “As much as things have changed” before the “things have not fucking changed.” And the next sentence begins “It feels like.” Of course there has been great progress. But I and a large chunk of this country have been watching these recent events with a broken heart. These tragedies have been kicking us and telling us “don’t be naive, things have not improved as much as you like to think they have.” SELMA shows us, whether by design or not, that alot of the problems of yesterday have just evolved into different incarnations.

    I’m speaking for me and for many other people but of course I’m not speaking for you. I am 100% sure that if a police officer pulled a baby’s leg off on live TV and started sucking on it and I said “that kind of bothered me when he did that thing to the baby” you would be red in the face scolding me about my militant anti-police stance. And don’t try to deny that bud because you know it’s true.

    I appreciate that you still come around and we can talk about other things without butting heads, but I hope we can some day figure out how to be fight brothers on this cop stuff.

  14. Larry:

    Police don’t get to kill people because they shoplifted or sold loose cigarettes on the sidewalk.


    That’s why now they always change the story to looting… That way we can all focus on protecting our property from roving bandits instead of creating a society that respects human dignity.


    We’ve made a lot of progress, we obviously have a ways to go. Some of us are trying, some of us need to try.

  15. Bless you for trying, Vern, but you really shouldn’t have to argue with these guys. They’re either too young to know any better or they’ve been fucked up politically so long ago that they’re beyond help.

  16. What does it take? What does it take to change the essence of a man?

  17. So long time reader first time poster. I’ve never really felt the need to post until now because I take issue with a couple things in the talk back and review. I also love your righting but have found my self irked about your political views increasingly becoming focal points in your movie reviews movie reviews

    I take issue with the view it seems like too often the view that any one who thinks they got what they deserved is some redneck piece of shit racist conservative. Well I do not call my self liberal because I do not like labeling one self when it comes to politics because it backs one in to a corner of this is the view your supposed to have I’m sure as shit not conservative. The majority of my views lean left. I also probably much to my dismay have many more interactions with the police then the lot of you. I’ve been arrested twice. One of these arrests was felony drug possession of weed, coke, and Oxycontin with the intent to distribute. I faced jail time of 4 to 7 years and spent $15,000 to keep my ass out of prison. I also have on 4 occasions well not been arrested been subdued and detained by the police due to my enjoyment of PCP like drugs and becoming the crazed drug up guy in the middle of the street causing a commotion. I have literately had an entire pile of police on top of me more then once. Every time by the time the drugs wear off I’ve been in a good amount of pain for a week or so after because I’ve gotten my ass kicked each time. The point is I am no friend of the cops. I actually hate them to be precise.

    Now for my view of the events Garners death was not justified. That being said the officer should not be prosecuted. He was using a move that was tough to him in academy with his black supervisor watching the altercation. He was yelling “I can’t breath” which right there means he could breath since he was talking. If he was not over weight he would not have died. Should cops be tough and using choke holds? FUCK no! They need to stop that shit right now. I find it utterly ridiculous that they were tough that in the first place and it should be made illegal for them to use one. Unfortunately it’s too late for Garner. Brown on the other hand got what he got and there aint nothing wrong with that. The evidence is too muddled and we aren’t ever going to know what really happened and I hate to say this but in instances like that you have to take the cops for what they said. I really don’t see how people can think that in the middle of the day in the middle of the street the cop though “I’m going to shoot this nigger” with out any provocation at all and “I’m going to get away with it”.

    I think the issue is not a black issue but a class issue. A white homeless man gets shot and killed in Arizona. They just indited the officers almost a whole year after this occurred. It took them what, four and six months for Brown and Garner? They had the whole thing on camera and it’s plane as day they should have so don’t get in to “well look the white guy gets killed and they indite.” Like I said earlier we’ll never know what really happened with Brown and unfortunately Garners wasn’t illegal when it should have been. We did not see local nor nation wide protests. We did not see looting. And to say reporting the looting is trying to change the subject is just wrong. I suppose you think they were just supposed to ignore that shit or I don’t know what you expected.

    I find your usage of assassinated to describe Browns death a little bush league too Vern. No matter what did happened none of the account would warrant the usage of assassinated and is an obvious move of using a word with a very negative connotation to make your side look better when describing the event. Not that murder is that much better if you think that’s what happened but you should get my point.

