Podcast

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Selma

Welcome back! It’s been a few years since we did a movie checklist, so let’s get right to it...
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. pressures President Lyndon Johnson to pass new voting rights legislation, but when Johnson, advised by Lee White, refuses, King’s SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) takes control of a SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) voting drive in Selma, Alabama (previously led by students John Lewis and James Forman) and begins nonviolent demonstration designed to trigger a violent response. Johnson has J. Edgar Hoover release a tape of King’s adultery to King’s wife Coretta, and King has to stay home to work it out with her rather than march with the movement the next day. Lewis and others are badly beaten as that march is broken up. King calls out people from all over the country for a second march, but decides to turn the march back and wait for a court to given them the right to march. They win in court and complete the march. Feeling the pressure, Johnson gives his “We shall overcome” speech and agrees to support the legislation, which passes six months later.
PART #1: CONCEPT 18/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 An activist army and its weary general have to convince the president to commit to civil rights.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
A non-violent army.  The most powerless people in the country bending the most powerful man in the country to their well.  The only way they can win is to find a violent sheriff who’s willing to beat them up.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
It’s like a thousand everyday activist stories, but this was the big one.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
Yes.  It’s not an epic bio-pic of either man.  It’s about the emotional journey the two men go on over the course of a month or so.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
MLK
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
Yes, there’s lots of jumping ahead.
Does the story present a unique relationship?
Very much so: An activist and a president.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
Lots and lots.
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
 Greatest hope: Freedom to vote, general uprising.  Greatest fear: That he will be killed and/or lose his family (which almost happens in an unexpected way)
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
He’s not a very volatile guy on the surface, but we sense a quiet fury lurking under the surface of Oyelowo’s performance.
Does this challenge become something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
Yes and no.  He tells Coretta he wants out, but is he telling the truth?  He fears he or his family will be killed, which certainly makes it hard to want to continue, but not in the sense that civil rights is something he has to come around to.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
Well, only Johnson can solve the problem but presumably only King could have forced his hand.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
Yes.
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre?
Yes.  It’s inspiring, moving, and transporting, with some excruciating chase scenes and violence. 
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
Yes, the three bridge crossings.  (We’ve seen them in documentaries, of course, but they come to life here as they couldn’t there.)
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
Sort of.  The violence, and the revelation of King’s adultery, which most viewers assumed they wouldn’t touch.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
Not really.  Sort of, when King turns back from the second march.   The movie really captures how baffling and disappointing that was, and even when it works out, leaves us wondering if King was playing chess when everybody else was playing checkers, or if he just wussed out and let everyone down. 
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Yes.
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
Yes.
PART #2: CHARACTER 18/22
Believe: Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
Only sort of.  King struggles with his ascot and says “Wait till the brothers back home see me like this, they’ll get a good laugh.”  It humanizes him enough for us to care about him, but we never really have a moment of “Oh, he’s just a normal guy like us” The movie never really pierces that historical-figure-gravity.  DuVernay decides she just won’t bring King down to our level.  It’s an understandable choice, but I wonder if it hurt the movie’s appeal to audiences (or cost Oyelowo his nomination)
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
Very much so.  We never get much backstory at all.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
Inspirational leader.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
Weary, adulterous-but-committed family man.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
He mostly talks in an elevated way, but you get little glimpses of his Southern upbringing:  “Living high on the hog dressed like this.”
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Brilliant, inspirational, steely, weary
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
With allies he keeps them onboard by talking about the future: With his wife: “Look here, I’m going to a pastor somewhere soon, college town…maybe the occasional speaking engagement…”  With Johnson, on the other hand, he rejects all talk of the future and talks only about the present.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
Basically.  We see the horror of the problem in the opening scenes (a woman is turned away from registering to vote, four little girls are killed)  We don’t see these directly provoke him, but we assume that these are driving him.
