Selma: A Film About Politics or a Political Film?

Selma Ava DuvernaySomething a little different today: this is an essay I wrote last year for a university module about political cinema. It discusses how a film, in this case Selma, can be political for many other reasons other than its content. Enjoy!

Ava DuVernay’s political biopic Selma (2014) depicts the months leading up to the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965 and the fight for black Americans’ right to vote, as part of the broader civil rights movement in the 1960s. While the very content of the film itself is political, the wider social context in which the film was released – the repeal of sections of the Voting Rights Act designed to protect minority voters by the Supreme Court in 2013 and the increasing racial tensions in the wake of police killings of young black men in the USA – creates a parallel between the issues of the past and contemporary problems that face African Americans in the twenty first century. DuVernay’s desire to challenge the prevailing civil rights narrative and offer a ‘bracing history lesson’ to the US public raised on the belief that ‘we all overcame Southern injustices together’ (Holloway 2015, p.36) is also inherently political, with the portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson causing controversy among historians and the public upon the film’s release.

Selma’s portrayal of historical events and characters came under fire from historians and journalists alike upon its release, most notably in regards to the depiction of the then President Lyndon B. Johnson. DuVernay’s desire to avoid the ‘white saviour’ tropes that have appeared in other civil rights films, and produce a film that was ‘about [the] African American people who were involved in the momentous events’ of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s (King 2015, p.470) rather than the legislative powers in Washington D.C was the main source of controversy. Throughout the film Johnson is shown to be a reluctant ally to the civil rights movement, telling King that he has ‘a hundred and one problems’ to deal with before focusing on the issue of black disenfranchisement. DuVernay’s portrayal of Johnson highlights the varied discrimination that the Civil Rights movement faced: the blatant and violent racism of Governor Wallace and the Selma police force, and the more subtle, legislative reluctance to act from the White House. It is not only Johnson who is shown to be conflicted and complex; Oyelowo’s portrayal of King as flawed character taking part in extra martial affairs and often ‘frustrated and beleaguered’ (D’Addario 2015, p.54) with the various factions and divisions within the movement can be viewed as an act of reclaiming history and Dr King himself. Within DuVernay’s film he is not placed on a pedestal as a sanitized character, ‘no more complex than the closing paragraphs of his speech at the March on Washington’ (Holloway 2015, p.36) as is often the popular public perception. However, DuVernay’s attempts to extend the same treatment to Johnson has been met with more criticism, with many critics and historians defending his civil rights record and his eventual signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In Holloway’s article on entertainment as history, he states how this movement away from the prevailing Civil Rights narrative provoked high levels of anger amongst critics because it was an example of ‘their history disappearing’ (Holloway 2015, p.37). Although his statement relies on the assumption that the majority of people reacting negatively to Selma’s depiction of history were white Americans, it does lend some legitimacy that it isn’t simply the representational aspects of the film that makes it progressive. The fact that DuVernay, an African American woman, presents an ‘artistic interpretation of historical events’ and ‘redraft[s] memories of national exceptionalism’ (Harris 2015, p.35) is significant, as questions have to be asked as to what the extent of the criticism would have been as severe had the same decisions been made by a white, more well-known director. Through her decision to move the focus away from the actions of the White House and onto the grassroots activism of the civil rights movement, DuVernay makes a choice to challenge the narratives of history away from the prevailing social understanding of the past is one of the factors that makes Selma a progressive and political film.

 

