My dissertation’s thesis is that nonviolence is an overemphasised narrative in civil rights’ movements. About 8 weeks into my phenomenal American history module (the first I’d ever studied the U.S.!) in autumn last year, I emailed my professor to say ‘I always imagined people just became more aware of human rights and basic decency and that was why civil rights movements worked, but obviously that was not enough.’ (Reading back on my questions to lecturers is a mix of hilarious and deeply embarrassing, but I guess I’m here to learn.) And nonviolence is such an elegant fill-the-gap between segregation and the post-racial era — I just don’t think it’s enough. By attributing the victories to Dr King we do a disservice to the staggering courage and drive of the grassroots activists — and more dangerously, we think we do live in a post-racial world (or America), because the Civil Rights Movement finishes neatly in 1968, with King’s assassination and the second Civil Rights Act.
As I’ve been reading and learning more, I’m becoming more wary of what nonviolence really is, and what King did. I would never say he’s anything less than a visionary and a hero — the problem is portrayal. That’s why it’s taken me so long to watch Selma. The poster, King towering over a crowd, seemed like a tell-tale sign of another portrayal iconographic history that might be doing more harm than good.
Which is why I’m surprised Selma made me cry. Three times. I bawl like an idiot at museums and when reading and in seminars these days, so maybe that’s not much, but I think Ava DuVernay has directed a fantastic film. A big (pseudo?)problem with civil rights’ history is that it’s all incredible — every story carries so much individual and collective bravery, resilience, creativity and wit, it’s hard to believe they walked (or marched) on the streets I’ve walked on. This also means it’s painful to see its victories attributed to one man. When people ask me to tell me about what I’ve studied, I always start with Ella Baker, founder of SNCC and the woman who was the behind the scenes orchestrator of pretty much everything civil rights related for 50 years. Not many people have heard her name.
That’s why I’ve never given Selma or 1954 (Brown v. Board, which theoretically ended segregation in schools–valuable for the precedent it set in court) to 1968 (King’s death and the last major civil rights legislation) much attention. It’s why I can’t yell out, where the fuck is Ella Baker, like I did at the MLK memorial in D.C. I don’t know who was spearheading there. But it sure as hell wasn’t just a crowd following Dr King with his wife Coretta, John Lewis and his buddies and a lady they were standing up for. OK, see, the issue here is that you feel shitty demanding an intersectional history when the story of the events in Alabama as the film tells them are so powerful already. That’s the Big Problem. Women had been the backbone of the movement for over a century, yet the film is about men, and their ability to mobilise the people.
The people were behind the movement, were then and are now. Always. For all the crying, I don’t feel the film conveyed that enough — the story it told was of King, and how he inspired the people and stood up to LBJ, relentless, which is all well and good. Maybe I’ve become desensitised (I did spend two full days at the National Museum of African American History and Culture where, among other things, I learned about the church bombing, and in general, I don’t think it’s fair to hold film against the standards of the unparalleled genius of NMAAHC), but I would’ve liked to see more of the people and representations of their agenda (show us the White House protesters, for god’s sake!!)
Some parts were brilliantly done. Jimmie Lee Jackson’s story was gut-wrenching, and amid the extended scenes of white brutality and the unbelievable bullshit the people in power responded with was really well executed. I don’t know if anyone else felt ready to get up right then and there and travel back to 1968, but I have to imagine it did. The brutality also did a service to the portrayal of nonviolence — and challenged the complacent idea that violence wasn’t integral to the movement.
Contrasting to that, the weak part was Coretta — the meeting with Malcom X was brilliant, but I didn’t really understand why we needed the relationship drama. It was too brief and isolated to add much to the story, and kind of felt like a ‘relationship’ tickbox. She was a brilliant activist in her own right, and her reluctance about her role as she was next to the all-important Dr King in one of the early scenes conveyed so much, so why did she need to be reduced to a side character, a distraction from The Work?
Finally, a quick shout-out to all the actors — I almost forgot to write about them because I would’ve forgotten this wasn’t original footage if I hadn’t recognised Wendell Pierce from Suits. Wonderful casting and not a single hitch in my eyes. J. Edgar Hoover, FBI, was portrayed as a right piece of shit, which I loved.
I’ve intentionally not read up on any other reviews or even much on the March on Montgomery as it happened, but
I will update this post with any good stuff I come across. I’m really intrigued to know how much truth there was to the LBJ they’re portraying and who the women behind Selma were (note I’m not asking if they were; I want to know who they were!) I think it’s great we had this film for a conversation-starter (even if I am three years late to the conversation) — and I think whatever flaws there may have been, DuVernay has given us something worth watching. And worth discussing.
- A bizarre case for female representation on Roger Ebert (I’d agree with a commentator — what is the author on about?)
- Two articles insisting LBJ’s (mis)portrayal is all but criminal (ok but consider this: this is deserved and fine after a long line of Black underrepresentation)
- A discussion on why Selma didn’t win at the Oscars, laying out a pattern for the past 30+ years at the Academy Awards (the more you know. . .)
I’d really like to know your opinions, about Selma as much as this post. I’ve been wanting to come back to this blog to write about the films I watch for ages, but I’ve always hesitated, so any feedback is really appreciated. (If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s on UK Netflix!)