‘Selma’ Ignores the Radical Grassroots Politics of the Civil Rights Movement

There is a remarkable scene in Ava DuVernay’s ambitious new film, Selma, where Coretta Scott King (wonderfully played by Carmen Ejogo), fearing for the life of her family, describes being overcome by the “fog of death.” It’s an apt phrase, and all the more so for it’s subtle echo of the “fog of war,” that realm of deception and uncertainty that clouds our reading of human intentions under inhumane conditions. More than ever, one feels caught up in that “fog of death.” As the tragedies in New York City and Missouri among citizens and the police accumulate, and tensions escalate, so does the sense of an eerie fog of war.

For months a question mark hovered over the protests surrounding Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson and Eric Garner’s killing in New York City: Would the spontaneous and sporadic language of protest, anger, and injury become a sustained movement for equality and justice? Although the path forward remains murky and imperiled, there can no longer be any doubt: There is a social movement for racial justice in this country with a broader base and louder voice—particularly among millennials—than at any time since the late and tragic phase of the Civil Rights movement. Into this turbulence comes a film that sounds like a biopic, feels like a history lesson, and looks very much like an allegory of the present. But what exactly are the lessons today’s movement can draw from Selma?

DuVernay opens her film with King struggling to tie an ascot—a clever metonym for his discomfort with the world of white privilege and power that he will spend the rest of the film contentiously confronting. The scene is resolutely domestic: Coretta assists and encourages him; secured in his black manhood, he goes before the great white world to do what he can for his people—give a speech. These respective gender roles largely shape the script. The women in DuVernay’s film console, lend support, explain, bear, and endure—they must be strong for their men, and for each other. But the actual strategizing, the activism in action is decidedly the provenance of King and his cadre of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) pastors and supporters. We get a passing, glamorous glance at the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) Diane Nash as she gets out of a car, but beyond the identifying caption, nothing in the film illustrates her fiery commitment or talented militancy.

To convey women’s resistance, the film relies instead on Oprah Winfrey, who plays Annie Lee Cooper, famous for her defiance at the steps of the Selma courthouse when she punched Sheriff Jim Clark. Yet Oprah’s best scene, the one people will remember, is surely her earlier confrontation with the voter registration officer who demonstrates the racist, intimidating function of polling tests. There’s no question that many women and men did muster extraordinary resolve and dignity to try and register on their own, but the film again misses an opportunity to evoke the collective history, the activist history, and indeed, a women’s empowerment history.

In it’s rush to enshrine and reconfirm the charismatic male leadership of the movement, this film fails to honor the great female fountainheads of that movement, Septima Clark and Ella Baker, and women like Fannie Lou Hamer in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, whose work on voter-registration and literacy, through the Citizenship Schools, were the true incubators of activism and irrigators of the Civil Rights movement. At a time when men still unthinkingly expected the women to take notes as the men talked politics at meetings, Baker, the outspoken guiding spirit of SNCC, proved an indispensable leader, instrumental at every level in the success of Freedom Summer.

What it comes down to is that Selma expresses at every turn the political perspective of the black middle class, which prefers to perceive the civil rights struggle through the lens of individual dignity and negotiation, as opposed to collective urgency and direct action. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, both currents were, and indeed remain, important drivers of change. But it explains the film’s contemptuous handling of any whiff of radical politics. The groundbreaking work of SNCC, for example, is dismissed as hot-headed petulance. An utterly bizarre performance by Nigel Thatch of Malcolm X presents him simultaneously as rakish and emasculated, a potential threat to a good woman, without any trace of a threat to white supremacy; while the film redacts Stokely Carmichael from the record entirely. Lowndes County, Alabama comes up several times, but those who don’t know their movement history will not know he was there, or recognize it as the birthplace of the Black Panther party.

