‘Selma,’ ‘American Sniper’ and how the way we choose our heroes reveals us

(left: Paramount Pictures’ ‘Selma’ / right: Warner Bros. Pictures’ ‘American Sniper’)

It’s almost cosmic that Ava DuVernay’s Civil Rights biopic Selma and Clint Eastwood’s Iraq War biopic American Sniper were released in such close proximity to each other. If not for award season and the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, it’s doubtful that the two would have ended up in theaters at the same time. It’s not as though either was released with an eye toward the other, that’s just the way the calendar worked out. Yet in a time of “culture war” (the same construct that made Pat Robertson into a champion of freedom), no piece of art can be released without analysis, opposition, or claims of an agenda. Thus, unsurprisingly, these two films became instant causes célèbre for ideological opposites, with both sides hailing their preferred film and decrying the other. Yet, through all this talk, what is lost is how the two films, as different as they are, can and should exist together in cinema just as their differing world views can and should exist together in society.

The cause of Selma

I can’t remember the first time I heard Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, but I also can’t remember a time when his words weren’t the mantra by which I live my life:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character [emphasis added].

It’s a simple sentence that perfectly encapsulates the way in which I try – and I say try  because no one can ever be completely aware of their own failings, the best we can do is make every effort – to approach other people, places, situations, even art itself. Content and character are what matters. Everything else is just a cover.

Martin Luther King Selma
Martin Luther King is a powerful figure in ‘Selma.’
(Image: Paramount Pictures).

Hearing that a biopic was being worked on about Dr. King, one of the few people I confidently idolize even with his faults, made me a bit nervous. What would come out of this movie? Would it be sappy and feel-good, the fawning love note that so many other films about such beloved figures are? Would it focus on throwing accusations and guilt towards us who resemble those who opposed Dr. King, contrary to the man’s messaging of unity and equality? Or would it be an even-handed look at the man behind the statues and the memorials?

Even more discouraging was the controversy surrounding the film’s release. There was of course the claims of misrepresenting the role of President Lyndon B. Johnson in passing the Voting Rights Act, but the greater controversy was of the lack of Oscar nominations and the supposed reasons behind them. Selma was released into a climate of heightened racial sensitivity, flaring most noticeably with the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. It’s hard not to notice that the election of the nation’s first African American president resulted in spikes in gun sales and hate groups, or that a small but vocal minority in the country opposes the president simply because of his race. Thus any offense, no matter how apolitical or even mistaken, becomes an issue of discrimination and prejudice. And so it was when Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo weren’t nominated for Best Director and Best Actor, respectively.

Regardless of the rationale, many people on the political left took the Selma snub as a signal that Academy voters, no matter how often those on the right love to portray how radically liberal Hollywood is, are either out of touch, sexist, or racist. News stories cited the Academy as being 93 percent white, 76 percent male, and with an average age of 63 as evidence that something other than cinematic quality was being used in determining whether Selma was worthy of these nominations. And, as much as I hate to reference Twitter, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was briefly a thing.

Now, I’m not about to argue for or against the nominations. I haven’t even seen all of the other nominees and therefore couldn’t tell you which ones don’t deserve their place. What I do wonder, however, is if the exact same movie had been made by Steve McQueen, Spike Lee, Katherine Bigelow, Kimberly Pierce, or Ron Howard, would there have been a controversy? If Selma were a Clint Eastwood movie, would this snub still matter? Is the controversy over who the director is or the quality of the director’s work? Color of skin or content of character?

Either way, Selma became a talking point for reasons other than its merit as a film.

