Editor Roundtable: Selma

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This week we’re marching into the Society genre with the 2014 movie Selma. Paul Webb wrote the screenplay, and Ava DuVernay directed the film.

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The Story

Here’s a synopsis of the historical events behind this biopic adapted from History.com.

Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade discrimination in voting on the basis of race, efforts by civil rights organizations, such as the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), to register black voters met with fierce resistance in southern states such as Alabama.

In early 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King and SCLC decided to make Selma, located in Dallas County, Alabama, the focus of a black voter registration campaign. King had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and his profile would help draw international attention to the events that followed.

Alabama Governor George Wallace was a notorious opponent of desegregation, and the local county sheriff in Dallas County had led a steadfast opposition to black voter registration drives.

As a result, only 2 percent of Selma’s eligible black voters (about 300 out of 15,000) had managed to register to vote.

The Selma to Montgomery march was part of a series of civil-rights protests that occurred in 1965 in Alabama, a Southern state with deeply entrenched racist policies. In March of that year, in an effort to register black voters in the South, protesters marched the fifty-four-mile route from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery and were confronted with deadly violence from local authorities and white vigilante groups.

As the world watched, the protesters—under the protection of federalized National Guard troops—finally achieved their goal, walking around the clock for three days to reach Montgomery. The historic march, and Dr. King’s participation in it, raised awareness of the difficulties faced by black voters and the need for a national Voting Rights Act.

The Editor’s Six Core Questions

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1.What’s the Global Genre? GENRE- Jarie

The Society Story is a mini-plot (multiple characters) external genre that culminates in the revolutionary event when power shifts from one segment of the social order to another. Society stories, like War stories, use tightly confined story trajectories in sharply-focused subgenres to represent global social power struggles. But even the epic Society stories focus on deeply personal and specific human conflict.

  • Core Values: Impotence and Personal Power
  • Gas Gauge Tank: Esteem (3rd Party Validation and Self-Respect)
  • Core Emotion: Fear, Rebellion
  • Core Event: The Revolution Scene
  • Subgenres: Domestic, Women’s, Biographical, Historical, and Political.
  • Selma: Society – Historical – African-Americans rise up to demand equal rights.

Historical Society stories often provide a glimpse into how events have changed the world. As consumers of society stories based on historic events, we already know what happens. Yet we connect with the struggles of the characters and relate to how they navigate the maze like-labyrinth of the power structure. Selma, is the kind of town that was perfect for an uprising given the demographics (majority black) and oppressed.  

The internal genre is Morality-Testing since Dr. King has many tests to see if he will rise to be the leader that his people need him to be. The tests are daunting, and he’s also a “flawed man” who is being monitored by the FBI. It’s a tough burden to bear since he wants to do what’s right for the long-term movement and not what is good for him and his family. He is tempted to take the easy way out multiple times.

Additional Comment

Leslie: Here are a few more details about how a Society Story interacts with the Morality-Testing-Triumph. This is Friedman’s Cause and Effect Statement for the internal genre: When a protagonist of highly developed will and sophistication experiences a challenge and trial but maintains their inner moral compass and strength of will, they make a selfless choice and earn respect and admiration.” This is an excellent choice for a Society Story because, the tyrants attempt to beat back revolutions by coopting the leaders of the underrepresented class.

Dr. King is tested repeatedly, particularly by the president, but also by Jim Crow proponents like the sheriff and governor. They use violence and the  threat of violence to test Dr. King and give up his quest for voting rights. His concern for his family’s safety and the safety of the people in the movement also weigh on him, adding further pressure and making the stakes even more personal. Society stories that work include conflict within society, but also within relationships and internally.

The Testing storyline naturally leads to a behind the scenes look at these major historical events because we need to see the moments when Dr. King was vulnerable as well as who and what tested his faith and willingness to go to stay the course. Leaders of movements are human and have human failings, and sometimes they give up or give in. It’s all the more important to tell Testing Triumph stories to give current leaders and followers the courage to continue to do the right thing.