While it may better suit the needs of a Hollywood picture, the top-down narrative, which monumentalizes the SCLC and NAACP around King’s leadership, has in fact long been refuted and corrected by scholars and historians. While no one should forego seeing Selma, those truly invested in thinking about how a grassroots movement takes shape, takes over a national debate, and forges a new political consciousness, should immediately go and read Charles M. Payne’s magnificent and meticulous study: I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, or watch, or re-watch (for those who saw a snippet in high school) PBS’s definitive Eyes on the Prize documentary series.

Two years ago I had the enormous privilege of taking a class with Bob Moses, one of the key figures in SNCC. Moses was born in Harlem, graduated from Stuyvesant, and already had degrees from Hamilton College and Harvard before he went to work for SNCC registering black voters in Mississippi in 1961. Like a number of other SNCC members coming down from the North sporting Ivy credentials, he expected to bring organizing expertise to people who didn’t have anything. To his and many others’ surprise, they found that the folk around there were already organized, had been in contact with Communists who had come down in the 1930s, and could tell you about parents, uncles and aunts, and grandparents who had been in the streetcar boycotts of 1904, who had fought their ways to the polls in the 1870s during the Reconstruction, fending off the Klan and the Red Shirts and the White League. In short, the movement had always already been there. Its time was always now. (Bob Moses is still at it—he’s been teaching math in Mississippi as part of the Algebra Project, a nonprofit he started in 1981.)

Ava DuVernay is a talented filmmaker, but there is an awkward irony in her film reasserting a top-down narrative of the movement just as a new movement with a new generation is utterly rejecting that very model. It has been widely observed that today’s protest movement is characteristically leaderless. The organizers are as often as not working class, many of them women, with a notably visible queer presence, obviously unimaginable at Selma 50 years ago. There is a broad level of comfort with relative anonymity; the person organizing your die-in may only be known to you by a twitter handle. Many have also noticed how secular this movement is. The black church, which in many corners has tended in recent years to fervently embrace aspirational values and so called “prosperity theology,” has lost a great deal of credibility with young activists, and therefore influence. When Al Sharpton—the presumed charismatic black male pastor of our time called for a massive day of action for December 13 and a march on Washington D.C. he got only a tepid turnout. The Millions March in New York City had over 50,000 people. The rejection of the old guard could not have been made more eloquently.

At a die-in you have time to think, and you think about bodies. At some point you realize that the history of your people is a history of bodies, or rather of corpses. Not always, but often these are taught to you as lists of men. Emmet Till’s in the pages of Jet Magazine. Malcolm at the Audubon. Martin Luther in Memphis. Fred Hampton in his bedroom in Chicago. Arthur McDuffie in Miami. Rodney King on the freeway. As you near the present they become screen grabs spaced ever closer together, faces suspended in the feed, strange fruit: Sean’s, Oscar’s, Trayvon’s, Michael’s, Eric’s, Tamir’s. These are the ones that get named, that attach themselves to history, that get entered into the ledger of the national discourse, but of course, there are others.

While on the surface current protests are about police brutality and a lack of accountability in our judicial system, there is an underlying anger at the indignity with which black bodies are routinely treated in the public sphere. There was rage specifically directed at authorities for leaving Michael Brown’s body bleeding into the asphalt for four-and-a-half hours. The chokehold was the legal focus of Eric Garner’s case, yet some of the most circulated pictures online were those showing an officer kneeling on his face. Part of what these protests have already achieved, and much of the enormous work still left undone, is dismantling the routine indifference and double standards American society applies to black bodies.

The literary scholar Saidiya Hartman of Columbia University has written of “the precariousness of empathy and the thin line between witness and spectator” in representations of the enslaved body: “How does one give expression to these outrages without exacerbating the indifference to suffering that is the consequence of the benumbing spectacle”? These are hard questions, and they are questions that black filmmakers like Ana DuVernay and Steve McQueen are forced to negotiate. There is no question that they have had, and will continue to have a major liberating impact on the kinds of representation available to black artists working within and without the industry.