I’ve always said that the most common storytelling structure applies to effective stories precisely because it applies to the steps and missteps that people tend to make in solving big problems in real life. Last time we talked about one way in which the true story of Selma fits this structure, but had to be fudged a little to fit in a bigger way. This time let’s look at another place where the movie and the real story match the structure closely, but Ava DuVernay (and/or credited screenwriter Paul Webb, but let’s assume it’s DuVernay) chooses to undercut it.
Usually, the hero begins with a false philosophy, then, about three-quarters of the way into the story, after a spiritual crisis, the hero adopts a corrected philosophy going into the final quarter, which will finally allow them to succeed.
Does that happen in this true story? On first glance yes, very much so. King begins the story with a philosophy that he should use illegal non-violent resistance to trigger on-camera violence by the Selma police, and thus move President Johnson to action. And at the ¾ point, King is leading the movement across the bridge only to be confronted by the police waiting for them, and lots of TV cameras. But then the police step aside, possibly to let them pass and possibly to set up an ambush. King stops anyway, takes a knee, prays, and decides to turn the whole march around and go home. Instead, King pursues the right to march in court, wins, and then Johnson agrees to support the support voting rights after all before the new march can happen.
She shoots the reversal as a questionable choice at the time. The audience is just as shocked and disappointed as his (literal) followers. Even after they win in the courts and complete the march triumphantly, DuVernay never really signals to us that this was the right choice. We’re never sure that King couldn’t have and shouldn’t have won by continuing that second march.
On a larger level, King’s critics within the movement are given strong voices in the movie. He comes to an understanding with one (John Lewis), but not with two others (Malcolm X and James Forman). The reversal seems to back up what they were saying, and their criticisms linger even after the victory.
Is King’s tendency to miss out on the all the violence in the campaign a personal flaw, or a coincidence? As I said last time, DuVernay invites us to ask this question, and doesn’t give us an answer.
This is also where the final song comes in, where Common raps about these events as well as more recent events in Ferguson. This song seems to implicitly ask, “Could King have accomplished more?” Do we still have such horrible problems today because King didn’t push hard enough? Because he didn’t leave behind a strong enough movement when he finally gave his life?
It took forever for a theatrically-released movie about King to be made, and it wound up arriving in an era where protests were turning more radical, inviting DuVernay to be more critical of King’s approach. King’s “corrected philosophy” and subsequent victory fit very neatly into my structure, but viewers don’t leave the theater sure it was correct, and that’s a strength of this morally complex film