2. What are the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions of the Society story?

Conventions – Anne

There is one central character with offshoot characters that embody a multitude of that main character’s personality traits – Dr. King is the central figure. He is surrounded by characters representing all aspects of the Civil Rights issue in the 1960s. John Lewis is the next generation of nonviolent protesters and represents King’s youthful hopes, which are tested during the story; Coretta Scott King represents the family life that suffers when a leader gives himself to the cause; President Johnson represents the class in power and the desire to compromise and go slow; Governor Wallace represents the absolute tyranny and bigotry that dies hard.

Big canvas. Either a wide scope external setting or the internal landscape – This is the big external setting. The story moves from the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, to Georgia, Alabama, and Washington, while we see the eyes of the world focused on the battle.

A clear revolutionary Point of No Return. The moment when power shifts must be clearly defined and dramatized – The phone conversation between Dr King and President Johnson following the murder of James Reeb. This happens at 1:36:00. Johnson continues to weasel out of sending the Civil Rights Act to Congress, and actually implies that their power is equal—”You think you’re juggling? I’m juggling too!” Johnson says. King replies, “I am a preacher from Atlanta. You are the man who won the presidency of the world’s most powerful nation by the greatest landslide in history four months ago, and you are the man dismantling your own legacy with each passing day. No one will remember the Civil Rights Act. They will remember you saying, ‘Wait,’ and ‘I can’t’ unless you act. Sir.” We don’t see the shift till a few scenes later when Johnson delivers essentially the same speech to the governor of Alabama.

The vanquished are doomed to exile – In the epilogue, we learn that the racist sheriff in Selma was overwhelmingly voted out of office for good by newly registered black voters; and that George Wallace ran twice for president and failed.

The power divide between those in power and those disenfranchised is large  – The divide rarely gets much larger than this. It’s demonstrated throughout the story, most eloquently in two places: the opening scene where Annie Lee Cooper, the Oprah Winfrey character–tries to register to vote and is denied her right by a petty racist bureaucrat, and during the first march across the bridge in Selma when state troopers chase the marchers down with guns, horses, whips and clubs. More subtle is the scene where J Edgar Hoover makes a veiled hint to LBJ that Dr King could easily be assassinated.

Ironic, win-but-lose, lose-but-win ending  – Victory is gained at the cost of many lives. Of course we know that Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated less than three years later…and though it lies outside the story, the audience in 2014 knew that the victory was only partial, that police violence toward African Americans remains a major American problem, and that racism doesn’t end with a bill, a march, or a speech, however great.

Additional Comment

Jarie:  Society stories need to clearly define the world in which the story takes place. Selma does this wonderfully throughout but it’s especially powerful in the beginning part where the oppression in Selma is clear and present. Without this explanation of the world, a society story will not work since you don’t know what the protagonist is rebelling against.

Obligatory Scenes – Kim

An inciting threat to reigning power – Four young girls are killed in church bombing in Birmingham, AL. The inciting incident of a Society story will be either a crime or a visionary speech–both are threats to reigning power. Opening scene seems to establish Dr King as the power –receives 1964 Peace Prize, has already achieved the Civil Rights Act– and attack is the white supremacists way of trying to stop the momentum of the movement.

Protagonists deny responsibility to respond – Dr King visits LBJ at the White House to speak with him on the denial of voting rights, but LBJ says his War on Poverty is the priority, not this “voting thing”, and the administration going to set this aside for a while. Interestingly, at the opening of the scene, LBJ is speaking with his advisor, Mr. White and says, “Aren’t we done?” as if Dr King should be satisfied with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and now go quietly, and gratefully, away. Dr King clearly explains why “it cannot wait.” Thousands of racially motivated murders and not one conviction, due to white judges and juries. The only way to be a jury member is if you are registered to vote, but white leaders are blocking black voters from registering.

