selma & gandhi


a film i hadn’t seen when it came out, but was prompted to by some ministry at quakers; this also led to gandhi the following night – a film i’d meant to see but hadn’t

what struck me most was the shocking violence, and the shocking attitudes, which took place (and persist) in the richest country on earth in my lifetime; but also a surprise was the number of liberals, pre-vietnam, who were prepared to travel, demonstrate and risk violence

king’s gandhian attitude of neither retaliating nor turning aside once again had the authorities on the back foot; the scenes with tom wilkinson’s excellent LBJ were some of the best in the picture – the clash between king’s moral intransigence and LBJ’s trying to negotiate, to do deals

for me the intimate scenes of king with family and friends dragged a little, as did the overt hagiography, but perhaps for such a figure the director did in fact show some restraint, and it was nice that he didn’t feel the film had to offer a full biography and include king’s assassination (which spoiled lincoln, and, below, perhaps marred gandhi)


i’d been shown many scenes over the years but never the whole shabang: as selma, the prime impacts are the brutality and stupidity of the south african and british whites, and the determination of the hero to stick to his, er, gandhian principles

as for the film as a film, i did feel that its length (in actual and story time) made for a looser impact – it really is a full account of gandhi’s life from first ‘radicalisation’ to his assassination; the framing of piece with two different filmings of his death is a decent attempt to provide some structural stability, but there is some sagging nevertheless; selma does better here in focusing on one episode – aristotle explains that (using the iliad as a model) good stories make a unity from disparate, episodic elements, whereas great stories take a unity and diversify it – so homer, telling just the story of achilles’ wrath, manages to imply the whole trojan war: does selma in fact cover king better than gandhi gandhi?

How they are related

See above! I’ve got ahead of myself. It’s fascinating how both King and Selma, man and film, are so self-consciously Gandhian/Gandhian.

What enables both men to succeed was noted by George Orwell (somewhere): if Gandhi had been in Stalinist Russia he would simply have (been) disappeared, and that would have been an end to it. What Gandhi and King realised is that governments which extol the rule of law and a free press are vulnerable to anyone keeping to the moral high ground. Western democracies are just as keen as autocracies in furthering their national interest (or, for the cynic, the interest of their governing elite) by violent means, but have to dress up their actions in moral clothes.

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