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
Sort of.  He acts as if he expects Johnson to do the right thing without pressure, but he’s already planning to apply that pressure (“Selma it is”).  His philosophy is basically farsighted and rightheaded from the beginning.
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
Sort of.  His plan is to use non-violence tactics to escalate the violence against himself until he moves the country to outrage, and that basically works, but reversing course at the second march implies that he’s changed course on that plan.  Again, DuVernay really makes us question that choice, even after it works. 
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
Open: that he will fail to force the legislation, private: that he will get himself or his family killed, or his wife will leave him.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
Yes.  A white racist cold-cocks him, the FBI damages his marriage, activists wound him with their criticism.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
We get several flaws, but he doesn’t really struggle to overcome them and the movie struggles with depicting them in a compelling way.  When his adultery is revealed, it comes out of left field and we certainly never see him struggling with staying chaste or anything like that.  Another possible flaw the movie seems to imply is his reticence to use his army, but the movie never really pulls that trigger, it’s just implied but never openly addressed.
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip-side of a great strength we admire?
The adultery isn’t really the flip side of a great stength (he believes in outreach?)  The possible over-reticence is certainly the flip side of his ability to channel the movement in a non-violent path that can win whites over.
Is the hero curious?
Sort of?  He doesn’t really solve any mysteries.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
Yes.  He’s always gaming the situation to his advantage, and using his army in various ways.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
”We negotiate, we demonstrate, we resist.”
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
SNCC lacks his organizing prowess.  Johnson lacks his moral clarity, etc.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
He’s an expert at standing up for himself while still molifying his opponent, whether it be SNCC or Johnson. 
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
Just slightly active: He’s trying to tie an ascot. 
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
He’s the leader of thousands.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
He explains that he’s learned how to antagonize southern sheriffs into violence. 
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 19/21
1st Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?
Yes to the problem: He’s increasingly frustrated with Johnson.  As for the flaw, he doesn’t really seem to be flawed in the first half.  His two big flaws, when they arrive in the second half, seem to come out of nowhere: the revelation of his adultery and his (possibly flawed, possibly not) decision to reverse the second march. 
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
Johnson rejects his call to action.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
He realizes that the sheriff in Selma is the villain he needs.
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
Sort of.  He’s apologetic with Coretta and seems rather weary and unenthusiastic, calling Mahalia Jackson in the night to have her sing to him just to prop himself up.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
He mobilizes his army.
2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
SNCC is pissed that he’s taking over their campaign.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
He doesn’t provoke very much at first.  He tries to keep everybody happy, including Johnson and SNCC.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
King doesn’t really, no, but some of the other activists do. 
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
King is sidelined by the adultery tape and the other activists are beaten at the march he misses while he’s dealing with it.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
He puts out the call for activists from around the country, though he knows he’s putting them in deadly danger.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
Johnson turns on him and has the FBI send the tape to his wife (though it’s never clear if King blames Johnson for this).  Of the two SNCC leaders, he makes peace with one and breaks permanently with the other.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
His new army increasingly demands action.  Johnson increasingly demands he stand down.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
Sort of?  It’s hard to tell.  Is the decision to reverse the second march evidence that he’s learned from the mistakes of the first march, or a blunder that almost wrecks the movement?  DuVernay leaves that open.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
He reverses the second march.  That night, one of the white northern priests who’s disappointed by the decsion (“He owes me a return ticket”) is killed while waiting for action in Selma.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
Sort of.  He doesn’t frame it as changing his mind, but rather tries to explain his decision as a tactical retreat.  But nobody really buys that he hasn’t reversed himself.
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
Sort of.  He commits to doing it in the courts, but the movie certainly doesn’t portray that as “what he should have done all along”, but rather an avenue that opened because of everything he had done so far. 
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
He’s proactive throughout.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
They’re given a court date they’re not ready for.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
Sort of.  The whole movement marches across the bridge together, but Johnson isn’t there, and King isn’t at his speech.  (He was at Johnson’s side at the bill signing, but that isn’t shown.)