The cause of American Sniper

Image: Warner Bros. Pictures
(Image: Warner Bros. Pictures)

American Sniper, on the other hand, I anticipated a bit more. Despite his clueless, rambling display of performance art a couple of years ago, Clint Eastwood remains an immensely skilled filmmaker with decades of knowledge behind the camera. Also, Bradley Cooper has proven to be quite a fine actor, and one clearly eager for a little gold statue of his own. I am staunchly anti-war and have spoken in front of protests against the invasion of Iraq in 2002, but I also recognize that war often makes for compelling, intense viewing. I even have a personal list of greatest war movies, each of which show a very different side of military conflict, from the noble (Saving Private Ryan) to the disgusting (Full Metal Jacket) to the traumatizing (The Deer Hunter). Thus the idea of a skilled filmmaker and talented actor working together on an intense subject seemed like the makings of the best war film since The Hurt Locker.

Unlike Dr. King, I didn’t know much about Chris Kyle until the build-up to the release of American Sniper. Stories circulated about the real Kyle professing to enjoy killing people, particularly people of color, and making up a story about going to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina so he could brag about assassinating those who took items from flooded stores. The memoir on which the film is based,  American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, is reportedly filled with chest-thumping fabrications such as claims of personally finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (I’d like to note here that many of these links are to sites which make me feel dirty for citing, but are necessary in service of honesty) and provocative statements including “I like war,” “I couldn’t give a flying f**k about the Iraqis,” and “I hate the damn savages.” Kyle’s widow even had to pay Jesse Ventura 1.8 million dollars in defamation damages for an anecdote in that same book. Thus, even before the opening scene of American Sniper, we know that Kyle is an unreliable character with as much relation to the real person as another creation of fiction.

The debate of American Sniper immediately escalated with some people calling it propaganda, others calling it patriotic, and then each side escalating in their response. The political right used American Sniper‘s big opening weekend, coincidentally during the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend, as a tacit endorsement of its messages of patriotism and traditional values, which for some reason has come to mean war and guns. They also cite Selma‘s smaller opening as a rejection of racial sensitivity. They consider President Obama viewing the film as an endorsement. Its low box office gross is therefore a rejection of his entire presidency, while American Sniper‘s 100 million dollar opening marks some kind of resurgence of conservatism or something… I really can’t understand the logic of it. Yet most disturbing are those who use American Sniper to fuel anti-Islamic sentiment.

The end result of the ideological saber-rattling is that Chris Kyle, regardless of how he is portrayed in the movie, is either demonized as a cowardly, racist murderer on par with the terrorists he enjoyed killing, or exalted as a self-sacrificing superhero deserving of the kind of unanimous worship typically reserved for someone like Dr. King. Some extremists of the latter opinion say that his critics deserve to be kidnapped, beheaded, and raped. One right-wing site even hails Kyle as a “positive heterosexual white male role-model” (as a straight, white male I say, nah) while calling Selma “hate porn.”

For their parts, Bradley Cooper has said that the film is not a political statement and should not be interpreted as such, while Eastwood reminded critics that he opposed the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Again, the film becomes a rallying cry for anything other than its merit as art.

Personally, my initial interest in seeing the movie disappeared, simply because I didn’t want my movie-going money to support what many on the conservative right were holding up as a victory for their cause. I also made it a special point to see Selma first, on my personal favorite holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. And I absolutely stand by that decision.

Identifying with a hero

Martin Luther King, Jr. statue
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. statue, Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama. One of many such statues all across America. (via mlkonline.net)

Far more interesting than the petty arguments for or against these films, what their award standings mean about the entertainment industry, or how the financial or critical success of one is a victory for its perceived political ideology, is that both films present very different models of a hero as well as the society they inspire.

As presented in Selma, Martin Luther King, Jr. represents leadership through fairness and unity, talking over his ideas with his fellows and unafraid to receive guidance when he feels lost. He is also skilled at using spectacle and attention to his advantage, understanding that media coverage is as important to spreading a message as actually having a message to spread. He is definitely a man of peace and justice, more willing to die at the hands of hatred than to hold hate himself. His call for all people, particularly clergy, of any color to join his cause is moving, inspirational, and a clarion call for unity among those historically divided. America in Selma is a flawed nation obliged to right itself internally before it may progress toward the ideals it espouses to the rest of the world. It is uncertain and unfinished. King, as a representative, is a man of forgiveness. There’s a reason Dr. King is often cited as the inspiration for Professor Charles Xavier.

