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To be honest, I frequently have a hard time understanding America’s problems with facing its own history, and particular issues such as slavery or racism related to this history. Is it really so difficult to discuss the dark sides of one’s own country’s past? I know Japan and China have trouble doing this, but why the US? Is it a matter of being ashamed for what the parents or grandparents did? That is what I do not understand – guilt is not inherited, but responsibility is. If my grandfather committed crimes in war or was a KKK racist, there is no reason why I should be shamed into shutting up about it. The only reason why I personally should be ashamed is if I failed to speak out against war crimes or racism in my own family, or on a larger and systematic scale in my nation, my people, my country or whatever collective concept you apply. I should know better, and I should speak out!

I am writing this because last year’s “Twelve Years a Slave” and now “Selma” both triggered strange reactions among the American public. Whether the word “nigger” could be used in a film about that time, whether it was justified to merge some timelines into something half-fictional in order to create a structure better suitable to a film. Both films showed violations of human rights and dignity of such a massive dimension that it is stunning that not everybody talks about why this past has not been more thoroughly processed.

In the case of Selma this is young history, very young, and seeing how law enforcement treated peaceful protesters on the edge of the backwater town  that gives the film its name is as chilling as the atrocities we can see on tv today that happen in some war ridden African state (a chapter of US history that I suppose every American knows, but most non-Americans have not heard of unless they are specifically interested in US history). The courage of Martin Luther King and his allies is impressive, but to me the most stunning aspect was to learn about the vicious violence law enforcement and government utilised against the protesters and the unadulterated form of racism and a concept of racial superiority on display, and publicly. There is not a very big gap between this behaviour and attitude and the other racially motivated mass oppression and mass murders of the last centuries.

As a film, I felt … how to say – less disappointed than by other biopics, mainly because the topics and events on display were well and intensely directed. The explosion of violence at the first march from Selma made my blood freeze, and was one of those moments where a film should bear a sticker saying “warning: contains scenes that will make you very angry. Very!” I guess that a documentary about those events would have stirred the same emotions in me, but with the rather well chosen cast of mostly not-too well known actors I enjoyed watching the dynamics unfold. I did not make any connections with those characters’ real-life counterparts, because other than the US president I did not know any of this personnel. I only learned in the closing credits about their respective importance and fate, but they were still credible as a bunch of people that happened to be there when a well-crafted moment in civil society history unfolded, choreographed by the mastermind of public relations instinct that apparently King was.

The Kermode / Mayo programme and some others mentioned an important quality criteria for a biopic: do not try to cover the whole life, but focus on one incident of relevance. “Selma” did this very well, with an outstandingly credible lead actor David Oleyowo and competent directorial skills. I am still not a huge fan of biopics in general, but this one was better than I expected it would be.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/selma/

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