Actor Keith Hamilton Cobb website

Selma, The Movie

The Invisible Man
Anything But a Black American Male

Thoughts on a Hollywood Film



“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

                                                          Martin Luther King, Jr.

RM306a                                                         Craig Alan Edwards, American Writer/Performer,                                                                                    The Man in Room 306


I went to see the film, Selma.

Not because of the hype it’s been riding.  There are innumerable films that do that each year that are not worth the price of admission, and certainly not worth two hours of my time.

I didn’t go because I needed to have the story retold to me.  Having lived, a black American for over half a century, the cinema of this piece of my history continues to play in my consciousness, enhanced to high definition by events occurring presently and regularly.  I need no movie to re-illustrate for me the highlights, and only the highlights, of the bad old days without the depth of exploration required to offer me any truly new perspective.

I did not go because the story of the struggle of the black American for civil rights, or, for that matter, the story of Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave, or the story of Rosewood, or of the Tuskegee Airmen in Red Tails were stories more worthy to be told when measured against all of the stories of black people that there are to tell.  I find a troubling irony in all of the reaching back we do for the purpose of immortalizing some piece of black American history, when what those historical figures were all most intent upon was creating an even playing field for us in the present day, a goal which, despite the endless efforts of ancestors remains widely unachieved, and, in glaring instances, would seem now to be in a process of complete regression.

I would be pleased to sacrifice all the films about all the black icons of the past—now so very safe to speak of in laudatory terms—for a high-budgeted Hollywood film or two about contemporary black men and women as, if we care to look, we can observe them today.  Not sophomoric comedians, or urban malcontents, but leading men and women, self-governing, sexy, proactive, effectual, whose present day lives, and on-camera focus-holding abilities are every bit as compelling and cinema worthy as DiCaprio, Affleck, Damon, Pitt, and all this entire last generation of white movie star, and certainly this newest one.   

In any event, I went to see the film, Selma, but I didn’t see Dr. King.  He, what I know about him, and I know a lot, was conspicuously absent.  But then, the film was not made for the likes of me.

I would like to say that I support all American actors, and what there is of an American acting tradition.  I would like to say it in the same way that I would like to say that I would have rallied in support of all poor and disenfranchised people of the American south circa 1960.  But it is not wholly true.  The civil rights struggle in America was not, is not everybody’s struggle.  The rights of most white Americans, particularly those of affluence, but even the poorest among them were, and remain far less in question.  I went to see the film, Selma, because I wanted to watch a large number of black American actors being paid to act in something for camera that wasn’t immediately dismissible.  I saw that, and enjoyed seeing it, mostly because I don’t see it nearly enough.  I had hoped that it would be even less dismissible than it ultimately was, but perhaps, given all that there is to understand about the intersection of American race relations and Hollywood, that would have been way too much to ask.

There are things to be pleased about when considering the film, Selma.  Its displaying the epic scope of the voting rights campaign of Dr. King wasn’t one of them.  The film wasn’t Gandhi, though King’s story is no less replete with the same mythic grandeur.  Instead, Selma was a slightly anemic and expository telling of the tale, played to the young—who would have little awareness of the events of the 60’s—as if to be telling them the story for the first time.  Still, it was a pleasing film.  Most pleasing about it was not the film itself at all, but that a black American woman director was let helm a major Hollywood motion picture.  Of that fact, I cannot deny that something in the motion of history must be changing for the better, however agonizingly slowly…  Something… One dying of thirst will be grateful for every drop of water.  And so this was, indeed, a reason for celebration.  And as I say above, it is pleasing too that so many black actors had acting jobs.  They could have more if Hollywood would deign to tell more of our stories, or show more of us as we appear in present-day life, that is everywhere and always…  But again, if work is work, for now I will take a little solace in another rehash of the MLK saga if only for the abundance of black scene-swellers to people the world.  As we can take from recent conversations with studio executives made public by the Sony hack, black actors in most other capacities are apparently a bad business move.  They would say, “This is not racism, this is business.  The Japanese are racist not to buy Denzel when we try to sell him to them.  We’re just going where the money is.”  If that’s true, and I don’t know for certain that it’s not, I don’t tend to argue with it.  I mean, what else would they say?  Inclusion is not their M.O., making bank is.  And I’m tired of Denzel being the only black leading man anyway.  But where does that leave us?

