Connect Care Commit: Selma

Why it might be hard to identify with MLK:
  • He never really has that “I thought that person was waving at me but they’re really waving at someone else” moment. We never break through his monumental edifice. It’s hard to take a figure like King and say, “No, he’s just like us, folks!”, and the movie opts not to do that. It has to get us to Connect, Care and Commit without asking us to fully identify with him.
Connect
  • He starts out giving his Nobel speech, then we see that he’s practicing in a mirror and getting annoyed by his ascot. “Wait till the brothers back home see me like this, they’ll have a good laugh.” Prep moments always help us connect.
Care
  • He talks about his retirement but we know he won’t get to do that. We then get intimate glimpses of the horrors he’s fighting: We bond with four little girls talking about hair before they get blown up, then we experience the indignity of Annie Cooper being turned away from voting. (“How many county judges in Alabama? Name them.”) LBJ subtly belittles him. We get snippets of FBI reports on him. He gets cold-cocked as soon as he arrives in Selma.
Commit
  • He gives a hell of a speech. He bravely confronts the president and refuses to be cowed. We quickly realize that he’s much more cunning than he lets on. “Big speech lined up for these folks tonight, doc?” “We need to see what’s what first, big fella. We’re just here to test the waters.” After he’s hit, he slyly smiles and says to his lieutenants, “This place is perfect.”
Five Es
  • Eat: He lets LBJ pour him some tea or coffee, but he doesn’t drink it.  He later sits down for a good meal when he arrives at a volunteer’s house. 
  • Exercise: Never. I think it would have been good to see some, but it might have been ahistorical to include it.
  • Economic Activity: No, we’re never sure where the money’s coming from. We never see him preach to his own congregation.
  • Enjoy: We get to see from afar him playing football with his kids in his yard, but we’re with Coretta who is upset while watching them. I’d rather be there with him as he does it. Later, he calls Mahalia Jackson and asks her to sing to him, but he doesn’t really seem to enjoy it. We find out from Hoover halfway through King’s been committing adultery, but the movie never shows us that onscreen.
  • Emulate: He feels like he’s playing dress-up when he wears an ascot to accept his Nobel.
Rise above
  • His job is saintly, so it’d be pretty hard to rise above it! There’s certainly never an “I quit” moment.
High five a black guy
  • Not an issue.
Kind
  • He is goodness personified (or seems to be until we hear that tape), but there’s not really a moment of him doing a specific act of compassion to a specific person.
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Selma: The Archive

Awful quiet around here these days! Nevertheless, I’ll have a new book annotations on Sunday, I think. In the meantime...
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Rulebook Casefile: Two Final Rules from Selma

We’ll move on after this, but I wanted to pause to point out that Selma has excellent examples of two more of our old rules:
Have One Touch in Each Dialogue Scene: The opening scene between MLK and LBJ begins with a handshake and aggressive shoulder grab, at which point they sit down and begin their meeting. After they really start their conversation, there is one more touch, and it’s a classic example of how the one-touch rule works.

This is a classically constructed scene: two fully humanized characters with justifiable points of view both want something, and they’re each confronting the other determined to get it immediately. In this case, each is the idol of millions and used to getting his way.

King sits down to make his case, and Johnson sits to listen for a while, then gets up when he makes his counterproposal, goes over to get his War on Poverty proposal from his desk and tries to hand it to King. When King refuses to take it, Johnson instead leans over and touches King once on the back as he says, “I want you to help. Help me with this.” King instead stands up to make his point more emphatically as Johnson backs off to listen. Things end there, with them both standing, at an impasse.

Obviously, in film, the blocking is more up to the director than the screenwriter, but it’s still good to indicate one touch in your write-up of each scene. In prose, you don’t want to spend too much time on blocking, which is up to how your reader pictures the scene, but again, it’s good to indicate that one touch, which is a simple way to show the crux of the scene.

The Hero Should Have Three Rules He Lives By: All heroes need special skills, so that they’re not just reacting the way an “everyman” would react. They need to have their unique volatility: Only this hero would have reacted this way to this challenge. That’s why we root for them.

King doesn’t know karate, and he never uses a blowtorch to build himself a tank. In his case, his specials skills overlap with another thing it’s good for every hero to have, three rules he lives by: “We negotiate, we demonstrate, we resist.” He has learned these rules slowly and painfully, over the course of some campaigns that failed and others that succeeded. They are pithy and definitively stated. He will brook no counterproposals.

