Here are the million dollar questions.
If you criticize this film as a work of art, what are the odds you’ll be branded a RACIST?
If you question the premise that the acquisition of voting rights has resulted in greater self-determination for the black community, what are the odds you’ll be branded RACIST?
Survey says….100% CERTAINTY!
Though it may invite this kind of condemnation and censure from the online masses, I’m going to do both of these things.
By and large, it’s a decent film. It’s certainly not without flaws and just like King and his legacy, the themes and ideas at its core deserve closer scrutiny.
What’s good about it is its unflinching portrayal of the acts of violence and intrusiveness carried out by agents of the State as well as the manipulative and racist attitudes of who wield state power. I’m honestly surprised it doesn’t make libertarians out of everyone who watches it.
I also think that it buckles from the weight of the subject matter. It suffers from a certain turgidity. It’s a film so certain of the moral righteousness of King’s insistence on acquiring of political power that it feels like a psychological truncheon. It has a faint air of propaganda.
The film is focused on King’s three month campaign to secure voting rights for blacks culminating in the signing of 1965 Civil Rights Act. It is unambiguously black and white in its portrayal of the events and individuals involved. Up until the hamfisted Hymn to the Glory of Government ending, the various government agents and politicians are portrayed in a relentlessly negative light.
Aside from the controversy over the portrayal of the negotiations between Johnson and King, these aspects of the film seem accurate.
The film sets the tone in the first two scenes. Oprah Winfrey plays Annie Lee Cooper dutifully reciting American civics questions to a cruel bureaucrat. He is solidly intent on making life as difficult as possible for her while she attempts to register to vote. The following scene portrays a group of girls enjoying one another’s company at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama until their lives are tragically and abruptly cut short by a violent explosion.
From there, events are demarcated by log entries made by FBI spies who are monitoring events and phone calls. The film is letting us know that the roots of the surveillance state are deep.
The scenes of King’s private negotiations with Johnson portray him as a callous and calculating politician. He’s more concerned with his agenda than the war zone that’s happening right under his nose.
Martin Luther King Jr.: We need your involvement here, Mr. President. We deserve your help as citizens of this country. Citizens under attack.
President Lyndon B. Johnson: Now, you listen to me. You listen to me. You’re an activist. I’m a politician. You got one big issue. I got a hundred and one.
One could argue that little has changed.
Hoover exhibits the kind of black hearted malevolence which seems befitting of his legacy.
J. Edgar Hoover: Mister President, you know we can shut men with power down, permanently and unequivocally.
The scenes of police brutality are harrowing and realistic.
On the flipside, the film seems doggedly determined to present King as a paragon of unambiguous virtue, restraint and composure. No matter how much brutality the movement faces, King makes a consistent appeal for non-violent resistance. When tensions are frayed, King exhibits a paternalistic gravitas which immediately calms all overheated emotions.
The film makes an attempt to present the flaws in King by hinting at allegations of infidelity, but they are largely are glossed over.
Despite the soaring speeches and appeals to democracy, it feels leaden.
The grand contradiction that’s seemingly overlooked is that his appeal to non-violence was completely at odds with his desire to acquire political power. Blacks acquired the political power he sought. But has this elevated the ranks of the black population in the way he hoped?
On the one hand, the terrorism and violence is less overt and severe than it was in that period.
On the other, one wonders whether the right to vote has enhanced black self-determination or thwarted it.
As events in Ferguson and Baltimore attest, having access to the vote did not forestall these crackdowns. In fact, the vote has arguably created and exacerbated the conditions which allowed for these incidents. Black politicians lent their support to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 which contributed directly to the militarization of the police, expansion of the prison complex and the swelling of the ranks of the police force. Public subsidies for housing and government initiatives have only entrenched racial segregation and economic stagnation.
The vote hasn’t prevented many other manifestations of state repression of the black community either.
Government police brutality against blacks remains prevalent. Incarceration rates remain very high. Compulsory public schooling has simply created a bridge to the state prison industrial complex. For black youth, labor force participation is down and unemployment rates are up.
Despite the grand intentions of the Great Society to elevate the ranks of the impoverished, one wonders whether government welfare has created upward economic mobility for blacks or kept them mired in poverty.
King openly equates voting with self-determination, but says nothing about economic self-determination. Have blacks achieved greater economic self-determination as a consequence of the ’65 Act or in spite of it?
Unfortunately, the grand failure of this film is that it seems only to buttress the current narrative around racism. In other words, that there’s no distinction to be made between state violence, arbitrary acts of unprovoked violence by private citizens or racist attitudes and speech. By today’s logic, the latter is the sole cause for historical and current acts of violence regardless of whether they are carried out by private individuals or police officers. As perverse as it seems, we are now living in a time where speech itself is conflated with violence. The whole phenomenon of microaggressions and the policing of speech is built off the ridiculous premise that being a self-appointed arbiter of “anti-oppression” affirms your progressive bona fides. This contributes to the delusion that being an obnoxious authoritarian will prevent the next Dylann Roof or improve the quality of life for blacks or [Insert oppressed group of choice].
Let’s just take the case that every act of white on black violence carried out by police officers is a product of racist attitudes.
Why isn’t anyone questioning why the police departments around the country seem so overloaded with racists?
Why is it that the social justice cops of the progressive left are dispensing idiotic lectures about “white privilege”, but are supporting the candidates who advocate for the very police state that continues to terrorize the black community in ways that are every bit as brutal as those carried out during the era in which the film is set?
Doesn’t this affirm Hayek’s argument that the “the unscrupulous and uninhibited are likely to be more successful” in the ranks of government?
The other big disappointment of the film is that it perpetuates the myth that our humanity and basic ability to treat one another with decency and respect as well as our freedom to live self-determined lives is somehow fundamentally tied to the machinery of government.
What a sad and self-defeating message it is to assert that we are so inept as a civilization that we must prostrate ourselves before a collection of elites with guns in order to achieve moral outcomes.
The film ends with King delivering a soaring speech and cuts to the various individuals who went on to serve in seats of government power.
Due to intellectual property laws, the filmmakers were unable to use King’s actual words. Perhaps this artistic license lent itself better to perpetuating the myth that politicians and civic leaders who seek social change through the power of the State have the power to create real racial harmony and economic prosperity.