It leaves us with no real cinematic examples to show our youth of black American men and women in a realistic twenty first century context, at least not anywhere near in proportion to the on-screen portrayals of white America, from the legitimately remarkable to the completely mundane.  It leaves us reaching backward, if we want to tell black stories and employ black actors, glorifying any black figures of the past that Hollywood will allow, as if we only existed then—forever dejected and wretched but for the individual that Hollywood retrospectively deems extraordinary—and we are not in existence now.  Will we always need to be telling the story of a Jackie Robinson, or a James Brown, a Malcolm X, or a Martin Luther King in order to justify just spinning a good and compelling yarn about the lives of authentic black people?  No Mystic River, or Silver Linings Playbook for black Americans?  Or don’t black people get bi-polar disorder?  Because we are bound to run out of those “important” black people sooner or later, as far as Hollywood is concerned…  And, like the business of inclusion, they are not in the authenticity business either.

Black Hollywood, which is to say that handful of black actors, directors, and entrepreneurs who have been allowed to come and play in the Whites Only sandbox—in turn allowing white America to believe it has altruistically achieved some post-racial stasis, and can now be complacent, if not out right proud of itself—will do better by the black youth of this nation by striving to show them more contemporary, positive images of their race in television and film on a daily basis, rather than by showing them, from time to time, one black character or another from a past that they never knew, and telling them that they should identify.  But, as guests in the sandbox, if through no fault of its own Black Hollywood is relegated to telling these limited tales of our past black American icons (limited both in scope and frequency) as opposed to the stories that highlight the might, and wisdom, power, and passion, depth, and diversity of our contemporary black American men and women — if this is their situation and they would make the most of it, why so often are our stories being told by British actors?

Regarding Selma, why were the roles of the protagonist and his wife, icons of this suddenly Oscar-worthy black American past, enacted by British actors?   I must be honest here and say that it is a problem that the entire industry should answer for.  British actors in American films are an older institution than Albert Finney and Anthony Hopkins, and perhaps the matter should be addressed industry-wide, for the fact of it certainly gives me to wonder.  But I am concerned about something else that is, I think, much more problematic here.  I believe there are American actors who would have done a superior job of enacting LBJ, or George Wallace, roles given instead to Brits Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth respectively (Wilkinson in particular did the production no service in this role, not because of historical inaccuracies of character, but because his performance came less near to Johnson in appearance and demeanor than Oyelowo’s did to King).  I believe uncountable American actors would have turned in superior performances in both roles if for no other reason but that their American acting instruments, oozing with American ethos born of the generations that lived the very story in question, were primed for it.

I think it’s a waste to not let the culture that lived the story tell it, plain and simple.

And yet, where white actors are concerned, I’ll easily let that go, for white American stories in Hollywood are endless in supply, and there is no shortage of roles for the white actor who didn’t get to play LBJ or George Wallace this time around.  Contrarily, there are precious few roles for black American actors to play, not because they couldn’t be cast in greater numbers, and more visibly, in almost any film being made in Hollywood right now, thus more realistically fleshing out the pastiche of contemporary American life, but because they are not, thus raising the troubling question of what Hollywood would prefer we all believe America looks like.   More troubling still is that, all too often, we do believe it…

If one had seen, The Man in Room 306, a solo play written and performed by the black American actor, Craig Alan Edwards, when it had its run at the 59 East 59th Street Theatres in Manhattan in January of 2010, one would have seen an actor who sounded like Dr. King, looked, in his performance, often uncannily like Dr. King, and portrayed aspects of the complex leader’s character that Selma, in its made for mass consumption style, could not afford to explore.  Mr. Edwards had developed his script over twenty years.  And, watching him, I wondered what would compel an actor to chase the idea of a character for that long.