Obviously, not every great hero has a list of three they enumerate, but many do, and most heroes have a list like this implied if not stated. This fits into another thing most heroes have, a default argument tactic. Heroes should be specific, both so that we believe in their reality and so that we can invest our hopes in them alone: Specific language, specific tactics, specific ethos.
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Rulebook Casefile: Choosing Between Goods is Always Stronger

As I said before, many critics said that Ava DuVernay was unfair to LBJ in Selma, but as Amy Davidson-Sorkin pointed out in “The New Yorker”, DuVernay was actually more than fair in at least one way. I’ll quote Davidson-Sorkin this time:

  • Reading [Taylor] Branch’s account of that period, it is revealing how distracted Johnson was by Vietnam. In the days when the scenes of violence in Alabama should have been his focus, he was in endless meetings with Robert McNamara about a secret order to begin a bombing campaign. “It was this crisis that had shortened his patience for King’s visit from Selma,” Branch writes. There is not much mention of Vietnam in “Selma”; in this, the filmmakers did Johnson a kindness.

If DuVernay’s goal was really to turn LBJ from the co-hero of the movement into the villain, as many affronted LBJ supporters claimed, surely Vietnam would have been the way to go. All she had to do was honestly depict those McNamara meetings. And of course including Vietnam would have been dramatic: Death! Explosions! Great betrayals! Tragic downfalls!

Instead, her Johnson says that he can’t do what King wants because he’s rather use his political capital on his War on Poverty. In a great use of objects to physicalize the plot, he’s actually got his plan in a leather folder and tries to hand it to King but King refuses to accept it and forces Johnson to put it down, literally and figuratively.

DuVernay (and/or credited writer Paul Webb) knows that great drama comes from choosing between goods, not from choosing between good and evil (as would have been the case in a choice between voting rights and Vietnam). Good vs. evil is a no-brainer with a pat solution, but good vs. good is an anguishing choice. Ultimately, of course, we know that Johnson brilliantly pushed through both the War on Poverty and voting rights, but in the movie, it’s a tough call that’s left unresolved, which is always good with a thematic conflict. We like it when a story tips towards one side of a thematic conflict but leaves the question open and not fully resolved. That makes a story meaty.
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Straying From the Party Line: Is King Humanized Enough in Selma?

We’ve talked about grievances harbored by Selma critics, but let’s move on to one harbored by the movie’s fans: Why didn’t David Oyelowo get an Oscar nomination for playing MLK? And they’re right: It’s bullshit. It’s an amazing, deeply nuanced performance. Let’s look at some reasons it was skipped over:

  • First of all, we have to deal with the most obvious: racism from the mostly white Academy. DuVernay didn’t get a nomination either, which is even crazier. As seen in the Maureen Dowd piece I cited last week, a lot of the white reaction to this movie, even from liberals, was nakedly racist. The Academy later tried to make its voting base more diverse.
  • Whenever black people are excluded from anything there’s always the Catch-22 argument: “They just haven’t paid their dues!” DuVernay pointed out that she knew that she wouldn’t get a nomination because she didn’t even know anybody in the DGA. As for Oyelowo, before I saw this, I only knew him as the underwritten sidekick from the British “24”-knock-off “Spooks” (called “MI-5” in America), where he didn’t set off any “future Oscar winner” alarm bells. Neither was “overdue” for an Oscar.
  • But there’s also a far more practical reason: Paramount didn’t send out any awards screeners of the movie. Every movie that has the slightest chance of winning anything sends these out, and the voting body (most of whom are retired) relies on them. Indeed, I had a newborn at the time and I was entirely relying on screeners that year, and I inevitably resented that Selma was the one contender I had to get off my ass and pay for (though I knew I was an jerk for feeling that way.) But of course the real question is, why didn’t Paramount send any out? Was it because they were dismissive towards their own movie for racial reasons? Were they throwing their weight behind another (white?) movie they liked better? I never saw anybody investigate this and I lacked the wherewithal to do it myself (I had a newborn!)

But of course, the movie itself did get a nomination, so enough people got out to see it, so DuVernay and Oyelowo should have gotten their well-deserved nominations. All three of the controversies we discussed last week might have sabotaged DuVernay, but none of them should have affected Oyelowo.

But that leaves the question: Was there anything in the writing that hurt Oyelowo’s chances? Did King go on enough of a journey to satisfy the Academy?

In a piece from the time, I talked about how Hollywood had traditionally told civil rights stories through white eyes, not just for racist and economic reasons, but also because these stories were more naturally ironic: These characters switched sides, which is a longer, more ironic journey.