Putting aside the real person, the Chris Kyle shown in American Sniper is an aggressive protector who believes that the best way to defend those you care about is to exterminate those who would do them harm. He is the individualist who holds no regard for social constructs, or society in general, preferring instead to do everything himself. He exudes confidence, even when we as audience know that his stoicism, his “manliness,” disallows him from admitting that he is uncertain and in pain. He is a man of violence, dispensing justice through the barrel of a gun. He is loyal, quiet, and always ready with the perfect quip to respond to any statement. America in American Sniper is a wounded nation seeking to heal itself through righteous anger against outsiders who wish to victimize it for its ideals. It is flawless and doubtless. Kyle, as a representative, is a man of retribution. There’s a reason Kyle and his unit patrol around with Punisher skulls on their gear.

The Punisher skull becomes the symbol of Chris Kyle’s unit in ‘American Sniper.’ (image by KryptoKnight-85 via Deviantart.com)

Looking at these two descriptions, it’s easy to see how differing ideologies would grasp onto these characters. King is progressive. Kyle is conservative. King wants people to live together in equality and fairness. Kyle wants people to live apart in independence. King dreams of little black boys and girls holding hands with little white boys and girls. Kyle dreams of riding horses and taking his son out hunting. King is society. Kyle is individual. Both men want respect; they just seek to receive it in different ways. Essentially, the way the audience sees these two characters demonstrates their own values. It represents how they wish themselves and their country to be.

The curious thing is that the level of doubt on-screen in these movies is inversely related to the amount of prestige given to their main characters. It is of course my belief that the two are not equal, not even close, but that’s not how they are portrayed. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a national hero, rightly so in my opinion, with streets and memorials and a holiday named in his honor. Yet Selma questions his motivations and character, pulling him down from his lofty perch to make him more human and relatable. Chris Kyle on the other hand is controversial, a proven liar and killer, as much villain as hero. His character and motivations in American Sniper, as based upon his descriptions, are never questioned (on screen at least) and elevate him to the status of legend. Selma holds that heroism comes through one’s conviction even with doubt. American Sniper holds that heroism comes through one’s conviction without doubt.

Thus we see in these two how different the idea of a hero can be. I would postulate further that the way one defines a hero, be it Selma‘s King or Sniper‘s Kyle or some other variation, demonstrates their values and aspirations. Do you admire the man of peace or the man of war? Which has the greater quality of character?

Yet, despite their obvious differences, there are certain commonalities which contribute to their particular brands of heroism. Foremost among these, as alluded to above, is a sense of conviction regardless of the dangers which may follow. Dr. King repeatedly places himself in harm’s way armed with nothing but a few cameras and the idea that the moral arc of the universe tends toward freedom. Kyle returns over and over to a war zone convinced that his actions, however destructive they may be, save the lives of his fellow soldiers. This similarity likely stems from the fact that both men share the same faith. King, a preacher with a doctorate in religious studies and Kyle, who keeps with him a bible that he stole as a boy, are depicted as believing that they are just.

Although we on opposing sides of the so-called culture war may be vastly different in what we want and how we get it, there is in fact one thing we can all admire: the tenacity to continue struggling when overwhelmed. This isn’t a quality inherent to faith, it’s a quality inherent to character.

Two entirely different methods for two entirely different purposes, beginning in the same place.

The role of art

 Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
Inscription at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in San Francisco, Ca. (photo: Jess Kroll)

What is lost in the debate over both Selma and American Sniper is that they are, quite simply, movies. They are not movements in and of themselves. The success or failure of one does not mean that the complimentary ideology is thus proven superior. They are entertainment. They may wish to generate discussion and analysis but they are art, and art is meant to be appreciated regardless of one’s political leanings.

