Selma: negotiating blackness in American Cinema (English version)

*This is a translated version of my review of Selma, originally published in Portuguese, my native language. Click here to read the Portuguese version

If the very act of making a film involves negotiating various, opposing demands – for cinema is the result of a collective effort that generally requires a significant sum of financial resources –, for a black filmmaker such negotiation involve additional, more complex matters. That is the case of Selma, a chronicle of the events leading up to the Selma-to-Montgomery marches in 1965, key milestones in dismantling the racist assemblage of Jim Crow laws. Selma carries in its DNA heavy doses of negotiation.

Why? Because it has a black women, Ava DuVernay, at the helm, and we are aware of how women in positions of power still represent a problematic issue in the film business; because it’s a recount of black protagonism in a movie produced within a white, heteronormative industry (#OscarSoWhite calling!); because it has placed at the center of the picture none other than Martin Luther King Jr., whose actions meant so much to a significant part of the Civil Rights Movement so that it becomes almost impossible for him to be the target of any criticism; because it simultaneously attempts to retain the attention of a black audience while strongly appealing to a white one, making an effort to not divorce itself from white spectators; because its substance is History, but its way of expression is Cinema.

This large menu of issues to negotiate (the past, the means of production, the audience, blackness, one’s aspirations as an artist) is in Selma‘s fingerprints. If you look for it, you will see it. Considering this heavy invisible load, DuVernay, as a filmmaker, survived the threat of being restricted by this environment of negotiation. Perhaps Selma could go no further than it did. The fact we must acknowledge is that the film industry finances so few movies about the multiplicity of black experience – even less if we consider the ones directed by black women – that every time one of these films comes around we bring an unspoken expectation that it’ll be a definitive one, able to address all the uncovered topics and nuances of our lives as black people. It’s an obviously unfair expectation or demand, but still an unavoidable one. To not acknowledge that is to wrongly ignore a determinant aspect of experiencing Selma.

Selma deftly avoids some potential missteps. For example, the prologue, in which an old lady is absurdly denied her right to vote by means of bureaucratic excuses. Wisely, DuVernay’s and Paul Webb’s screenplay steers clear of any didactic over-explanation of how it was possible, under Jim Crow laws, for a minor white bureaucrat to casually deny a black citizen her constitutional right. There’s no need to go as far back as the Civil War or Reconstruction to portray the exclusion of black Americans from the fields of citizenship and dignity. Where a less talented artist would need multiple scenes, DuVernay solves the whole issue in just one.

However, Selma does not escape other traps. In an attempt to portray Martin Luther King Jr as a profound, deeper character, the screenplay highlights his extra-marital affairs and how Coretta, his stoic wife, decided to stay by his side, sublimating herself to the benefit of a bigger cause – and of her man. Instead of blowing the window wide open, the film sidesteps a more provocative statement, such as dealing with the intricate sexism within the black activist movement from that time – both the “We Shall Overcome” wing and its critical response, the Panthers. Selma gives us a very powerful traveling shot of Doctor King lecturing from a pulpit, but shuts its eyes to the fact that such a place of prestige was denied to a large number of potential black leaders, for example women and gays.

And here we are, once again, inevitably dealing with the need for negotiation: because the current political landscape is delicate – the US right wing, engulfed in Tea Partyism, smells like rotten eggs and institutional racism has not backed off a single inch –, we feel as if we should retreat to guaranteeing basic rights, concentrating our efforts to uphold them and, only afterwards, allow ourselves a more assertive criticism of our historic heroes. If this mindset persists, Black Cinema will not advance. At the most, we’ll keep doing variations of the same narrative: a black person suffers oppression from the white establishment and has his/her saga told in a way that can emotionally move a white-liberal audience and/or overcomes his/her oppressed status through the actions of good-hearted whites. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, The Help and Selma holding hands, walking side by side. Sisyphus pushes the rock up to the mountain, the rock rolls back down.

As a film critic, surely I could restrain myself to a check list of what has or has not worked out for Selma. I could debate DuVernay’s decision to film police violence in slow motion or the structural tightness of historic films/biopics (the sense that each act by the main character always is ontologically noble, history-in-the-making); I could question the portrait of Lyndon Johnson as being nothing but a calculating politician who signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 out of petty politics; or the limits posed by cause-and-effect type of editing. However, as a black writer committed to observing film (particularly US products) within the context of production, I’d rather reflect on the the unspoken challenges that a black artist goes through when expressing herself/himself through the mass media: how must we deal with the various expectations surrounding our work when talking about our own History?

Expanding the angles from which we can look at this issue, I would bring Ganja and Hess (1973), Bill Gunn’s guerrilla film, to the conversation. Hired to replicate Blacula, one the most iconic Blaxploitation films of the 70’s, Gunn politicized his vampire movie, replacing sex metaphors with artistic resistance and prioritizing issues of black authorship: how can I respect my own desires as a black artist while having my creative force dried up by the means of production?

Though Selma should be obviously credited with presenting a historic perspective to today’s audience, the film’s achievements are less than what I believe Black Cinema can be (namely: work that is less restrained by the obligation of negotiating with whiteness, expressing itself in a more courageous, less vacillating way). However, taking into account the context of contemporary mainstream cinema, we could reach a sad diagnosis: Selma may have gone as far as it could. I hope I’m proven wrong in the following years.

*Heitor Augusto is a film critic, researcher, lecturer and journalist based in São Paulo, Brazil. He can be reached at [email protected] or @ursodelata on Twitter.

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