King, in the movie, definitely uses ironic tactics (trying to trigger violence through non-violence), and he does have a small shift in those tactics when he reverses the second march (after a literal “come to Jesus” moment), but he never switches sides or decides that he was all wrong at the beginning. He’s always in the right morally, and always basically on the right track tactically. We’re hardwired not to like those stories or heroes as much, and not award them as much.

But there’s one last question: Could or should the movie have humanized King more? Should it have brought him down to our level more? I was looking for the opening scene’s “moment of humanity” and the closest I could find was when he’s futzing with his ascot and says “Wait till the brothers back home see me like this, they’ll get a good laugh.” This 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. He never comically trips and falls down the stairs. We never see him practice how a scene will go and then get flustered when it goes the opposite way. He never gets embarrassed when he thinks someone is waving at him but they’re actually waving at someone else.

Should they have done this? Probably not.

The film certainly shows that King was no saint (showing his adultery), but he’s still undeniably great. Except for in that one tape scene, he’s always heroic, a brilliant strategist, justifiably righteous, and just…weighty. Important. He’s Martin Luther King. It’s amazing and overdue that DuVernay and Oyelowo brought that majesty to the screen, but Academy voters prefer heroes that are a little more humble…and humbled.

They decide they 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 and cost Oyelowo his nomination.
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Rulebook Casefile: The Corrected Philosophy That May Not Be Correct in Selma

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.
So King has a quite literal come-to-Jesus moment, abandons his original strategy, and wins as a result. That couldn’t fit the structure better. Real life has delivered DuVernay a perfect structure. But she’s doesn’t seem to be entirely comfortable with it.

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.
For one thing, in both the movie and real life, the real reason Johnson caves is that one of the northern white preachers who came down for the cancelled march (who says in the movie “I for one don’t fault him for it, except he owes me a bus ticket home”) is beaten to death by the Klan. Is that what Jesus wanted? Maybe it’s better that one died instead of multiple deaths that could have happened on the bridge (or, perhaps even worse, no violence at all), but that’s a horrible choice.

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
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Rulebook Casefile: Manufacturing a Bigger Midpoint Disaster in Selma

I’ve talked about how the most common story structure is simply the most common structure for solving problems in real life, so, if that’s true, a true story like Selma should naturally hit our story beats without a lot of fictionalization. And it kind of does, but DuVernay (and it does seem to be DuVernay and not Webb), like most docudrama makers, chooses to magnify that. Is that fair? Let’s see.

The real story does have a natural “Big Crash / Midpoint Disaster / Lowest Point” for both LBJ and MLK: The first bridge crossing, which King misses, leads to horrific violence on national TV, mortifying Johnson. But DuVernay wants more, so she takes an event that only kind of really happened and inserts it here.

The change involves King’s reason for missing the march. The big crash usually happens because of the hero’s flaw, forcing them to confront it for the first time. The real reason King missed the march speaks to one of King’s potential flaws, but DuVernay created a different reason that speaks to another flaw.

In the true story, King felt he had to stay home in Atlanta and preach to his congregation, so he planned to join the marchers later (There are some suspicions that his father, who was his co-preacher, suspected that there would be violence, feigned illness and asked King to make sure be there to preach.)

If DuVernay had kept this reason, would that speak to a flaw of King’s? Well, it’s a controversial thing to say, but sort of. In fact, DuVernay does come close to making this criticism elsewhere. It’s hard not to notice that King keeps missing the violence: He’s not at the night march where Jimmie Lee Jackson gets killed, he misses the first bridge crossing, and he turns back the second bridge crossing when he sees the cops, disappointing everybody. It feels awful to criticize a man who would soon give his life for the movement, but in this campaign, he kind of looks like someone who is willing to put others in danger but not himself.

But DuVernay decides to bring in another of King’s flaws here instead. To do so, she must do some fictionalization, creating an event that didn’t really happen …but basically happened. In the movie, King is stuck at home dealing with a marital crisis.
It’s true that J. Edgar Hoover was an employee of Johnson’s, and while working “under” Johnson recorded King having affairs and mailed those tapes to Coretta who then confronted her husband. That really happened. But Hoover didn’t really do it at this point in history, and Johnson probably never knew he was going to do it. Hoover was totally rogue by this point, and historians believe that Johnson only kept him on because Hoover was blackmailing him. Certainly, whenever it happened, it was not Johnson’s attempt to stop events in Selma.

This is obviously a big point in favor of the case that DuVernay is unfair to Johnson, but is it really? Johnson should have known this was happening and should have stopped it. It’s only fair to show that the Johnson administration, in the person of an employee Johnson refused to rein in, was viciously attacking King’s marriage, so it’s fair to include that in a movie about King’s relationship with Johnson, even if history has to be rearranged and Johnson’s sin of omission turned into a sin of commission.

