SOPHIE MAYER: Selma Songs, or Listening to the Language of Changing Times

‘Day O, day O

Daylight come and me wan’ go home’

 

— Harry Belafonte, ‘Day O (The Banana Boat Song)’

 

In Ava DuVernay’s film Selma (2014), the time’s changing is not marked when President Lyndon B. Johnson stands in front of Congress and the television cameras and proclaims ‘At times, history and right meet in a single time and a single place… Rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Equal rights for Negroes is that issue.’ DuVernay’s changes to the portrayal of LBJ in Paul Webb’s original screenplay have caused controversy in the US, with claims that she undermines the president’s contribution to the civil rights struggle on one side, and claims that she reiterates a familiar white saviour narrative in this moment on the other (summarised by Sam Tanenhaus in the New Yorker) (Click Here). LBJ’s speech, rich in rhetorical flourishes, certainly matters – not least because he ends by quoting the protest movement’s slogan, ‘We shall overcome,’ as he did in real life.

 

But the moment things change – the sense of narrative climax, of release from the carefully-staged spectacle of racism and racist violence – comes in a previous scene where Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his core team are preparing food and clothing packs for the third attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery. A team member ends a phone call and announces that Harry Belafonte will be travelling to the march with Joan Baez, Sammy Davis Jr. and other well-known singers. Amid the folding and wrapping, Rev. Hosea Williams breaks out into ‘Day O’, the call-and-response calypso made famous in the US by Belafonte the previous decade. Wendell Pierce’s baritone – well known to viewers of David Simon’s shows The Wire and Treme – is released for the first time in the film.

 

‘Day O, day o’

 

The whole group, working through the night, responds:

 

‘Daylight come and me wan’ go home.’

 

It is only after this scene that LBJ makes his volte face, telling overtly racist Alabama governor George Wallace, who wants to deny what he earlier dismisses as ‘that which they call a changing world,’ that they should be thinking about 1985, not 1965. Paraphrasing something that King had said to him in an earlier scene, LBJ asks Wallace, ‘Do you want people looking back and seeing you said “Wait” or “I can’t” or “It’s too hard,”’ psyching himself up for his speech to Congress.

 

The ordering of the scenes makes LBJ’s speech a footnote, marking it as belated – and as an adoption of King’s own language, and moreover, his sense of time. The film is punctuated by Oval Office conversations that revolve around the question of time and timeliness, with LBJ and King each trying to bring the other man into his sense of time and history, of the moment, of the need for urgency or patience. Consistently, throughout the film, LBJ is shown as a man behind the times, and King the man of time, the man on time. The third march takes place because a liberal Alabama judge, Frank Minis Johnson, ruled in favour of the estimated five-day march, stating that the freedom to march should be commensurate with the wrongs being protested. ‘And these are great wrongs.’ He hands the definition of time to the African American community, recognising that time itself has been wrong(ed) by white supremacy.

 

‘Daylight come.’

 

In ‘Day O’, traditionally sung in colonial Jamaica, banana pickers sing for their right to define time. They are dependent on their employer’s ‘tally man’ to count their pick and release them from duty. The lyrics begin by identifying and claiming daybreak, and linking it to freedom from labour, and – it’s not a huge extrapolation – from how colonial capitalism reshaped and continues to dictates time, as Jay Griffiths discusses in her book Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time. Responding to the Rev. Williams’ room-filling baritone, the Selma organising committee lay claim to the moment, sounding out the approach not only of a political daylight, but of the right to shape temporality and history.

 

‘I accept this honour for our lost ones’: the film opens with King intoning over a black screen, rehearsing his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Past (our lost ones), present (we then see King reflected in the mirror as he prepares) and future (the speech he will give in the subsequent scene) are crystallised in a single moment. It’s not only in verbal language that the film commands time, but in a film about an orator, verbal language does take unusual precedence.

 

Yet DuVernay also cleverly shows the inadequacy of speech without action, the lack inherent in the rhetorical performances demanded by the white colonial world, when she cuts from King’s Nobel speech, retaining his voice as a sound bridge, to a scene of a group of African American children running down the stairs of a church. What the film conveys as simultaneous is what King may be remembering on the Nobel stage: the bombing of the 16th Street church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. ‘Our lost ones’ are present throughout.

