I’ve written and talked quite a bit lately about misleading trailers. You know the kind I mean: trailers that are cut in a way that studios think they’ll put audience butts in seats, but in the process misrepresent the tone or even the real subject matter of the movie that the people attached to those butts are actually going to see. Usually I consider this a bad thing because it often winds up with dissatisfied audiences leaving the theater saying things like “well that wasn’t at all what I thought it was going to be” and that becomes the over-riding take-away from the movie instead of thoughts on the movie they actually saw. Plus, it means a lot of times that the people who would actually enjoy the movie as it is are not seeing it because they didn’t know what was really on offer.
None of which matters to the studio most times though, because what they’re really concerned about is that opening weekend box office and being able to plaster “our movie’s #1” all over tv screens the next week, even though they know that there’ll be a new number one the next weekend and it’ll be whatever’s opening big.
It is, of course, a trend that’s going to continue, no matter how much I complain about it, nor how much it actually results in audience dissatisfaction.
All of which is, as you might guess, leading to a huge “on the other hand…”.
On the other hand, there are times when I actually hope that the trailer is misleading, and that the movie is going to be different than what the trailer depicts, and that’s the place where I find myself with this trailer for the upcoming movie Selma.
Why? Because if the trailer really is representative of the movie, it’s going to lead me to express a sentiment that I suspect is going to prove somewhat unpopular and that I can only hope will be taken in the spirit it is being offered.
First, though, I suppose I should give you a chance to watch the trailer so that we’re all on the same page:
Okay, that seems straightforward enough, right? The film is about the civil rights movement and the stand which was taken in Selma, Alabama in 1965, which was led by Martin Luther King, Jr. All of which is fine, right?
Well, yeah, it is. Except for one thing. And I’ll admit up front that this is going to be in a way an unfair criticism because it addresses what I wish the movie were going to be about as opposed to what the film makers want it to be about, an approach that I usually try to avoid, but which seems pertinent in this situation. Plus, it’s going to seem like I’m criticising a movie before I’ve actually seen it, something that is generally inherently unfair, but really, what I’m commenting on is more general than just this movie, it just happens to be the touchstone or flashpoint for what I’m about to say.
Now, according to Wikipedia, “The film is based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by James Bevel, Hosea Williams, and Martin Luther King, Jr. of SCLC and John Lewis of SNCC.” And of those four names, there’s only going to be one that most people recognize, and that’s Dr. King. But that’s exactly the point: by focusing its attention solely on Dr. King (or actually on the conflict between King and President Johnson), Selma once again, as is so often the case, makes it seem as though the civil rights movement was mostly a one-man show, and those other names, the other leaders of the marches and those in other places as well, become simply footnotes or “and also…” types rather than garnering the respect that they, too deserve.
Even more, by putting its focus almost solely on Dr. King, this movie takes away not only from the necessary support and prominence of these other leaders, but from the incredible importance of the common people, those people who put their very lives on the line alongside those leaders to stand up for their rights and for the rights of others. The civil rights movement was not just one man, it was thousands of people taking a stand, thousands of people saying “this is not right”, thousands of people marching in the streets, facing down authority figures and demanding that they be acknowledged and be given the same rights and freedoms as those afforded their fellow Americans.
Yet even when the trailer does acknowledge the presence of those other people – “It looks like an army down there” – the focus almost immediately goes right back to and features almost solely, an image of Dr. King. For that matter, take a look at the poster above and its tagline of “One dream can change the world” with the back of Dr. King’s head the only thing of prominence, while all of the other people who had a role in making that dream come true are relegated to the far distance and become merely a mob.
It really makes it seem as though the push for equality, the push for acceptance for all people to be seen as created equal, the push for justice, was only the dream of one man, as opposed to the dream of hundreds of thousands who lived under the oppressive system which was accepted as the norm at the time. As though their dreams really mean very little in comparison to his.
There are actually two reasons that this disturbs and disappoints me. First, as noted above, it takes away from the inherent importance of all of those other people who also took a stand for the cause. Secondly, and perhaps just as importantly, it makes it seem as though without Dr. King as a rallying point, the movement could not have taken place. Why is this a problem? Because it also makes it harder for any kind of true grass-roots movement today, any kind of fight by other groups today to realize the potential of people coming together and speaking with one voice, the vox populi, the power inherent in those thousands willing to take a stand to fight for whatever they believe in, to feel that they can move things forward, to feel that they can make strides simply by coming together and demanding that they be given attention, that they be heard. It takes away from the idea that the real power of a revolution or even a smaller and simpler drive for reform does not need to be centered around one man and his dream, but around the power and dreams of many people, the power and dreams of people who see the need for a change and are all willing, again, to put their well-being and even their lives on the line for their convictions.
Simply put, it takes away from the recognition that the civil rights movement was exactly that: a movement of many people, and that progress on so many fronts can only be made by the same kind of movement. A movement is not one man, and while I certainly acknowledge that a movement needs leaders to give it focus and direction, to keep it on track and make sure that all those voices are pointed in a way in which they will be heard, that’s just it.
A movement needs not necessarily one leader, but many. it needs leaders. Plural.
But again, by focusing seemingly solely on Dr, King and making those other names – James Bevel, Hosea Williams, John Lewis and so, so many others -supporting players and turning their voices into merely background noise, it does a disservice to all of those others who took a stand, who were beaten, who died. They all had dreams. They all had voices. They all fought the fight. But they all remain largely unknown.
And that is a true shame. And it’s why I hope, as I said at the start, that Selma, the movie has more to offer than what we see in the trailer.
- The Contenders: Selma (hammer-museum.ticketleap.com)
- First Trailer For Martin Luther King Jr. Film Selma Is Here & Yes, Oprah Is Brilliant! (perezhilton.com)
- SELMA Film Trailer Directed by Ava Duvernay (rollingout.com)
- First trailer for Martin Luther King biopic ‘Selma’ marches in, and it’s tense (mashable.com)