And it certainly works in terms of creating an effective lowest point for both protagonists. Johnson hits a moral low point, making his eventual moral redemption more powerful. King suffers greatly, is forced to admit his worst behavior, and feels even guiltier when the problems results in his missing the violent march. (But it is awkward that King’s adultery is neither set up beforehand nor paid off afterwards: We never see him commit adultery beforehand nor refuse to do it afterwards.)

Basically, the best reason to insert this moment is to include King’s biggest flaw and one of Johnson’s biggest flaws into this story, so that the portrait of each man will be more complete and complicated, even if these two flaws didn’t actually play a big part in this particular event. DuVernay is being true to history on a broader scale even if it means fictionalizing this event. I can accept that.
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Before We Begin, Part 2: Selma’s Historical Controversy

Yesterday, we summed up two of Selma’s biggest controversies, but we didn’t touch the big one: Is the movie playing fair in its rewriting of history?

Here’s another damning excerpt from that BBC interview with Webb:

  • BBC reporter: She wanted a film where black people take hold of their own fate. Can you sympathise with that?”
  • Webb: No, because that isn't what happened.

…but I’m being a bit unfair there by taking Webb’s words out of context, which is exactly what we’re about to talking about.

Complaints about Selma’s portrayal of Johnson started early, but then exploded with a “Washington Post” piece by Joseph A. Califano Jr., Johnson’s assistant for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969. Not only does Califano say that Johnson, not King, was the true hero of the movement, he goes so far as to say, “In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea.”  In this view, LBJ literally gave King his marching orders.

Now, as it happens, Johnson bugged himself and recorded many conversations in the Oval Office (a system Nixon would continue to use), so Califano is able to dig up this quote to back his claim up:

  • LBJ to MLK: I think that you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders and you yourself, taking very simple examples of discrimination … [If] you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana, or South Carolina, … and if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio and get it on television and get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it every place you can, pretty soon the fellow that didn’t do anything but follow—drive a tractor, he’s say, “Well, that’s not right. That’s not fair.” … And then that will help us on what we’re going to shove through in the end.

This would seem to prove Califano’s point …but not really. Powerful people have a habit of taking credit for everyone else’s ideas, even the person they’re speaking to. How many times has your boss said to you, “Hey, I just had a great idea…” but then when he’s done you want to respond, “Um that’s the same idea I just pitched to you.” Of course, you’re glad he’s going with your idea, but you have to accept that he’s only going to do so if he can convince himself he thought of it. This seems like a pretty clear example of that.

Califano’s broadside led to a dozen more “think pieces”. The most infamous was from Maureen Dowd in “The New York Times” She complains that someone bought black teenagers a bunch of tickets to her screening, condemns them for talking and texting, then for cursing, oohing and aahing at what they see on screen, then she says, when Johnson tries to mollify King:

  • “Many of the teenagers by me bristled at the power dynamic between the men. It was clear that a generation of young moviegoers would now see L.B.J.’s role in civil rights through DuVernay’s lens. And that’s a shame.”

“If only Spielberg had made his version!”, Dowd seems to say.

Amy Davidson in “The New Yorker” then eloquently came to the movie’s defense in an article called “Why Selma is More Than Fair to LBJ”, marshalling other quotes from the historical record, from Johnson and others, that fit in just fine with DuVernay’s portrayal.

As Davidson points out, the movie actually cuts Johnson a big break, saying that it was his war on poverty that was distracting him from the voting rights act, whereas, if you look at the dates for those weeks, it was actually Vietnam. In the movie (and in some quotes from the historical record) Johnson basically says “I’m too busy helping all poor people to help the black people of the South,” but it would be more accurate for him to have said (though he never would have said it) “I’m too busy initiating mass slaughter of people of color overseas to help black people in the South.”

Finally, “Entertainment Weekly” did the most comprehensive round up for evidence for both sides:

Every docudrama writer has the right and responsibility to simplify positions and reorder events into a more dramatic arc. Because this is recent history, and still an open wound (and possibly because she’s a black woman) DuVernay is being given less wiggle room than most filmmakers get.

So, ultimately, is she fair to Johnson …and, for that matter, to King? Next week, we’ll look closer at how she rearranged and tweaked events to complicate our perceptions of each man.
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Before We Begin: The First Two Selma Controversies

Selma is a great movie, and I’d love to just talk about why it’s great, but as I try to do so, I realize I must first spend a few days, with a sigh, discussing the many controversies that surround the movie, which will eventually turn into a discussion of storytelling choices, I promise. Today, let’s look at the first two of the three big controversies:

Controversy #1: Who Wrote It?