    Not that we don’t have race relation issues. I feel the broohaha over Star Wars shows this much much more than a lets face it a criminal and a more than likely criminal being killed by the cops. I can say with a straight face that if I had gotten my ass killed in one of my drug induced brawls with the cops I would have been the one responsible

  18. SleepwalkerTexasStranger

    January 14th, 2015 at 9:05 am

    What? They put RAP in this? What the hell? Whoever directed this, will he do a George Washington biopic next and open it with a Megadeth piece about wars?

  19. “If he was not over weight he would not have died.”

    Yeah, it Eric Garner’s weight that killed him. Not the 200-pound man wrapped around his throat.

  20. “I also love your righting but have found my self irked about your political views increasingly becoming focal points in your movie reviews.”

    Also, comments like this drive me fucking insane. How dare you, Vern, use YOUR writing and YOUR website to espouse YOUR views. Why can’t you be more generic and boring like the great writers of our day like Peter Travers and Pete Hammond? Again I reiterate…how DARE you!

  21. Vern’s political beliefs have always been a part of his reviews. I don’t think his writing is getting more political as much as he is responding to troubling and divisive current events and how they relate to the narrative of a film. What I don’t understand is why that is so threatening to some people. I am curios for those of you that feel compelled to attack Vern’s beliefs or defend the officer involved in the Brown incident what stakes do you have in the events and outcome. What is it you are really defending and fighting for?

  22. >What? They put RAP in this? What the hell? Whoever directed this, will he do a George Washington biopic next and open it with a Megadeth piece about wars?

    I know you’re being sarcastic, but I for one think that would be awesome. (Also actually it was a “she” who directed this one). The rap is just over the end credits, so its not like they have King going into a rap battle or something. Actually I thought the rap (where Common name-checks Ferguson) was the boldest and best decision in the movie, which I otherwise thought was a little stodgy and safe. Although looking at these comments apparently its somewhat more controversial than one would hope.

  23. Thanks for your thought, Velivolus. I really think I write about politics way less than I used to back in the day, mainly because I try to avoid getting into these types of debates. For example I can’t remember the last time I did a Vern Tell’s It Like It Is column. But I’ve always been interested in what movies have to say politically either on purpose or by accident of the times. This is why I’m obsessed with THEY LIVE. In fact, this is why I wrote Seagalogy, because ON DEADLY GROUND got me fascinated with Seagal. So of course when I write about an explicitly political movie like this that came out at this time in history I am going to write about this stuff.

    I really don’t like you’re phrase of “got what they deserved.” If you got killed in the situations you described I don’t think you would’ve deserved it, and you make it sound like you did far more than either of these people did. We also got into this debate when it was Trayvon Martin, who did nothing illegal at all and was killed by a non-cop! But in all these cases the bigger issue is how the system lets it happen and how it dealt with it. Obviously I agree with you that they should not be doing that choke hold. Also, when he’s dying on the sidewalk they should try to help him. We need a better system of accountability for police killings, especially when (as in these cases) the victims are found to be unarmed.

    I agree that it is also a class issue. But race is what causes these debates. The Ku Klux Klan did not raise money for Darren Wilson because they hate poor people. I know you have a different point of view, but the vast majority of kneejerk pro-cops-killing-people CLEARLY have a big race problem. If they would do the same thing for a widespread epidemic of unarmed white people being popped off left and right we will never know, because it won’t happen. But yes, it is possible that they’re just inhumane assholes who like to scoff at needless deaths.

    Also, I know everyone says it but that thing about “he was saying he can’t breathe so he could breathe” is such bullshit. If some maniac is strangling a woman and she’s able to cry out for help it doesn’t mean she’s okay. If an old man falls on the sidewalk and says he can’t breathe you don’t say “Well actually, technically you are short of breath. I’m sorry if you’re dying there, pal, but you have used imprecise wording so I will not help you.” And if it’s so obvious that his weight contributed to his death, as all killing-Eric-Garner-advocates love to say, then doesn’t that mean it should’ve been obvious that they were killing him and needed to get him medical help right away? Because he was such a big, fragile fatty?

    I don’t believe I said “assassinated,” I believe I said “executed.” Larry said that it was Michael Brown’s fault because he apparently shoplifted a cigar. He was literally arguing that it’s understandable for police to shoot and kill shoplifters. So as I said, he’s arguing for JUDGE DREDD style execution on the spot for a petty crime. You seem to be implying also that it’s not a big deal for cops to kill a guy if he is a “criminal” by way of selling loose cigarettes. Well no, I don’t agree with it and America has never been about it’s okay to kill people for tiny crimes or for any crimes without trial. Even plenty of right wingers agree those cops should never have been arguing with him in the first place. And how they allowed a beef over selling cigarettes to escalate that way is inexcusable. Even if Garner was not hurt at all, that they allowed this to turn into a fight shows that they are terrible, terrible cops who don’t know how to do the job properly. That the system doesn’t agree is an outrage and that some people are okay with a system that does that is an outrage. If people really want a fascist America with cowboy cops running around shooting whoever they suspect of petty crime then they are the ones taking a crazy extremist stance that they need to defend, not me.