Forced to leave ordinary world, protagonists lash out according to their positions in the power hierarchy – Dr King says, “Selma it is.” Begin planning the march to Selma Courthouse. LBJ meets with J. Edgar Hoover to discuss how to deal with Dr King. Decide to disrupt his marriage and family unit.

Each character learns what the Antagonist’s object of desire is – Coretta gets the phone call threatening her children’s lives…and the one with the apparent sex-tape. (These are J Edgar Hoover’s object of desire–that is, they show how much he wants to be rid of MLK.)

I think MLK has a couple of moments where he sees that LBJ is just playing politics, never planning to sign Civil Rights. Not sure LBJ IS the villain, but he represents the delaying aspect of the real antagonistic force, racism and white supremacy.

I think you could say that the Oprah character learns it first, when she realizes that no matter how prepared she is, that petty little shit with rubber stamp is NEVER going to let her register to vote

LBJ meets with Governor Wallace and asks him why he won’t “Just let them vote” and Wallace says “Because they’re never satisfied …” first its slavery, then segregation, then the vote, then it will be equal pay for work.

Protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver the villain fails – March to courthouse results in beating, night march results in beatings/shooting, march across bridge results in beatings

Protagonist, realizing they must change their approach to turn the power tables, reaches an All Is Lost moment.  – When the troopers fall back out of the way of the marchers, Dr King kneels to pray and then decides to turn the marchers around, not trusting the situation. He is not willing to risk more harm to the people who put their faith in him to lead them.

The Revolution Scene. The core event of the Society story, when the Protagonists’ gifts are expressed and power changes hands.  –  Judge grants permission for march to Montgomery (it is a legal assembly), LBJ speaks to congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, march to Montgomery capitol takes place with armed escorts.

The Protagonists are rewarded at the extra-personal, interpersonal, or personal level. – Dr King’s speech at Capitol in Montgomery, AL. During the credits we see the name/outcome of the various characters in the hierarchy.

3. What is the POV? What is the Narrative device? – Leslie

POV and narrative device include the type of information, objectivity/subjectivity, you can think of it as the lens meaning the person (character, narrator, author), but also the distance in time and space from the events and the purpose for telling the story. These aren’t always explicitly stated or shown, but as writers we need to be clear about these elements. It helps tremendously in writing scenes.

The opening scene is an intimate moment between husband and wife, so we know this story is about MLK’s private life as well as his public life. It tells us that we are getting a behind the scenes look of this historic event. these, in the home of Richie Jean Jackson, where MLK, Abernathy, Orange, and the SCLC leaders relax and strategize. We see moments when they are vulnerable. Sometimes we learn the information comes from wiretap logs. And right from the start of the story, you know the tyrants are not taking chances. We also get news reports from the NY Times reporter. These are great devices to use in a film about historical events, and they can be adapted for a novel as well.  

 Additional Comment

Anne: The typewritten crawls throughout the movie create a kind of extra POV, that of the FBI and J Edgar Hoover. It creates dramatic irony for just a moment, because we now know what presumably the victims of the wiretapping are unaware of–but then the characters reveal that of course they know they’re being spied on. Suddenly, we and the characters share a kind of dramatic irony nanny-nanny-boo-boo against the Hoover, who might not know we know.

4. What are the Objects of Desire, AKA wants and needs? – Kim

Wants: To secure unrestricted voting rights for people of color, not only for the right to vote itself but as a step toward justice for the thousands of racially motivated murders that go unconvicted due to all white juries.

Needs:  To maintain his faith and will to see it through, not be overcome with anguish at the losses, but leverage it as fuel to lead the people to triumph.

5. What is the Controlling Idea / Theme? –  Anne

The baseline controlling idea of the Society story is either Positive: We gain power when we expose the hypocrisy of tyrants, or Negative: Tyrants beat back revolutions by co-opting the leaders of the underclass.

