One of the things I appreciated most about Selma was the way it portrayed civil rights activism as being by, about, and for, black people in the American South. Contrary to what we may be used to from documentaries and textbooks on the subject, the movie didn’t glorify or fetishize the activists, black or white, who came down from the North, as “saviors.” There were no scenes of people boarding buses in New York. There were instead scenes of people who lived in Selma resisting in Selma. In fact, Selma deepens and adds to the popular historical take by demonstrating that the local SNCC activists were wary of Martin Luther King’s brand of activism, and that everyone in Selma was suspicious — while being cognizant of allies’ strategic importance — of the influx of outside activists jumping on the bandwagon.
Ava DuVernay did a beautiful job creating scenes that showed the truth: local people, many of them women, took a stand for their own lives, dignity and future. These are the folks who provided a foundation for a movement. It’s fiction that encapsulates pure truth, the best kind of art.
That’s why it seems foolish at best to focus so heavily on the hyper-accuracy of the film’s scenes featuring President Lyndon B. Johnson, as everyone seems to have begun doing in the weeks since the film’s release. David Edelstein at New York Magazine even published an addendum to his review, saying that he reviewed the historical record and “I’m bound to conclude that, indeed, Selma is not entirely fair to LBJ” while acknowledging that the film was still excellent.
Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey has pointed out that the rumors were conveniently timed to the film’s rising Oscar hopes. And all along, I have had a sneaking suspicion that the hubbub also reflected white anxiety about being made secondary in a black story.
This week, I read an article in The Forward (where I’ve been a longtime contributor) complaining about the so-called erasure of Jews from the film. Yes, Jews were very involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and as a progressive Jew myself, I was happy to note a few yarmulkes in Selma‘s crowd shots. But the reality is, Selma is not our story and it should not be our story. Erika Davis, another sometime Forward contributor, responded perfectly at her blog “Black, Gay and Jewish,”
Because let’s be real, as many Jews who spent their summers in Mobile, Selma, and other places getting their asses kicked at the hands of really fucked up southerners there were countless more blacks who were lynched and beaten. Hundreds of black families terrorized. Hundreds of black churches burned to the ground. YEARS of black men, women and children enslaved, tortured and killed simply for being black.
The Forward piece confirmed my hunch about the first wave of controversy around LBJ. It is baffling to so many white viewers to encounter white people appearing mostly, in a major film, as symbols in a black struggle. They literally do not know how to comprehend what they’re seeing. It begins with LBJ, who clearly symbolizes the reluctant political ally, well-intentioned but self-interested, who must be goaded into doing the right thing. Meanwhile, his fellow white people are sympathetic bureaucrats and inimical sheriffs, pragmatic racists and malicious racists. There are naive allies and the allies who stick around, like Viola Liuzzo, and pay the ultimate price for it.
The constraint of narrative means that not every detail can or should be included. Not everyone’s story can be foregrounded. In fact, in a well-done narrative all minor characters are deployed in service of the central story, creating a total effect. Anyone involved in the storytelling arts know this. It didn’t shock me at all that in order to make an interesting and dramatic and resonant film, a central historical conflict would be ramped up and heightened.
Selma offers us the reverse of what we’re accustomed to in pop culture, when white (and usually straight, and male) stories are foregrounded and everyone else gets to be the symbol, the sassy friend, the road block, or the wise adviser.
“Selma‘s power lies in its unique portrayal of the humanity and interior life of black people who sacrificed greatly to free themselves from unimaginable oppression,” writes Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “Any effort to hijack the attention this film richly deserves because of its portrayal of LBJ reflects everything that has been wrong with most civil rights films from Mississippi Burning to The Help — films that concern themselves principally with the heroism of white people in a movement that was created, driven and shaped by black people.” And Henry Louis Gates said, “I think both the script and the direction are masterpieces, and any attempt to make this about the Great White Father is misdirected.”
Selma is one of too few films about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, and it has garnered nearly universal praise. The fact that white people cannot stop complaining about their own absence or one slight mischaracterization shows just how far we still have to go in terms of understanding not only history, but storytelling, and how race plays into every facet of both. “To complain about not seeing enough white faces is really to be uncomfortable with seeing only black faces, seeing a modern-day wake up call about the clear and rampant racism that still exists in our country,” writes Davis at her blog.
People of color are used to watching films of all kinds and not seeing themselves reflected. But this is a fairly new experience for white people. We need to get over our shock, because all of us need more films like Selma.