  24. As I said, Sleepwalker, there is a rap song on the end credits only, and it works.

  25. Hey guys,

    i have not much to add to the police discussion, i just wanted to say to vern to not stop putting your opinions in your reviews. Its part of your style and i suspect a big reason for many of us to come here regulary.I find it crazy to review a political movie with clear similarities to the present and not talk about it. Also Vern i found your “Vern tells it like it is” column to be the best part of your website for years. Its sad that you don’t do it anymore, only when you “hulk out” .

    Anyway, another thing that bothers me about this movie is the part about King’s speeches. How on earth can someone stand in public and speak to hundreds of people and his words then be tied up in some copyright bullshit. This stuff changed policy, this is history. How can something like that not be “public domain” but be tied up for 70 years after the mans death. Its not like it was ever even written as something to be monitized. Copyright can be so stupid.

  26. Mouth is white? Well I’ll be…

    Two years ago when I first started reading Vern I thought you were a girl/tomboy. Then I learned you were a black guy. Now this? Internet I.D.’s are so confusing….

  27. Don’t be silly, Darren. Vern looks just like his picture at the top of the site.

  28. The Original Paul

    January 15th, 2015 at 5:47 am


    “How on earth can someone stand in public and speak to hundreds of people and his words then be tied up in some copyright bullshit.”

    Yeah, that struck me too. What a wild and crazy world we live in.

    I can’t even offer an opinion on the other debate that’s going on, except to say that to us foreigners it regularly seems as though the USA is run by fundamentalists, racists, and corrupt corporate cronies. And yet so many individual Americans that you get the opportunity to talk to online seem like perfectly reasonable intelligent people… I don’t even know how to explain that one. (Given what Griff said, which I’d unfortunately agree with, it’s not as though “just being able to use a web browser and a forum” automatically makes you a reasonable intelligent person.)

  29. Your right Vern “got what they deserved” was a bad phrase. He was the one most responsible for his death would be better. I’ll just always look at it like this though. When you play the game some times you lose the game. They played the game and lost. I think it’s bullshit that a man can’t resell some cigs in the first place just to make some cash so I don’t think Garner should have been “playing the game” in the first place

    Also I don’t know were I got assassinated from when you used executed. I would still disagree with it being an execution but I can see how others might feel that way.

    I’ve never heard any talk of tasers in all this. I think this should come in to play with Brown. Did the cop have a taser on him? If he did I think that opens up the debate quite a lot. I just looked it up. He didn’t. I think every cop should be forced to have a taser on him and should be the first line of defense for a cop. To see that it was optional for them to have one is wack you.

  30. Velivolus, selling loose cigarettes doesn’t deserve death.

    It’s not a “game” anyone plays, it’s an absurd and disgusting abuse of justice. There were a thousand and one ways that bad cop on Staten Island could have handled Eric Garner. Holding him in a choke hold as Eric keeps saying “I can’t breathe” until he dies is definitely not an acceptable one.

    And the fact that that bad cop is not indicted simply means we live in a world where police abuse and racism is real and has influence.

    Unacceptable. This must change.

    And it will change.

    In MLK’s time, the much worse abusive racist shit that happened in Selma Alabama was “normal” and “just playing the game.”

    It’s not anymore. That’s called progress.

    How did we achieve that change? Watch the movie.

    Likewise, today, there is nothing, absolute nothing, about what happened to Eric Garner that is normal, justified, or acceptable.

    If you see what happened to Eric, and go “that’s not right,” “that’s unacceptable,” if you get angry and say “that has to change,” consider yourself part of what is good in this world and on the right side of history and progress.

    But if you look at what happened to Eric Garner and go “that’s just playing the game,” consider yourself part of the problem. To think that, is what is wrong with the world we live in.

    Choose wisely.

  31. It seems to me that the idea of the police as military-like soldiers has seeped into the minds of the public as the norm. We love our movies with the SWAT team busting in with body armor and high powered guns. Somewhere along the line we all forgot that those are fiction and everyone started thinking this is what the police should be, including the police. I’m not saying movies have led to systemic change in police procedure. I’m just saying, what happened to the idea that cops use their minds a little more than their guns?