Selma is a positive society story of one of the great leaders and orators of history, so I’ve crafted this controlling idea:

Oppressed people gain their rights when a moral and eloquent individual holds to his principles in the face of tyrannical pressure, and inspires them to nonviolent action

Additional Comment

Jarie: Like most society stories, the controlling idea is about disrupting the status quo or at least attempting to. That’s why they are such powerful stories because each and every one of us can relate to battling against what has always been done.

6. What’s the Beginning Hook, the Middle Build, and the Ending Payoff? –  Leslie

Beginning Hook – In the same year Dr. King receives the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent approach to seeking civil rights for African Americans, clansmen in Birmingham murder four young girls and Alice Lee Cooper is denied the right to vote in Selma, and when President Lyndon Johnson refuses to help secure voting rights in Alabama, Dr. King must decide whether to leave his family to lead efforts in Selma or stay home. He goes to Selma with other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).  

  1. Inciting incident: Four young girls are murdered in Birmingham, AL.
  2. Turning Point Progressive Complication: When Dr. King seeks help from the president to secure voting rights for African Americans, he’s told that it’s not the political priority.
  3. Crisis Question: Dr. King must decide whether to leave his family and pursue nonviolent protest in Selma or stay home.
  4. Climax: Dr. King decides to go to Selma and work with the SCLC.
  5. Resolution: Dr. King goes to Selma with other members of the SCLC.

Middle Build – Dr. King speaks to a crowd in Selma to encourage them to protest to guarantee voting rights for African Americans in Alabama, and during a first attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery, troopers attack the marchers, which shocks the American public and brings white clergymen to Selma in answer to Dr. King’s call, and when in a second march, the troopers stand aside, Dr. King must decide whether to go forward. He stops the march because he’s worried that the protestors are being led into a trap and faces criticism for his choice.

  1. Inciting incident:  Dr. King speaks to a crowd in Selma about demanding the right to vote, encouraging them to demonstrate and protest nonviolently.
  2. Turning Point Progressive Complication: After an attack by troopers in the first march attempt, the troopers stand aside as the protestors approach the bridge where the first attack happened.   
  3. Midpoint Shift: Dr. King tells President Johnson they won’t back down, that they will march.
  4. Crisis Question: King must decide whether to lead the people forward or not.
  5. Climax: He kneels down and decides to abandon the march.
  6. Resolution: Dr. King faces criticism for his decision, but he explains he’d rather people hate him than have people die in what could have been a trap.

Ending Payoff – A white priest visiting Selma to support the march is killed, shocking the American public again, and President Johnson initially refuses to act on behalf of African Americans, but when political pressure forces Johnson to announce his forthcoming Voting Rights Act, Dr. King must decide whether to attempt the march a third time. He leads the march, and the people make it peacefully to Montgomery.

  1. Inciting incident: A white priest who is in Selma for the march is violently killed.  
  2. Turning Point Progressive Complication: Though President Johnson at first refuses to create legislation to guarantee the right to vote for African Americans, political pressure causes him to announce the forthcoming Voting Rights Act of 1965.
  3. Crisis Question: Dr. King must decide whether to go forward with the march, though federal officials cannot ensure his safety.
  4. Climax: Dr. King decides to lead the march.
  5. Resolution: The people march peacefully all the way to Montgomery.

Additional Comment

Leslie: The Inciting Incident in a Society Story is either a speech by a visionary or a crime: here we have both: MLK’s speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize and the murder of four young girls in a church bombing.

7. Additional Story-Related Observations

Jarie:  Dr. King was such a great orator and wordsmith. David Oyelowo just nails him. He even sounds like him. He is poetic in so many ways. The explosion is so erie and sad. It hits you like a ton of bricks and shocks you into “this is going to be a different kind of movie.” O

When MLK is meeting with President Johnson and he just lays out the complete and utter discrimination of blacks in the south. It’s basically the speech in praise of the villian with the villain being white people.

The ticker across the screen, which is clearly FBI surveillance, is just perfect for this. My guess is that it’s the actual log, which is even better. I feel that gives the movie some credibility even though it’s not a documentary.