Another factor that contributes to Selma’s impact as a progressive film is the social context in which it was released. Filmed less than a month before the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, it was released in a ‘spectacularly fraught time in contemporary America race relations’ (Clark, 2015). With riots and protests sparked at several points throughout late 2014 as well as the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, there is clearly a continuation of the issues faced by African Americans in modern US society. Throughout Selma DuVernay constantly uses various cinematic techniques to gain the audience’s empathy with the black marchers, as in particularly evident in during the depiction of the ‘Bloody Sunday’ march on 7th March 1965. During the initial exchanges between John Lewis and the Major, DuVernay uses a non-diegetic orchestral score in a minor key to convey both the building tension and sense of fear between the two sides. This is abruptly halted by the diegetic shotgun fired into the air by one of the troopers, which signals the police charge forwards. Here, DuVernay’s decision to rid the film of any non-diegetic sound heightens the sense of realism, as the screams and shouts of the protestors places the audience directly in the middle of the action, along with thumps of the police batons. The privileging of these sounds high in the sound mix during this sequence aligns the audience with the protestors. DuVernay also uses the cinematography to continue the involvement of the audience with the action of the film. As the police rush forward, the combination of short takes and medium close-ups of the bodies rushing in every direction connotes both the sense of chaos and disorientation that the protesters felt in the face of organised violence. This technique denies the audience a singular character or narrative in which to focus on, creating some understanding of the protestors’ feeling and reactions and ultimately is used to manipulate the audience into siding emotionally with the protesters. As post production took place between Summer 2014 (Edwards, 2015) and the film’s release in December 2014 – during which some of the worst protests against police killings took place in Ferguson and were met with heavy handed policing – there is an argument that these events perhaps influenced DuVernay’s editing of the film. By placing the audience in the moment on ‘Bloody Sunday’ and creating a sense of understanding, she is also trying to create the same sense of sympathy with the Black Lives Matter protestors in 2016 where ‘the images of tear gas look all too familiar’ (D’Addario 2015, p.55). The parallels drawn between the Civil Right movement of the 1960s and protests in 2014 was also furthered upon the film’s release, as DuVernay and the cast ‘gathered on the front steps of the New York Public Library… dressed in ‘I Can’t Breathe’ t-shirts’ (Sperling 2015, p.83), a phrase which has become the slogan for the Black Lives Matter movement. It is clear, therefore, that DuVernay uses filmic techniques to draw comparisons between political movements in the past and the present, as the film’s political impact is directly related to the social context in which it exists.

 

Another aspect of social context which highlights Selma’s role as a progressive and political film is the historical importance of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and its role in modern US society. With the VRA celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2015, the very section of the act dedicated to protective the voting rights of minorities, particularly in the southern states, was overturned in 2013. The overturning of section four which required states to ‘submit voting changes to federal monitoring’ (Roberts, 2013) to prevent requirements such as literacy tests to discriminate against minority voters could be viewed as a sign of progress. However, many critics stated that it could lead to increased disenfranchisement across America especially in states where ‘voting discrimination has been historically prevalent’ (Roberts, 2013). Selma’s portrayal of the struggle by black Americans to win the right to vote reiterates the act’s importance, as well as possibly suggesting a possible futures where the right to vote for the minority groups in America is threatened.

 

There is no doubt the Selma is a political film, as it’s very subject matter – voting rights, peace protests and police brutality, and the treatment of black Americans – demands a political reading. However, it is the social context in which it was released directly highlights how the issues that are presented in the film cannot be constrained to the past. In a society still effected by police brutality, racially motivated murders and a voting act that is open to abuse, Selma is a highly progressive, relevant film about America’s past and its present.

 

Bibliography

 Clark, A., (2015) ‘Selma Review’, [online] Sight & Sound. Available at: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/reviews-recommendations/film-week-selma [Accessed 29 Oct. 2016]

D’addario, D., (2015) ‘Making Selma History’ in Time, Vol.185 No 1, pp 52-55

Edwards, G., (2015) ‘We Shall Overcome: Ava DuVernay on Making Selma’, [online] Rolling Stone. Available at: http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/features/ava-duvernay-on-making-selma-20150105 [Accessed 30 Oct. 2016]

Harris, L., (2015) ‘Varieties of Leadership in Selma’, in Perspectives on History, Vol.53 Issue 5, pp 34-35

Holloway, J., (2015) ‘History as Entertainment or Entertainment as History?’, in Perspectives on History, Vol.53 Issue 5, pp 36-37

King, R.H., (2015) ‘How long? Not long: Selma, Martin Luther King and civil rights narratives’ in Patterns of Prejudice, Vol. 49 Issue 5, pp 466-485

Roberts, D., (2013) ‘Supreme court’s voting rights decision ‘deeply disappointing’, Obama says’, [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/law/2013/jun/25/supreme-court-voting-rights-act-obama [Accessed 27 Oct. 2016]

Sperling, N., (2015) ‘The Woman Who Made History’ in Entertainment Weekly, Issue 1348/1349, pp 80-83

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