Onscreen, the screenplay for Selma is solely credited to Paul Webb, a white British man. But the movie’s director Ava DuVernay has said:

  • “I wrote that script, and my name was not on it. The credit was taken from me.”

(she doesn’t say if she feels she should have gotten co-writing credit or solo credit).

Webb disputes this, saying

  • “Those claims are highly exaggerated […] The idea, the story, the structure and the principal characters remain fundamentally mine.”

So who should we believe? First we have to acknowledge that there is a long history of directors wanting re-write credit on movies, and writers crying foul, saying that actually originating the script is 99% of the work and the directors shouldn’t be allowed to take half the money for doing what they dismiss as a 1% rewrite. Normally, the Writer’s Guild of America then steps in, researches all drafts, and determines the onscreen credit (and thus the money), but directors often complain that the WGA (which is, after all, not the DGA) is biased against them in this process.

Jon Favreau says that, when he was a screenwriter, he swore that, if he became a director, he would never take the “A Film By [the director]” credit, because those are unfair to the writer, but then he entirely rewrote the movie Elf, or so he claims, and the WGA unfairly denied him a credit, so he happily took a “Film by” credit, as the only way to show that he did more than direct it.

In this case of Selma, we never got to find out what the WGA would have said because neither Webb nor DuVernay were guild members. Instead, Webb had a contract with the producers that said that he would retain sole writing credit unless he chose to share it. DuVernay asked him to share it and he refused.

On the one hand, as a screenwriter, I’m somewhat sympathetic to Webb. This is his first credited screenplay. He says that he wrote a draft of Spielberg’s Lincoln for which he got no credit (that screenplay is solely credited onscreen to Tony Kushner) and through that met Doris Kearns Goodwin whose husband worked for LBJ, leading him to this story. He researched and wrote the screenplay himself, then sent it out where it got “set up” with a number of different director over the years, including Michael Mann and Spike Lee, until finally DuVernay was attached. Why would he want to share credit, and half the money, after all that?

But his claims ultimately don’t stand up, because he’s trying to have it both ways. He tries to claim that she did not substantially rewrite the script, but he also tries to distance himself from the movie’s other controversies by claiming that his script was very different:

  • Webb: She has told the story very well though it's not quite the story she was given. There has been a controversy in the States regarding the depiction of President Johnson so I'll restrict my comments to that issue alone, as it's an issue we can be relatively objective about.
  • BBC reporter: Is the LBJ we see in the finished movie very different from the one you originally wrote about?
  • Webb: Very. I feel Ava reduced Johnson in her depiction to a racist.

So which is it: Did she butcher his script or barely touch it? Basically, it seems like Webb, whose non-WGA contract gave him full control, took a very cynical position. He said, “I don’t like how much you changed my script, so for revenge I’ll deny you credit for making those changes!”

So, for the following pieces, I’ll refer to DuVernay as responsible for the movie’s final creative decisions, simply because Webb seems to agree with DuVernay on that.

Controversy #2: The Speeches

This controversy needs less summary from me because it’s already been well covered in a Vox piece entitled “The crazy reason Selma doesn't use the actual words from MLK's speeches”

In short, King’s litigious heirs ludicrously claim that King’s famous speeches should not be considered part of the public record, but rather their private property, and they’ve already licensed that property to (him again) Steven Spielberg, for a movie that Spielberg seems to be in no hurry to make. This is insane, and, as the Vox writer explains, the studio could and should have contested this bogus claim, but they chose not to because they’re too skittish, knowing that a judge could order all prints destroyed if they lose at any point.

So this puts the writer and/or writers in the unfortunate position of having to paraphrase the speeches, putting their own words in the mouth of this great speaker.  This brings up the question: Do they have any right to make a movie about a guy who is most famous for his speeches if you can’t use those speeches?

The answer is yes. Of course, one reason that the King heirs might want to stick with Spielberg over DuVernay is that they think he’s more likely to make a hagiography (or nothing at all), as opposed to DuVernay, who acknowledges King’s affairs. The Selma producers should have fought harder for the speeches, but, in lieu of that, they had every right and responsibility to go ahead. The King heirs can’t be allowed to use their bogus copyright claims to enforce a sanitized view of their family member.

And the paraphrased speeches, whoever wrote them, are fantastic. Nobody who didn’t have the original speeches memorized would have noticed that the words weren’t King’s.

But this has already gone on quite a while, so let’s leave the third and biggest controversy until tomorrow…
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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 ultimately 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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