 

‘Me say day me say day me say day O.’

 

Throughout the film, King’s public speeches are shown as precursors to community action, the inverse of the passive-aggressive evasions of the president in his office and also of the deterministic use of language by the FBI. Typescript, white letters on the background of the colour image, frequently interrupts the film, accompanied by the explosive sound of typewriter keys or a ticker-tape news transmitter rattling off the timestamps of surveillance on the King household. King’s time belongs to the state, and this is what he, and the film, push against.

 

There are only four instances of slow motion in the film, all of them recording moments when violence by white men has a traumatic impact on bodies shown in close up: in the aftermath of the explosion in Birmingham, as body parts float across the screen; when white police officers knock down Annie Lee Cooper outside the Selma courthouse; when Viola Jackson sees her son Jimmie Lee shot at point-blank range in a diner; and when a white priest who participated in the second march is stomped to death. The toll of racist violence, rather than being presented through the hyperactive editing associated with spectacular violence in American cinema, is slowed down and brought close to us.

 

Sound is used to similar re-orienting effect. The first attempted march, from which King is absent, is reported by New York Times reporter Roy Reed. As the march sets out, we see Reed in a public phone booth in Selma, reading copy down the line to his editor in New York. His narration – sometimes on screen, sometimes in voice over – punctuates the march to the Edmund Pettus bridge, and the violent confrontation with the troops led by Colonel Al Lingo.

 

But there are also glimpses of Reed on screen behind the barrier set up by the troops, desperately angling to see the action. His report infuses the action with the urgency of live reportage, but takes place in the aftermath; it’s another brilliant use of verbal language and its intervention into time, so that we hear and see the march and its aftermath at once. We’re told that 70 million Americans are watching the march on their television news: Reed’s narration picks up on this live and immediate mediatisation, while trusting in the power of the voice to work with the image.

 

If ‘the power of sound to work with the image’ could be a definition of cinema, then ‘speaking in time’ could be a definition of poetry: from rhythm to a sense of history, poetry is an art of timeliness, and is open to the possibility of reclaiming time, as King’s oratory was. At the Montgomery courthouse, at the end of the third march, King delivers a climactic speech that draws on the call-and-response of Baptist services:

 

‘When will we be free?

Soon and very soon’

 

King repeats that resonant phrase declaring the immanence of the future. Not originally part of King’s speech, ‘soon and very soon’ is the chorus of a 1978 hymn by Andraé Crouch (who won an Academy Award for his compositions for Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple [1985]). Its incorporation by the filmmaker salutes African American artistry and film history, and brings together times and places of black liberation: earth and heaven; 1965, 1978 and 2015; Montgomery and everywhere.

 

What can we learn from this as poets who want to speak with time, with our time, and with the histories and futures condensed into our time? Perhaps my favourite moment in a film exquisitely concerned with the density and intensity of the moment is a very small decision by actor David Oyelowo (King) and director DuVernay. It comes at the end of an early scene in which we’ve witnessed the tension between King and Coretta Scott King, foreshadowed by a scene in which J. Edgar Hoover tells LBJ he can undermine King’s campaign by going after his family. When Scott King accepts that her husband is going to Selma, she retires to pack his clothes – but King pauses in the doorway of the kitchen after he turns the light off.

 

The brooding aura of surveillance is palpable: a man whose time is not his own, fighting for a moment in which to own himself. The film takes time, pauses in the doorway – on the precipice – with King, staying on him as he lifts the phone receiver and phones a sleeping woman. DuVernay plays with audience expectations based on the FBI’s case against King (the film later acknowledges that he had extramarital sex) – and turns them. This middle of the night call is made to singer Mahalia Jackson, known as the ‘queen of gospel.’