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
The victory seems to assure King that he made the right decision in turning back.
Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)
Johnson certainly shows how much he’s changed with his “We shall overcome” speech.  Has King changed?  He’s certainly wearier and bruised, and feeling more guilty about the deaths.   We see onscreen graphics telling us what happened to everybody. 
PART #4: SCENEWORK 17/20: King meets with Johnson in the Oval Office to try to get him to commit to a new Voting Rights Act
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
Johnson has a pre-meeting with Lee White which opens with him saying, “Aren’t we done? Are we not done with this? Will this ever end?” White says, “Hammer home that impatience only hurts the overall cause.”
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
Not really, it begins when King arrives.  The scene does cut down what was probably a 45 minute meeting to 4 minutes, but the cuts are pretty seamless. 
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
What could be more intimidating than than the oval office?  They do end up sitting down, but they get up a lot for various reasons.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
Well, they’re both planning to have it, but Johnson makes clear that he feels he has something better to do (the War on Poverty)
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
No.  A little bit with Nobel talk, but that’s really part of the meeting.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
Not really, other than the fact that any president is going to be sparing with his time.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
Yes, the plot is established and they both get emotional, albeit about in contained ways. 
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
DuVernay keeps us on King’s side.  We’ve seen a victim that will be helped by voting rights, but not anybody that will be helped by the War on Poverty.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
Very much so.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Surface: Johnson wants to falsely convince King civil rights is a priority for him, though it has to wait.  Suppresed: He wants to shut King up.  He also calls out a third conflict: He wants to make sure King stays the leader of the movement and not Malcolm X.
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
King calls it out. 
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
As two southerners, they were raised to repel and fear each other, but they each suppress that.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
Johnson offers King a job in his administration, by which he would actually silence him. 
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
They re-block quite a lot.  At the beginning Johnson shakes his hand and puts a hand on his shoulder while pointing out, “I’m a tall son of a bitch” Later, when he’s making his big pitch to King, he crosses the room and puts a hand on his shoulder.  “I want you to help, help me with this…This voting thing is just going to have to wait.”
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
Johnson gives him coffee and King takes it but doesn’t drink it.  Johnson tries to hand King a folder with the War on Poverty program but King doesn’t take it.
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
Sort of.  They both do what they expected to do but didn’t want to do.  King leaves and tells his people, “Selma it is”.  We don’t see Johnson’s reaction but we soon realize that he just continues stewing about an irritation he wishes he’d taken care of. 
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
They each wanted to move the other to join their side but each fails.  Johnson tries to quiet King down but riles him up. 
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
The plot is launched.  What will each man do to persuade the other?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
It ends a little early on King saying “Yes, Mr. President, I understand,” The implied question is “Does he really?”  Then it cuts to King saying “Selma it is”, answering that question.
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
We worry that Johnson will crack down on the movement or King, as he does later. 
PART #5: DIALOGUE 14/16
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Very much so, even George Wallace gets a little.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
To a certain extent.  King sees almost everything, but not quite.  Coretta sees the value of Malcolm X more than he does.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
Well that’s tricky.  Our hero is pretty saintly, but of course there is the issue of his adultery. 
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
Again, the adultery comes to mind.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
Johnson and King circle around each other.  Johnson and Wallace have a conversation in which each avoids saying things they wouldn’t say.
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
A little.  “Well, technically—“ “—Technically, we already have it, yes, Mr. President.” Later: “That’s insanity—“ “—Just like you left in Albany, those people are pathetic down there, just like their Daddy left home—“ “—Hey, what we’re trying to explain is—“ “—You know what I think?  Maybe we should just leave Selma”
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?
”We negotiate, we demonstrate, we resist.”
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 Johnson:
Metaphor family: Texas
Default personality trait: Folksy but intimidating  
Argument strategy: Flatter, make vague promises, then change the subject. 
