Moving Past Hagiography in Civil Rights Cinema



David Oyelowo, as Martin Luther King Jr., in discussion with director Ava DuVernay

Three young men are sprinting down a tree-lined block as the sun hits them in pulses through the leaves. The camera follows behind them swiftly as the music heightens and a white, brick church appears past the line of suburban houses. In the front lawn, black individuals lie bloodied and injured after being beaten, clubbed, and whipped by white Alabama State Authorities for their attempted crossing of the Edmund Pettis Bridge between Selma and Montgomery. Many are in pain and anguish as they are cared for. The three men finish their sprint in the middle of the group and struggle to catch their breath before they can offer help.

The literal movement of the scene, as well as the urgency and terror that constitute it, parallel the larger social movement shown in Selma. These three boys, whom we do not see before or after this scene, and for all we know are average residents of Selma, are moved so urgently by a situation that demands resolve. The viewers at once feel the violence of the oppressor and the necessity to respond to it, even if that may elicit more violence.

The film, directed by Ava DuVernay, tells the story of three marches organized in Alabama during the voting rights struggle of the mid 1960’s led by Martin Luther King Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. DuVernay had originally imagined the film would help reignite debate in the context of recent attacks on voting rights legislation. It has been seen, though, more in light of the litany of racialized killings of black people by the police and the subsequent failure to indict the officers. It has served as a cinematic accompaniment to the recent protests affirming that despite the failure to bring murderers to justice in the courts, and the continued failure to ensure structural social and economic equality, black lives do matter.

Despite the innumerable references to King and his whitewashed ethic of non-violence, astoundingly few films before Selma have been made about him or the history of grassroots struggle that made his reputation and legacy possible. Major motion picture companies, not coincidentally an industry dominated by white, upper class males, has largely remained silent on the topic. That a movie so well written, acted, and shot as Selma gets made at all represents a significant victory.

One would expect a film of its prestige to fall prey to the same revisionist, hagiographic tendencies present in the culture that produced it. Overwhelmingly, it does not. Despite an alarming absence of women’s agency, a tokenized representation of Malcom X, and an imprecise portrayal of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Selma is a massive success.

The most alarming shortcoming of Selma is the distorted view it takes on the role of women in the movement. Of the organizers portrayed in the film, Diane Nash (played by Tessa Thompson) is the only woman. However, in spite of her presence in nearly all of the meetings and demonstrations throughout the film, she may have less than ten lines in all. Diane Nash was one of the founding members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, who cut her teeth integrating Nashville lunch counters and organizing freedom rides. Shortly after a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in September 1963, Nash, alongside fellow organizer and future husband James Bevel, made the initial pitch to the leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) for a voting rights campaign in Alabama. Nash, who advised producer Oprah Winfrey on the film’s script, had harsh words for the film’s portrayal of the Selma campaign as an idea developed between President Lyndon Johnson and King. “Now this so-called controversy about Lyndon Johnson and Selma being his idea isn’t really a controversy at all. Number one, it’s a lie. Number two, it’s a propaganda movement,” Nash said at the 8th Annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast earlier this year. “We can’t have anything like that get an Academy Award, my goodness,” Nash said. “It doesn’t have a white savior. So we’ll just say it was Lyndon Johnson and that he was a partner with Martin Luther King.” The film’s portrayal is surprising, given that DuVernay acknowledges, in an interview with Terri Gross on National Public Radio, that it was in fact Nash and Bevel’s idea to go to Selma, and she laments the fact that Nash is not given a greater role in the film. Astonishingly, Nash was not in the film’s original script, but was only inserted at the direction of DuVernay.

Corretta Scott King (played by Carmen Ejogo) also gets the short end of the cinematic stick as her real life fierceness and agency are wiped away and replaced with a domestic docility that serves more as a foil to Martin’s resolve than as a historically accurate or even convincing characterization. Scott had been active in the NAACP chapter at Antioch College, where she was studying (and where her older sister had been the first black student to integrate). This was before she met Martin, though her involvement in the movement certainly escalated after the two met and eventually wed.
Scott was integral in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and would with time come to craft fierce arguments connecting social and racial oppression. Emilye Crosby, in her book Civil Rights History from the Ground Up, quotes Scott as saying “Our policy at home is to try to solve social problems through military means, just as we have done abroad. The bombs we drop on the people of Vietnam continue to explode at home with all of their devastating potential. There is no reason why a nation as rich as ours should be blighted by poverty, disease and illiteracy. It is plain that we don’t care about poor people, except to exploit them as cheap labor and victimize them through excessive rents and consumer prices.” While it is commonly known that King’s politics became increasingly radical before his assassination, much less is commonly known about Scott’s, and the film unfortunately does not shed much needed light upon it.

Scott was also a harsh critic of women’s subdued role in the movement. In 1966 she remarked that “not enough attention has been focused on the roles played by women in the struggle. By and large, men have formed the leadership in the civil rights struggle but …women have been the backbone of the whole civil rights movement.” Oprah Winfrey (as Annie Lee Cooper) and Lorraine Toussaint (as Amelia Boynton) are also featured in the film, but minimally. In an early scene, Cooper has her voter registration attempt rejected by a corrupt county clerk, despite her obvious eligibility. It is a defeating exchange and though it is an important one, we never see the flip side of the coin, we never see her agency activated.