    Two aspects of this especially frustrate me. One is that women are still discriminated against in law enforcement and yet they have been proven to be better peace keepers. They can’t rely on brute force and so they develop other skills that serve them better, like actually talking to people. Sure, there are some women who are actually quicker to escalate to violence than men because they feel they have something to prove, or they need to get the jump on an offender, but overall, they don’t resort to the same physical measures. I am afraid that these traits are getting driven out of women as they enter the police force under the current philosophy of a military-style police force.

    The second aspect is the role of social media and everyone living their life on center stage. I think cops should be required to have cameras and I think they should be under the scrutiny of the public. My concern is with how this relates to the current mindset of the cops. Like with Eric Garner, I could totally imagine those cops thinking, “I can’t let this guy make me look like a bitch with all of these people standing around here with their camera phones, ready to put me on the internet.”

    I really, truly believe that we need to move away from the militarization of the police and then something happens like the terrorist attacks in Paris. The police engaged with them in some manner three times before it ended. When I read that immediately after the killing at the magazine some cops were unable to stop them I admit I shook my head in wonder that they weren’t able to stop them by violent means.

  32. I still refer to Common as “noted rapper and hat collector” thanks to you, Vern. Although he doesn’t seem to wear the hats as much these days. But, when he does, it’s a doozy. I remember a few years ago when I saw the first ads for that western TV show he was in and the first shot of him he’s wearing a frickin’ top hat!

    I haven’t seen this, so I don’t really have much to add. The fact that we are still dealing with the things we are dealing with is very saddening to me.

  33. Evidently the Academy doesn’t share your love of this movie, Vern:


    BTW, both Michael Brown and Eric Garner would still be alive if they simply had NOT resisted arrest. They were killed not because they were black, but because they were stupid.

  34. Larry — your baiting aside, I’d really love for us to be able to find some common ground here, rather than just sniping. Here’s the thing: I don’t think anyone would argue that Brown, Garner etc have at least some responsibility in their own predicament. I mean, they could have made better decisions, could have made their own lives and everyone else’s a lot easier. But jesus christ dude, you’re not honestly saying you think that resisting arrest is a crime that warrants death, right? These guys both did stupid things, but they didn’t deserve to die over them, and that’s how they both ended things — dead. No chance at redemption, no possibility of learning from their mistakes and making better decisions next time. Just dead on the ground. If you can’t find it in your heart to at least grieve that people — human beings, with lives, with families, with loved ones, who laughed and cried and probably enjoyed action cinema just like we do — died needlessly and pointlessly, you oughtta take a real hard look at yourself.

    I don’t think the people who killed them are monsters, I certainly don’t think they woke up that morning with the intention of killing anyone, or of getting involved in America’s long, painful conversation on race. I think they, like all of us, are part of a system which still systematically devalues the lives of certain categories of people, and I can’t help but think if the person resisting arrest had been a clean cut white guy, they might have acted differently. Not out of malice, but simply out of that instinctive sense that some people are “us” and some people are “them.” But even if that’s not true, and of course there’s no way of knowing for sure in these two specific instances, neither one of these guys had to die. Anytime someone dies needlessly like that, it’s a tragedy, and I think we rightly ask ourselves “how can we try and prevent this in the future.” Everyone has their own opinion about how we might do that, of course, but I hope we can at least agree that this is a noble goal. I wish Garner and Brown had made better decisions, but you can’t control people’s behavior, that’s why we need police in the first place. But those police represent me, and the represent ALL of the citizens, even the ones who make bad decisions. And even those who make bad decisions cans still be victims. They did stupid stuff, but they didn’t deserve to die like they did. We owe it to ourselves and to the institution of Law Enforcement to insist that they uphold the highest standards possible, and in light of a tragedies likes these –and many more around the country which don’t always make headlines– I think, and I believe, that you and I can both agree that it’s healthy and proper to take stock, to ask some hard questions about why this happened, and if there’s anything we can do to be better in the future. That’s not a liberal position, it’s not a conservative one, it’s simply and purely the position of a person who has empathy and concern for other fellow humans. I think that’s what gets lost here, sometimes, so here’s an opportunity to pull that back into the center of the ring.

    (PS: I wasn’t a huge fan of SELMA either, I found it a kinda stagy and airless adaptation of a story far too interesting for such middling cinema. So there, something else we can agree on)

  35. Mr. Subtlety, they absolutely “woke up that morning with the intention of killing” someone. Or at least the desire, if not intention, to do so.