The cast is stunning with a who’s, who of the modern civil rights movement: Oprah, Common, Cuba Gooding Jr., Wendell Pierce, etc. prah (Alice Lee Cooper) nails it—just like in The Color Purple. It’s great to see her acting again. When her character is trying to register to vote and gives her an impossible hurdle to overcome, your heart just sinks. It’s the perfect setup for the whole movie, showing the unfairness of the Jim Crow laws in the south.

Leslie: Ava DuVernay has been criticized for the way LBJ is portrayed. Is it accurate? I don’t know. Is Selma a well-crafted story that shares the deeper TRUTH and meaning of what happened during those times? Yes. These are historic events, but no one is calling this a documentary. I mentioned when we discussed The Hurt Locker that stories aren’t real life, and some of what is historically true or precisely accurate must give way to telling the story, even in a biopic. I would be cautious about playing fast and loose with facts about real people or events. But I encourage you to tell the greater TRUTH about life. Goodness knows, people of privilege have been permitted to tell stories to suit their image and agenda. People who disagree with this portrayal are free to tell their own story. You may do so for art.

I appreciated the irony that the activists sought to secure voting rights, so it’s interesting to note the moments in the story when someone is trying to subvert voting. For example, in Selma John Lewis (of SNCC) makes the point that the people of Selma chose MLK and the SCLC to help them, and James Forman ought to respect that choice.

Anne: I agree that the story is well-crafted and inspiring. Because it looks at relatively recent historical events well within the memory of many people still alive today, screenwriter Paul Webb clearly chose real facts over sheer story structure in a couple of spots that fiction wouldn’t have done. I’m thinking primarily of the three separate Selma marches. The first one is dramatic and violent, but happens at the beginning of the middle build. The second is a complete anti-climax–a real letdown in story terms–and happens towards the end of the middle build, but doesn’t feel like an All Is Lost type of moment. The court decision that clears the way for the final peaceful march is a very quiet, delayed triumph, and the final march takes place effectively after the battle has been won–Johnson has already made his American Problem speech, and the Civil Rights Act is all but certain. It’s almost like de-escalating complications in the external story. The uplifting ending, almost an epilogue, depends almost 100% on MLK’s great speech, recreated by David Oyelowo, during the march into to Montgomery.

Anne: Considerable restraint is similarly shown in the shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson in the diner. We don’t get a scene of mayhem with bullets flying and blood everywhere. Instead death is tied to the core of the story by the scene where Dr King meets Jackson’s grandfather at the morgue and speaks to him. We get a bare glimpse of Jackson’s body on the slab, but the thrust of the scene, as of the overall story, is in King’s quiet words, his religious conviction, and his nonviolence.

Kim:  I think is an excellent example of intentional restraint. There are no images of or dialogue that mentions the Klu Klux Klan, even though they are the perpetrators of the church bombing that killed the four girls in the inciting incident. I think this is intentional and strategic and absolutely the right choice for this story. Dr King mentions the great lie of supremacy which infects everyone, not just extremists. The antagonists here are not Klan members but elected officials—sheriff, governor, president. And every person who sits by and allows it continue. Omitting images and dialogue of the Klu Klux Klan prevents a white audience from opting out by pinning all blame and evil on extremists, the all too often “Well I’m not as bad as that, so I must be fine.” Because this story is being told in 2014 to an audience that is still dealing with epic racial inequality, this message is highly relevant. Although different from, it reminded me of Tim’s opening scene in the Threshing when Jessie attacked the president who caught her stealing, with a gun or knife or whatever. Shawn cautioned about going too far too fast. Also consider going too far at any time in your story. Whether it’s sex or violence or backstory, be sure that your final story version every choice is intentional. You want each element in your story to enhance your controlling idea, not distract from it.

Join us again next time, when we once again trace the outlines of the Status genre with 2002 Real Women Have Curves starring America Ferrera. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

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Leslie Watts

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.