The Man in Room 306 at the 59 E 59th Street Theatres, New York

The Man in Room 306 at the 59 E 59th Street Theatres, New York, 2010

He grew up watching and listening to the events of the struggle in the South as they evolved and came to a head.  He was, he told me, listening to the speeches of Dr. King from the age of 16, entranced by the cadences and inflections of his oratory, and reading all that was written about him.  It was, for Mr. Edwards, no stretch of the imagination, but wholly experiential how King’s words and actions resonated for him in the world of 1960’s Philadelphia where he grew to manhood.  His resemblance to King is, perhaps, coincidental, but nothing other than a life lived in the struggle (and make no mistake, it continues to be a struggle for any black American man to be seen as wholly equal, wholly American) can channel the energies that animated the authentic animal of MLK—not the King co-opted by white parade organizers every third Monday in January, capitalizing on the energy of altruism as if the work is all done, and they have now but to sit back and make money on the celebration—not the story-book figure the reverence for whom makes us think ourselves worthy of Academy Awards simply for invoking his name—but the black American male whose spirit only another black American male and heir of the era could effectively incarnate.  And yes, black people in the UK have their struggle as well.  But it is not our struggle.  It does not play the same.

David Oyelowo was not the best choice for the lead in Selma, bearing not the slightest resemblance to the historical figure he was to portray.  His accent work was conspicuous, and most profoundly, the struggle that the black American continues to live did not live in him.  He was an imposter, if I can say that without malice.  But Craig Alan Edwards would never have been considered in his stead for the role of Dr. King in the film, Selma.  Nor would endless other highly trained and competent black American actors, whose American experience makes them immediately more suited for the role than all of Oyelowo’s British bona fides, for two reasons.  First, in the same way that the myth that “white is better” has been so perpetuated as to influence every aspect of life from the very seat of the collective American psyche, the myth that British is better holds equal sway over the entertainment industry.  Secondly, Hollywood will sell whatever myth can be shown to make the most money.  And, as I’ve suggested above, no one can really blame them.  They are not in the business of uplifting the race.  More darkly, they do not really want to, and that, the struggle to exorcise the fear and hatred from the heart of white America is a battle for many other days to come.  Meanwhile, however, Black Hollywood has no such excuse, and cannot claim its good intentions with regard to black Americans only when it is convenient.

I liked the film, Selma, despite its many shortcomings.  But it was not the best film that black Americans could have conspired to create on the matter.  They are to be forgiven, because I am quite sure that creative control was not largely theirs, black American woman director, Ava Duvernay, and Oprah Winfrey notwithstanding.  I certainly can’t claim knowledge of all the details, the deal-making, and the endless effort that went into getting this picture off the ground.  Nor is it the purpose here to impugn anybody’s good intention.  And I know that, despite all the challenges, and obviously against odds, these black artists, to the extent of their ability, conspired and pushed forward with a project that culminated in a film of merit.  I must respect and applaud them.  They did what they needed to in order to get just that much done. And perhaps, when the Oprah Winfrey bio-pic is done one day, Thandie Newton, another “better” British substitute for a black American, will have come of an age where she can be tapped to play the role.

But, for my money, there are just simply myriad and better stories to tell that speak of the continuing, and absolutely contemporary struggle of the American black man for his rightful place of dignity and respect on the American landscape un-allayed by British portrayals of his truth, past, present, and future.

Yes, things are changing.  And we must not forget the sacrifices and struggles of our ancestors in bringing these changes about.  It is right to honor and immortalize them, for ourselves and for our children.  But in watching the film, Selma, the question remained present in my mind:  If triumphs in civil rights have gained us the right to sit at the table, and, in fact, to be the same short-sighted, cynical, and so often cowardly brokers of power as our white counterparts, and we own it… who is truly to blame for our condition?

And what would the Reverend Dr. take more solace from, another movie in his name, a day off in his honor, or black American youth being able to look at a television show, or a film, and believe that all black lives are things more than peripheral to life in America, not just the handful that are famous?

My parents are black American professionals, as were their parents before them.  It could be said that, before King and the civil rights struggle of the 50’s and 60’s, they, as educators, and physicians, were already quite busy at creating a better world for their progeny.  Here, now, in 2015, I am a manifestation of all that they did and were; a black American whose experience in no way mirrors the vast majority of images of black Americans that still populate the media… And I am an actor with truths to tell.



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