    I’ve seen this phenomenon up close many many times. Americans driving & marching through Iraqi towns, after “the glory days” of the most violent phase of that particular was over, hoping, begging someone would throw a rock or look at the uniform the wrong way just so the soldier/Marine could react and get a CIB, if not an official kill on his/her record.

    I promise you, cops are doing the same shit, and they’re hoping somehow no one has a clear camera perspective to ruin their tale of faux-heroism. (And that grand juries are too dense to vote for prosecution even if there *is* clear evidence of murder.) And yeah, American cops might as well be soldiers today. They roll in MRAPs and throw unannounced flash-bang grenades in order to bust small time pot-smokers.

    If our right-wing cop-fellating amigos here can provide an excuse for this recent bout of damaging police absurdity —


    I’ll be fucking impressed. We all love a Raylan Givens, but Justified ain’t how the real world works, or should work.

  36. *particular war was over…

  37. Mouth — I don’t doubt there are some cops or soldiers who feel that way. Plenty of civilians too, for that matter. As for these particular LE officers, though, guessing what was in their heads is pretty unfounded speculation. We simply cannot know. What we DO know is that whatever it was, some people who didn’t need to die ended up dead. In a way, it would be comforting to accept that these particular cases are just homicidal nutcases, because that would mean it really is just a “few bad apples.” But I think the more likely scenario is that they were just regular guys, trying to do their job, who are also part of a whole system which subtly pushes people into this sort of behavior. At the very least, they deserve some benefit of the doubt, and its probably not helpful to accuse them of willful murder without any evidence. In fact, this is exactly the sort of thing that could have been productively resolved had there been a trial… oh, right.

  38. Crushinator Jones

    January 15th, 2015 at 4:36 pm

    The literal position of a great deal of the population is as follows:

    “Look, it’s very simple. Cops are always right and if you simply do whatever they say immediately and without question, you’re fine. If you don’t, well, you deserve death. Anyone who has any contact with the cops for any reason should immediately comply with anything they say, if not, you are risking your life and are responsible for whatever happens to you, up to and including being beaten, tasered, or shot. Cops work an incredibly dangerous job (Crushinator’s note: it’s not even in the top 10 most dangerous jobs in America) and must be expected to shoot anyone who might be a threat to them, and that’s ok and acceptable, and if later we find out that the cop was incompetent or mistaken and that the person wasn’t actually a threat to them it’s not ok to feel that the cop who did the shooting should face some kind of punishment for their actions. Cops should be allowed to invade people’s homes, threaten their lives (and possibly kill them), kill people’s pets, throw military flash-bangs designed for use in dangerous hostage situations, and ransack people’s property in order to stop crime. If they somehow end up at the wrong house and innocent people are hurt and/or killed, it’s not ok to question that.”

    “What do you mean we’re living in a police state? Don’t make me laugh, idiot.”

  39. Mr. Subtlety— Yes, I get what you’re driving at. Neither Brown nor Garner deserved to die, and there were poor decisions on their respective parts, as well as among the policemen involved. That’s indisputable. It’s sad and it’s unfortunate and it can’t be changed.

    However, what I cannot and will not accept is how— fueled by the irresponsibility of the American news media and propelled by a great many black people whose anger I think was misplaced— Brown and Garner came to be posthumously regarded as martyrs or (worse) as heroes for the consequences of their criminal actions, with a near total absolution of the criminal actions themselves.

    That perception isn’t just flat out wrong, it is fucked up on every level, and belies even the most remote understanding of basic cause and effect.

    Still, thank you for being at the forefront of cooler heads prevailing here. As usual.

  40. Brown and Garner came to be posthumously regarded as martyrs or (worse) as heroes for the consequences of their criminal actions

    You’re saying they don’t deserve to be martyrs because they weren’t squeaky clean. I don’t think anyone thinks they were squeaky clean. If you took someone marching St. Louis or New York aside and made them aware (if they weren’t already) of how flawed and screwed up these men were, they wouldn’t leave the march. They would simply acknowledge and accept, not deny, every single one of those crimes and bad behaviors, and keep right on marching.

    Because that’s not the fucking point. The point is what the POLICE did to these men. Do you understand? You’re depicting the complaints we have inaccurately.

    fueled by the irresponsibility of the American news media

    You are suggesting no one would be outraged if the media didn’t show what happened a certain way. “Look, this news anchor said what happened with these words, not these words, therefore this is the only reason everyone is angry.” Basic knowledge of what happened is all that people needed to get angry, because the basic facts are enraging. A cold, clinical, court room reading of events is all that is necessary to be morally greatly outraged.

