Wednesday, 4 March 2015


I don’t want to write about Hollywood’s problem with fostering, accepting, and recognizing diversity. I don’t want to write about Selma’s status as another javelin to be thrown in our Great Culture Wars. I don’t even want to write  about Selma’s ability to shift historical narratives in order to reach greater emotional truths. Well, much.

I want to write about how viewing Selma made me feel.
Though I grew up in Southern California, our community had a strong conservative lean. When students tried to organize a “Day of Silence” in support for LGBT rights, parents pulled their students from school in droves. An English teacher had the gall to criticize George W Bush as a “crook” and had to appear on fox news to apologize. But public school creates diversity by design, and my English teacher made it her mission to educate. A tiny mormon woman, she was conservative in everything but the books and messages she exposed us to. We read Frederick Douglass’ account of his life, Martin Luther King’s letters written from Birmingham Jail, and even the Autobiography of Malcolm X.
So when 12 years a slave became a cause celebre last year, I dutifully purchased a ticket. And although the film left me saddened, I wasn’t shaken. I had read first-hand accounts of slave narratives, the barbarism no more real because it was belatedly transposed to the screen. For me, there was a distance I could afford between myself and america’s great national trauma of slavery.
Selma affords no such distance. One Oscar voter, under anonymity, slurred Selma by calling it a “rap version of history.” Selma is a profoundly angry film, offering none of the usual compromises on its way to tell its story. There is no comforting white presence on which the narrative can return to, like a security blanket for those terrified to see a story driven by something other than benevolent white man.
King’s message has always been diluted, from the way mainstream history ignores his later years focusing on the Vietnam War to the myriad ways that “Non-Violence” has been misinterpreted and redefined. At the heart of Selma is the cold calculus of the civil rights movement – court but do not invite violence, stand humble but unbowed, and hope that your enemy finds your mere presence so disagreeable that he’ll ignore the flashing camera bulbs as he kicks your ribs in.
Most biographies tend to treat their subject as a God, his words or actions divinely arriving at the right place with the right grace. Selma exposes this as a fraud. This is not the Martin Luther King Jr. America gave a national holiday to. This Martin takes out the garbage, bickers with his wife, growing unsteady as the weight of the movement he created cuts ever deeper into his shoulders. We treat Kings’ words as gospel. Selma treats them as rhetoric, no less honorable but far more relatable.
And white voice do appear, eventually. White figures are present in Selma, and choose to embrace or reject King’s message. Selma’s choice, as revolutionary as it is mundane, is to give equal weight to the men wrapping barbed wire around baseball bats as the clergymen who saw King as a brother-in-arms. Selma doesn’t attempt to capture the centuries of oppression that led to King’s calls for justice. It does, however, depict the faces of a country deeply at unease with the recent passing of the Civil Rights Act. Countless faces who saw progress and retreated to their bunker. Or sat on a hill and cheered as white lawmen lobbed teargas and baton sticks with casual indignation, the confederate flag proudly flapping away in the background.
I find myself fumbling to recount the ways in which Selma sliced my perspective open with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel. Selma doesn’t overwhelm with bombast; any film can portray butchery. Selma’s strength is in its reserve, its careful rhythm that reminded me of a prosecutor’s opening argument. To accuse the film of having an agenda is to ignore that every work of art ever made has an agenda, intentional or otherwise.
It is impossible to write about Selma and not write about today. That same English teacher who once wheeled in boxes full of The Autobiography of Malcolm X used to talk about how artists had to be specific in order to hit universal truths. Selma recalls that platitude long before Common references Ferguson in the closing credits. At one point, the film unflinchingly portrays the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson. White cops brutalizing and then casually choosing to take a black life.
Selma doesn’t intend to politicize that moment. But it does want to recognize it as a reality, as something far more damning than a “tragedy”. Make no mistake, Selma is incendiary. The film is not wholly drawn from a long tradition of anger and bitterness, but it acknowledges that aching succession of frustration and despair. It acknowledges the sheer tonnage of shit that America has asked black America to carry. And sadly, the critical conversation around Selma demonstrates the ways in which we ask minorities to never speak with even the slightest tinge of anger of emotion – cold and cerebral, that same ghastly calculus twisted again and again.
Those that seek to tear down Selma aren’t scared that Johnson’s legacy will be tarnished. that white America will somehow be held culpable, that we might dare treat King as a man instead of a myth.
They're scared that a film this angry feels this emotionally true.
There is hope to be found in Selma's story. But there's also a lot of sadness, too. To acknowledge the latter does in no way disqualify the former.
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