Discussions of Academy voter demographics and whether or not race weighed into nominations belies the fact that Selma should be critiqued or praised for its on-screen merit. It is an excellent movie but not a perfect one. Much like its protagonist there are flaws. Pointing that out or saying that it wasn’t quite as good as other films of the year (I still think Birdman is 2014’s best) shouldn’t be considered a matter of prejudice anymore than it is to declare that apples are tastier than oranges.

There are legitimate issues to be had with Oscar voting, and if the rumors are true and Selma suffered because of 12 Years a Slave winning last year then changes should be made, but granting anyone a nomination simply because of race or gender betrays the values the film’s protagonist spoke of so passionately. I’m sure there are many people who are eager to see a female president, but that doesn’t mean we should all jump at the chance to vote for Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann. Their policies should mean more than their sex. Content of character, not color (or gender or anything else), is important.

Personally I think both DuVernay and Oyelowo did outstanding jobs and, having seen the film since nominations were announced, am surprised they weren’t nominated. Yet I haven’t found compelling evidence to suggest that there was any malice behind their absences. The Oscars, like any other awards show, are about preference, and that’s all. Hell, Citizen Kane lost Best Picture to How Green Was My Valley, but which one of them is considered the greatest movie of all time (hint: its anagram is Kitizen Cane)? What’s more, granting a nomination in the interest of diversity belittles the nominee. I believe Selma, DuVernay, Oyelowo, and the legacy of Dr. King deserve better than that. Not winning an award doesn’t make a film worse anymore than winning an award makes it better.

As for American Sniper, I saw it in the interest of fairness. The curious thing is, everything people say about the film is true. It’s propaganda, anti-Muslim, confident of the moral good of war, and never doubts its hero’s commitment to justice and freedom. It’s a full-throated endorsement of conservative values and traditions of war and guns and rah rah America. But it is also morally ambiguous, decidedly anti-war, and allows the viewer to question its unflinching bravado as either a defense mechanism or the illusions of a traumatized brain. Basically, American Sniper leaves the audience to take from it whatever they prefer. It’s a Rorschach test.

A simplistic viewing of the film as a positive statement of the War on Terror or a hateful screed against Arabs dismisses the nuance of the character and the film itself. We are not meant to idolize Chris Kyle. We are meant to sympathize with him, even pity him, whether we like him or not. We are meant to question the necessity of his type of monstrousness, the situations which create it, and how we may help those like him recover from it.

Those who interpret ‘American Sniper’ as an endorsement of war are looking at it through a limited scope. (image: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Making American Sniper (or Selma for that matter) into a political cause only drives away people who may otherwise be interesting in experiencing it and is a disservice to the film and the effort which went into making it. Besides, given all we know about Chris Kyle’s tendency to exaggerate his accomplishments, his bravado and self-aggrandizement, and the fact that many, many things in the movie are not based upon Kyle’s autobiography, the film is obviously more made-up than real.

The main plot revolves around a completely fictional story of Kyle chasing a rival Syrian sniper in an Iraq War version of Enemy at the Gates. If this is the hill conservative culture warriors wish to die on, they do so in vein because, sadly, American Sniper, like its protagonist, simply isn’t as good as it’s built up to be. It has its good parts, and the intention is much more transparent than the murky ideologues would like it to be, but it’s otherwise pretty unremarkable.

Finally, after all the posturing, accusations, threats, and politicizing, I offer this: if you want to see a movie, go see it.  Enjoy it. That’s what it’s made for. You shouldn’t be ashamed of seeing a movie because of how it’s being interpreted or what “message” it sends to whoever the “opposition” is. I’m as fascinated by social messages in cinema as anyone else but even I’ll say those shouldn’t decide whether a movie is or isn’t worth your time. You should only be ashamed if the movie is bad.

Content of character. Always.

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.

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