    Are you suggesting that the media NOT cover outrageous events like this front page, top of news cast? When a policeman unnecessarily murders a person this should be buried on the bottom of page nine in the newspaper and otherwise ignored? That would be real media bias. Because sustained top level coverage of these events is 100% appropriate: they are absolutely horrible betrayals of justice.

    That perception isn’t just flat out wrong, it is fucked up on every level, and belies even the most remote understanding of basic cause and effect.

    Find the video of Garner, and watch it. He’s angry at being detained for selling loose cigarettes and he’s mouthing off. The bad cop, inexplicably, chooses to choke him to death, while he continually complains he can’t breathe. (If that video didn’t exist, what would that cop say about what happened?)

    Please, educate us: what “remote” understanding of “basic” cause and effect suggest Garner deserved what he got?

  41. Larry — But surely you believe that the crimes committed by Brown and Garner (including resisting arrest) are almost laughably minor balanced against what happened to them? I mean, they died right there on the sidewalk. That seems to be kind of the important thing here — they committed minor offenses, and were killed for them! They don’t need to be choirboys for us to feel this was a horrible, preventable tragedy, do they? I mean, isn’t the whole point of the justice system that people who commit crimes have rights too? I simply find it baffling that you consider the harm caused by Garner and Brown to be equally important to the harm caused to them.

    I wonder if this isn’t the result of the toxic politicized landscape of American culture more than a reflection of the actual facts. I’m not talking about this board or you in particular, but it seems like any time an issue makes the news, people immediately want to put it in the context of their political views and divide into teams, with their own media narrative. But as far as I’m concerned it’s ridiculous to look at this as a political issue at all. At the base, this case is simply that two people died at the hands of police who did not need to die, and people find that upsetting because we need to trust that our LE agencies are working well to preserve the right and safety of ALL Americans. To the extent that these two tragedies are representational of systemic problems, I think we all feel both a moral duty and a personal investment in trying to change these systems so they work more fairly and more safely. Where’s the politics in that?

  42. Obviously, only a pinko would question authority in any manner, Subtlety. Wait, except commies don’t believe in individuals, just the state. Then you must be a fascist. Only a fascist would expect authority to be strong enough to control the individuals in their machine. Wait, is that right? Dammit, Subtlety, would you fit into your pre-formed box, already!

  43. Crushinator Jones

    January 16th, 2015 at 3:27 pm

    “I wonder if this isn’t the result of the toxic politicized landscape of American culture more than a reflection of the actual facts. I’m not talking about this board or you in particular, but it seems like any time an issue makes the news, people immediately want to put it in the context of their political views and divide into teams”

    I think it’s really depressing that even smart people are still going with the whole “both sides do it” mentality. I don’t know if you think it makes you sophisticated or if the idiot beltway pundits have that much influence on the average person but it’s probably the #1 thing that facilitates our toxic politicized landscape.

  44. I saw this last night, and I thought it was really well done. I’ve always enjoyed it when Vern includes political observations in his reviews, so keep on doing your thing. One thing I liked about the film was that so much of was about hushed, individual conversations between individuals. This made the relationships seem more intimate and personal, and it seemed to me an attempt to make King a real person and not just an icon. I thought the movie balanced the personal drama and historical narrative really well, which is a tricky thing to do.

    After watching Selma, it’s really difficult not to make contemporary connections. I think people here have already made smart and insightful reasons why police killing unarmed citizens is a bad thing. The only thing I’ll add is that, like Mr. Subtlety said, it really is systemic. It, unfortunately, goes beyond these individual people involved in the recent tragedies. One problem is that according to how our justice system is set up, prosecutors, who work heavily with police to jail accused criminals in order to further their careers, are now expected to police the police. It’s absurd to think that a prosecutor, who has spent most of his career allied with the police, is going to want to put criminal police in jail.

    You saw this really clearly with the prosecutor in the Brown case. Instead of clearly presenting evidence in order to get an indictment, he made the unusual move of allowing the jury to sift through the evidence themselves. He also allowed a woman who wasn’t even present at the scene of the crime testify in a way that backed up the claims of the police officer. And, finally, when it came time to justify these actions, he whined about the media for an interminable amount of time. And all of this comes out of a system where we naively expect state prosecutors to go after police officers when they commit crimes. I think one action we can collectively take to prevent these miscarriages of justice is to bring in special prosecutors who do not have a working relationship with the police in cases of police misconduct.

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