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
As I said, a 45 minute meeting is boiled down to 4 minutes.  Being denied King’s speeches gave the filmmakers more freedom to whittle them down to 2 minutes each. 
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
Not really.  King is not overflowing with personality.  And of course, it’s hard to have more personality than the real Johnson.
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
There’s lots of “Well, Mr. President,” in the political meeting.  There’s less in the movement meetings but they have to do it to a certain extent so we know who the historical figures are. (“John, James, the way our organization works…)
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
Well, you can add presidents and preacher (people used to being listened to without interruption) to the professor category here.  The other characters speak simply. 
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
They’re all three-dimensional.
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest or primary emotional partner?
Yes.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
The recent history of the movement is not delivered until SCLC and SNCC are fighting about it. 
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
The tape scene, certainly.  Johnson and King, on the other hand, never really lay into each other.
PART #6: TONE 10/10
Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning?)
Historical drama.
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
Civil rights.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
Social progress, great speeches (though the King speeches had to be faked, due to his family’s attempts to sabotage the film)
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
Weighty.  Very little comic relief.
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
We see the woman denied the right to register and so we build to the moment when she’ll get the right to register.  We see the marchers turn back twice and look forward to them making it. 
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
Showing the woman fail to register to vote and then showing the little girls killed (which had nothing to do with Selma) establishes these. 
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
Various characters are killed by racists. Malcolm X is killed by his former allies.  James Forman lets his pride and lack of team spirit compel him to abandon his campaign.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
The killing of the girls creates fear of more killings.  The mention that King has just abandoned an unsuccessful campaign creates fear that that will happen again. 
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
Johnson certainly has a big verbal reversal when he says “We shall overcome”, but there’s not really a physical behavior that reverses (such as refusing to shake King’s hand and then shaking it, or anything like that.)
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
Onscreen titles about the characters voting.
PART 7: THEME 13/14
Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
Be moderate (work together) or be immoderate (take a righteous stand). 
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
Yes, White says, “Hammer home that impatience only hurts the overall cause”  Is that true?
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
Very much so: Johnson is choosing between using his political clout on anti-poverty programs or civil rights.  King is choosing between winning over his enemies or keeping his allies.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
It’s a true story.  It shows the adversarial nature of change.  (According to DuVernay, more so than in than the original script)
Does the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting (Is it based more on observations of this type of setting than ideas about it)?
DuVernay, whose family is from Selma, claims that she added this element in her uncredited rewrites (the credited writer is a white British man)
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
Very much so, then and now.  Common does the final song and mentions Ferguson.
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
The movie avoids charges of hypocisy by being honest about the hypocisies of both King (in terms of his family life) and Johnson.
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
The world is changed by both King and Johnson.  King and Coretta never really have a rapprochment to show their marriage has changed, but we can tell from their body language.  It’s unclear if King blames and/or forgives Johnson for the FBI tape.  And of course the movie frequently taps into our knowledge that King will eventually be killed.   
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?
Do many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic dilemma?
Every character has to make a moderate vs. immoderate choice at some point. 
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
Well, the tape is exchanged, but just once. Words are passed along: “We shall overcome”
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimate irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
Moderation works, this time, but we sense that DuVernay thinks other methods might have worked, too, and maybe we still have severe problems today because the movement was too moderate.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
Yes and no.  For Johnson certainly.  For King, he tells Coretta at the beginning that his whole goal is to wrap this up and settle down to life in a college town with “maybe an occassional speaking engagement,” and he certainly doesn’t achieve that.  But it could be that King was lying to Coretta about wanting to settle down, in which case, he unironically achieves exactly his initial goal.  (Of course the fact that Johnson hurts his marriage is certainly not something he planned on)
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
The tension with SNCC and with Coretta is mostly left unresolved.  It would be great to see a sequel. 
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
Nope.  Both King and Johnson give big speeches summarizing the meaning.
Final Score: 109 out of 122

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