Life seems less fair and more divisive year after year. Across the globe, the gap between oppressed and oppressors seems to gape wider, and peacefully resolving this becomes less and less likely. And for all the billions of people struggling, starving around the globe, nowhere does that contrast seem as stark as the ailing super-power that is America.
When I first published this review in 2015, I said it was a contrast made all the more apparent by the events of Ferguson a few months before – when 18 year old African-American Michael Brown was shot dead by 28-year-old white police officer Darren Wilson. Five years have passed, and each has brought new stories of an emboldened police force, knowing they are unlikely to face culpability for their actions, ramp up the violence directed at unarmed citizens; largely based upon racial profiling, in working class areas.
Whoever the President is, whichever ruling party they represent, the brutal state-sanctioned murder of people according to their ethnicity and class continues – and so with no establishment outlet to turn to, people have been left with no choice but to take to the streets in protest. For the first time in a long time, there is a united collective voice booming the message that all is not well in the land of the free. Black lives matter.
Not that you would know that in Hollywood. While there are occasional exceptions, there is a continued and shameful silence exhibited by the studio system in the face of the widespread calls for change surging about the planet currently – perhaps because its captains are aware any meaningful change to the situation will gravely disrupt their own personal gravy-trains. Studio execs at best approach such radical matters tokenistically, as seen every January. The moment award season arrives, the big hitters seem all too happy to trot out their mega-bucks retelling of the ending of slavery, apartheid, and segregation. It is acceptable for film-makers to rail against inequality when it might end in silverware for the studio.
In that respect, it is hard not to regard most of these efforts without a base level of cynicism. “Oh, so there’s an Oscar in it, 20th Century Fox want to talk about those people they wouldn’t normally piss on if they were on fire. Well, aren’t you just Nobel Peace Prize material?” Certainly that wouldn’t be misplaced the majority of the time, as studios run by privileged rich white men don’t really understand what makes a film about oppression important, or popular. As a result they often staff ‘controversial projects’ quickly with other rich white men; safe (read; suffocating) pairs of hands who will make sure the film is glossy, and sleek, but with little genuinely challenging political content. Such projects (Amistad, Lincoln, and the wretched The Butler) subsequently become exercises in the Spielberg technique, something I referenced in a recent review of 12 Years a Slave.
“The Spielberg technique not only serves to provoke a little guilt in judges, suggesting they might still have some starved, deformed semblance of a soul remaining, but the method also reinstates whites as the heroes of the hour, making them feel superior again! “Look at how dignified the slaves are as they beg John Quincy Adams for help in Amistad! And how gracious he was to oblige them!”
The result then, is not to build slaves into sympathetic characters desperate enough to take action; thereby inspiring the audience to support and participate in bettering the world in the here and now. Instead, rather disturbingly it transforms the very degradation of slavery into a commodity to make easy sales in award season.“
That is partly what makes Selma so interesting to me. Nominated for Best Picture back in 2015, it would be far too easy to make ultra-left throw-away comments about a film about Martin Luther King Junior in award season – in the same way a group of over-zealous students criticise the presence of the man himself in Selma, Alabama. But Ava DuVernay’s film is not about liberal guilt and white closure. It is a film to highlight continuing injustices in society, and – like the aforementioned activists who bemoan MLK’s arrival – as radicals, we would be petulant and naive to waste the opportunity to make the most of that exposure for such an important issue.
The film charts the Civil Rights campaign for “robust protection” of the right of black Americans to vote, in an officially post-segregation America, which remains wholeheartedly divided. Ultimately, it culminates in a victory, as Lyndon B Johnson (an imperious Tom Wilkinson) finally caves to campaigners’ demands – however the film is littered with reminders that, as David Oyewolo’s towering MLK rightly points out, each battle leads to the next. Writer/director DuVernay’s cinematic debut comes from a completely different place to the usual crowd of wealthy white film-makers who have so butchered films regarding inequality.
DuVernay is a black female filmmaker, who as a child was “unaware” that black female filmmakers even existed. She was born and raised in Compton, California, her step-father having witnessed the march through Selma depicted in her film. She is a journalist-turned-auteur, well versed in the struggles, concessions and victories of the past, and all too aware of the battles still to fight today. As such, her film goes to pains to haunt present audiences with images of a torturous yet all-too-familiar past.
Selma draws parallels between the past and the present at every turn, at points calling attention to the striking wealth inequality that still holds millions of Americans, white and black, back from their dreams. It also points to the lazy attempt by rich white politicians to distract poor white workers from this fact by encouraging them to revel in their apparent superiority to blacks – a febrile tactic the Republican Party still utilise to mobilise support – whilst calling out the Presidential hypocrisy of a supposed “progressive” diverting resources to help ordinary citizens into funding imperialist crusades.
It is also worthy of note that DuVernay rather brilliantly shuns the pitfall of hero-worship that many other depictions of struggle fall into. Unlike, for example, the disastrous Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom – which remains the most evil film of 2014, if not the worst – Dr King is not portrayed as some monstrously omnipotent master of proceedings. He is conflicted, ailing, on the brink of breaking – a far cry from Idris Elba’s comically paternal Mandela, who always knows best. Importantly, unlike so many other films, where a genius maverick forcefully leads ignorant followers to a better land, Oyewolo’s MLK depends as heavily on those he leads for inspiration and guidance, as they rely on him. He is a first amongst equals, not a god of progression.
That is a massive step away from the historical lie that history is made by lone (often male) visionaries – and it is important that people understand that in a world that still needs changing! Nowhere is this better summarised than in the figure of his wife Corretta (the brilliant Carmen Ejogo) who rather than simply fulfilling a simple role of a silently suffering shoulder to cry on, takes King to task on a number of tactical issues (including expertly navigating the clash of egos between her husband and Malcolm X, allowing the latter to present himself as the ‘ugly alternative’ should King’s peaceful protests fail to convince the President). Much like DuVernay, who makes a film contrary to the childhood assumption that there were no black-female-directors, then, Corretta shows that contrary to the assumptions of patriarchal history, women needn’t be passive objects in their own history.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the opening scene features the sudden and shocking murder of four little girls. It is difficult to think of a time when I have ever been so utterly shaken by what I have seen on the cinema’s screen; and it was doubtless the case for the silent and motionless viewers scattered around me, surveying the sheer horror unfold before us. The inclusion and execution of the scene is a work of gritty, unflinching reality, and means that no matter what the outcome, or how much better things might get, those we have lost do not return. It not only mutes any of the audience’s attempts to salvage a “feel good” ending in this film, trained as we are by Hollywood to search for and expect one; but after the bombing of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Denver headquarters in January, the scene serves as a harrowing reminder. Then, just as now, there are some who would still use the barbaric and hateful tactics of terror to prevent the oppressed from speaking out, and it will take all of our collective strength to overcome them.
At the time of its release, Selma contended the Best Picture category among a plethora of tediously “uplifting” real life stories. However, contrary to The Imitation Game or The Theory of Everything – which aimed to leave us feeling any obstacle can be overcome by a brilliant individual – DuVernay’s film re-grounds us with some earthy realism. In spite of what those of President Obama’s ilk might say, simply uttering “Yes We Can” over and over while ignoring systemic inequality is not enough. In order to achieve our dreams, we must first join forces with each other. Every exploited, beaten-down citizen of every creed, colour, shape, size, gender, sexuality, faith and class must join together – and we must fight to change the world, so that in the future we might all realise our dreams. If that is the one lesson DuVernay’s Selma gives us, then it is worth all the gold and silver at the Academy.
This article originally appeared on the Hollywood Hegemony blog in 2015.