Despite the backlash the film weathered for its realist take on LBJ as a politician, and not the high minded, purist liberal he is publically remembered as, the real historical blunder in Selma is the submissive role of women. DuVernay has been adamant that the film is not intended to track the historical facts to a tee, but rather to extrapolate a general truth. As a singular historical omission, it might not seem so important, but as a film that centrally engages the interpersonal, inter-organizational reality of grassroots organizing, the quieted, peripheral nature of women’s voices and presence is inauthentic.

Selma takes up difficult, nuanced questions of movement strategy and tactics in conversations between the media-focused, mass mobilization-minded SCLC led by King, and the militant, grassroots development approach favored by SNCC. One can only imagine how these otherwise masterfully crafted scenes would have played out cinematically had voices like Nash and Scott’s been as influential in the film as they were in real life.

Malcom X (played by Nigel Thatch) also has a stunted role in the film. Present for all of five minutes, Malcom appears in Selma just as the campaign gets underway. He is clearly resented by the SCLC, though still appears eager to make some sort of contribution to the campaign. Corretta relays the news to Martin through the iron bars of the jail cell, and in perhaps her only show of agency in the film, convinces Martin she should meet with him. A tense and curt scene follows in which Malcom, months before his assassination in New York City, attempts to position himself as the radical against Martin the moderate, thus forcing President Johnson to choose the lesser of two evils and ultimately acquiesce to the demands of Martin, the SCLC, and SNCC. This exchange may be regarded as an important event in the Selma campaign, but it is unclear how it figures into the arc of the film, as Malcom X is never made reference to either before or after.

The script adeptly addresses the intricate relationships within the SCLC amongst King and fellow organizers Andrew Young, James Orange, Bayard Rustin, James Bevel, Ralph Abernathy, and at times Diane Nash. The film also shows insightful exchanges between the leadership of SCLC and leadership of SNCC, as well as the leadership of SCLC to the masses in Selma (though this last aspect is not given as much attention as the others). However, the film never shows the relationship between the leaders of SNCC and the residents of Selma, which leaves the viewer wanting, because the film is explicit in noting that SNCC had been organizing in Selma long before the arrival of SCLC. We are lead to believe those relationships exist, but they are never shown.

In Selma, SNCC is embodied entirely by John Lewis and Jim Foreman and aside from a few off hand remarks about its organizational difficulties, little credence is lent to the highly developed and militant organization that it was. In one of the film’s most moving moments, SNCC leaders Jim Foreman and John Lewis argue in an empty hallway, long out of earshot of the other organizers. They go back and forth over the recent organizing takeover by SCLC. Foreman, strong-willed but sometimes inflexible and doctrinaire, is deeply angered by what feels like a raid on their territory and argues that SNCC should take back the reins of the campaign. Lewis, who was eventually elected to Congress in 1987 and is still serving, is a more balanced character who pushes back against Foreman and forces him to recognize that people in Selma are tired of the repeated defeats of previous voter registration drives. The people want King, Lewis says. While Foreman (played by Trai Byers) and Lewis (portrayed by Stephan James) are very convincing in the scene, the audience is forced to hear the will of the people – that they want King – through the mouthpiece of organizers. We can only imagine what a character like Cager Lee, still unable to vote at eighty years old, might think or feel in this instance.

These shortcomings aside, it won’t be long before Selma is regarded as one of the best movement films in years or even decades. Any viewer privy to the internal intricacies of social movements can appreciate the honest take on conflict, strategy, and commitment. Yet those who are not as steeped in movement politics can still feel the urgent reaction that white supremacy and racism merit today. In the present context of an enduring white supremacy, a black citizen is killed by the police every 28 hours. Combine that with microaggressions, mass incarceration, and inadequate social services and economic security, it should be difficult for any viewer to deny that radical, systemic change is needed today just as it was in the 1960’s. Selma forces both blacks and whites today to ask themselves the same question residents of Selma were forced to answer by the movement then: which side are you on? Clearly DuVernay is pushing the viewer to line up across the aisle from the oppressor and on the side of justice, and she pulls no punches and crafts no illusions as to the brutal and sometimes fatal consequences of this course of action, this way of life.

DuVernay and her incredible cast give us an encompassing picture of what it feels like to be part of something greater than oneself and the numerous risks and joys that it entails. We feel the intellectual stimulation of late night living room debates on strategy, the bonds built and friendships cultivated in the course of the movement, and the power of collective action as Martin and Selma residents call and respond from the church’s regal pulpit to its wooden benches. Yet we are also shown the brutal violence awaiting those who challenge ossified power structures and the resolve required to proceed when progress appears elusive. At least for the men in the film, she assigns not halo-adorned portraits, but whole personalities that include Martin’s marital infidelity, John Lewis’s fear, and Cager Lee’s sorrow at his son’s murder by the police.

Despite major snubs for DuVernay as Best Director and David Oyelowo as best Actor, Selma was nominated for two Oscars, Best Song (“Glory” by John Legend and Common) and Best Picture and won the former. The success of Selma is to be found not just in its craft, which is phenomenal, but in its raw content. For its willingness to address the racism of the past in the context of the racism of the present, the film is a desperately needed addition to Hollywood repertoire. For its relevance to the lives of viewers, particularly its black viewers, and its probing of complex yet accessible moral and political matters, Selma has already scored a major victory.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 OpenCUNY » login | join | terms | activity 

 Supported by the CUNY Doctoral Students Council.