 

There are several cross-cuts between the Jackson and King households as she sings ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’, famously King’s favourite song. Jackson frequently sang it at civil rights rallies, and would sing it three years after the events of the film at King’s funeral in 1968. The imposed boundaries between the personal and political fall away; the personal crisis of faith is connected to the public declaration of politics, and vice versa, as the song acts as a sound bridge – its final notes strafed by FBI typewriter ticker-tape – over King’s arrival, the following morning, at the house of Richie Jean Jackson. The two Jacksons were not related, but the song brings them together within the civil rights movement, just as it brings us over the gulf between night and day.

 

‘Me wan’ go home.’

 

In the opening scene of the film, King muses to Scott King on his dreams for the future: to be the pastor in a small college town, spending time with his family. The fantasy is not presenting dripping with historical irony, but as a symbol of the power and necessity of imagining the future. ‘If tomorrow was called off…?’ asks the assistant district attorney before the second march. The film constantly works, in an almost science-fictional way, at this ‘what if?’ question: if King hadn’t pushed for the Selma to Montgomery march, would he have lived to enjoy his personal dream? At the expense of the national dream of equal rights?

 

The final shots of the film, following the archival footage that includes Belafonte, are a familiar trope from many dramas based on historical narratives: stills of key players, relating their lives from the end of the film to the present. Cager Lee Jackson, Jimmy Lee’s grandfather, voted at the age of 84. John Lewis, the young SNCC organiser who throws his lot in with King, has served as a congressman for Georgia for 28 years. Martin Luther King, assassinated. ‘He was 39.’ Even as history, the screen and verbal language itself are claimed back from the FBI, these updates replacing the surveillance intertitles, the violent determination of white supremacy to own time – to cut the thread of life, like the Fates – reasserts itself.

 

‘Selma is NOW for every man, woman, and child,’ spits Common in the opening line of his verse for John Legend’s Oscar-winning end credits song ‘Glory’: both its oppression and its uprising are still present, not only in legacy but actuality. The film was shot in Alabama with funding from the State of Georgia: things change, painful realities become marketable histories. The director and cast appeared in ‘I can’t breathe’ T-shirts at the film’s New York premiere: things stay the same. (Click Here)

 

The very end of the end credits says there’s more to this than plus ça change, returning to a vocal track heard earlier in the film. Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot for participating in a march in Marion, Alabama, a march that sets off, on screen, to the sound of the hymn ‘This Little Light of Mine.’ Part of a medley, it was recorded in 1965 at the Zion Methodist Church in Marion by Carl Benkert, a white designer who travelled to Selma with the clergy who supported King. Carrying a reel-to-reel tape recorder, he captured the voices of marchers and congregations as they rose up, and submitted them to the Smithsonian Archives where they became the album ‘Freedom Songs: Selma Alabama’ (Click Here), which has been in print for 50 years.

 

The third part of the Zion Methodist medley taped by Benkert plays over the final seconds of the film; ‘Come By Here’ (‘Kumbaya’ in the Gullah creole of Georgia) is one of the most recognisable songs of the twentieth century, a shorthand for peace and love – as when hawkish US Ambassador John Bolton said of the 2006 White House dinner for Kofi Annan, ‘nobody sang “Kumbaya.”’ Annan’s brilliant retort – “Does he know how to sing it?” – makes serious what Bolton cites dismissively: the song’s role in the civil rights movement, its declaration that black lives matter. (Click Here) Leading us out of Selma and into the world that King’s stand in Selma created, ‘Come By Here’ takes us home: home not to the status quo, but to a new time, the time Legend calls ‘glory,’ when the wrongs of history have been addressed and redressed in song.

 

‘Daylight come and we wan’ go home.’

 

 

 

Sophie Mayer is the author of two books about feminist film – The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love, and Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema – and three full collections of poetry: Her Various Scalpels; The Private Parts of Girls; and (O). She co-edited both There She Goes: Feminist Filmmaking and Beyond (with Corinn Columpar) and Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot (with Markie Burnhope and Sarah Crewe). She writes about film for Sight & Sound and The F-Word, and about poetry for Shearsman online. She tries to keep up with what she’s doing at @tr0ublemayer on Twitter and www.sophiemayer.net.

 

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