Thursday, January 15, 2015

On Seeing Selma

First of all, the explosion.

I knew it was coming.  I had read an interview with Ava DuVernay in which she described why she filmed it the way she did, so I knew it was coming.

And in the film, if you have any sense of US history at all, you see 5 little black girls in their Sunday best chatting down the stairs at church, you have to know what is coming.

The explosion. 
But DuVernay staged their chatter, and their passage down the staircase, bathed in pale, clear light, in a way that lulled me. For a moment they were so vibrantly alive that I forgot the fate that was descending on them. And when the explosion ripped through that staircase, like a beast lunging in from the right side of the frame and leaving a swirl of splinters and patent leather shoes in its wake, I was shocked in spite of myself. ("Selma is a Horror Movie")

I leapt in my seat, squeezed more tightly my cielo's hand, and began to cry.  I never really stopped crying, all the way to the end of the film.  The terror and question in the eyes of Jimmie Lee Jackson when he is shot to death by a cop.  Dr. King speaking to his grandfather at the morgue:  “There are no words to soothe you.” Marchers being beaten, whipped, tear-gassed.  
DuVernay has given us a plain and painful illustration of what it means to live under deadly threat. An environment in which murder at least puts an end to agonizing uncertainty and perpetual fear is utterly distorted and profoundly inhumane. “Selma” communicates at a visceral level a point many observers have been trying to make in a series of recent national conversations: what it means to live in constant fear of death or violence for which there will be no justice. (same link as above)
But not just the violence.  Also the dignity, the wrestling, the doubt, the humanity, the love, the humor, the refusal to stay beat down, the rising up over and over.  Tears, until the end.  All the way home.  All the way til dawn.  The film as shaken me, grabbed me up, and will not let me go.  It kept me up all night calling me deeper, ever deeper, into the freedom movement, into, to slightly paraphrase the protest sign of a friend of mine, "proving #BlackLivesMatter" with how I live my own life.

In reading about the film itself and interviews with DuVernay, I became aware in a way that I was not before how rare a film like "Selma" is for Hollywood, in that it is a story about Black lives told by Black folk (directed and written by a Black woman, even more rare) that centers Black life, Black experience, Black narrative, Black storytelling -- and decenters whiteness and the propensity of Hollywood that only finds acceptable stories of Black life that center the white hero narrative (which means it is more a story of white life, really. See, for example, the outcry that LBJ is not actually the hero of "Selma.").
[DuVernay]: " is rare to have a black storyteller have some autonomy over [the] story. Also it’s just rare to have a black storyteller telling the story when it comes to history, period.  So I think when you don’t have that, you have this kind of groupthink that turns into a homogenization of the events, turns into us not being at the center of our own story, as people of color or women or what have you, and this kind of smoothing of the edges starts to happen, and that starts to contribute to this whole idea of “ugh, the same old thing.” And so with this I was very focused on not letting that happen. For whatever people think about the film, whether they love it or hate it, it is the vision of a black storyteller undiluted. For whatever that means for the way we are presented as people of color on screen. I think part of the reaction that some people have to history, particularly around black history, is just the way that it’s been told and by whom. (The Nation interview with Mychal Denzel Smith, emphasis added)

As someone who works to be conscious about how race and whiteness function systemically it's not that I was unaware that Hollywood, and thinking now too of the awards season, is so vastly white (and male).  What has become more clear to me is how whiteness, white supremacy gets upheld by the stories that get told, get made, get funded, get nominated, get awarded.

During the Golden Globes on Sunday, that understanding became crystal clear as "Selma" was passed over for acting, directing, and best picture awards.  I tweeted:

Now the Oscar nominations are out today, with no nominations for "Selma" other than best song, and what feels like a token best picture.  And no acting nominees of color -- I mean, I love Meryl Streep, and I get nominating her for All The Things, but is her Witch really so much better than Carmen Ejogo's portrayal of Coretta Scott King, a performance so riveting I stopped breathing in the scene where she confronts her husband's infidelity? Masterful.  Dame Judi Dench, also awesome, got an Oscar for much less work/screentime for her Queen Elizabeth in "Shakespeare In Love."  No nod to David Oyelowo for his nuanced embodiment of King's humanity.

As we left the movie theater Saturday night, my cielo said, "Oh, this will win so many Oscars! It has to!"  I responded, "I don't know...I'm afraid they will think 'well, we gave you "Twelve Years a Slave" last year, what more do you want?' and...yeah, it's amazing but the Oscars, well...."

From a piece that came out today:
The minority actors who earn nominations are those who are in films that serve white interests and "converge with white sensibilities." Citing directors DuVernay and Spike Lee, he writes, "representations of blackness that defy racial stereotypes and challenge societal discrimination are almost never awarded, and seldom nominated." 

If you are thinking, "It's just the Oscars," think about the cultural impact the Oscars have.  Again I ask, whose stories are being told?  By whom?  Whose experiences are being lifted up? Whose lives are awarded? I even wonder, did "Twelve Years a Slave," surely a brilliant film and important story, break through the whiteness barrier because Solomon Northup eventually gets free thanks to a white man, so white folk can feel good about this "happy ending" and check off the diversity box on our to-do list? 

In "Selma" Black folks get free because of themselves.  And still it doesn't quite have a "happy ending."  The marchers make it to Montgomery, but the text on screen as the final King speech in front of the Alabama capitol rolls in our ears tells us some disturbing things, including white folk who are killed standing up for black life...and we watch always, always aware that yes, this struggle will take his life, too.  And then the closing song mentions Ferguson, so...

"There are no words to soothe you."
When Common, a black man, stands and acknowledges that all lives matter, but white people stand and only acknowledge themselves, there is no integrity to the assertion of inclusivity. ("Hollywood's Political Deafness: What Cosby, "Selma," and Hebdo Reveal about White Liberal Consciousness")

The Golden Globes and the Oscars tell us WhiteLifeMatters.  I want to be clear that I am not talking about skin color of nominees exactly but the stories.  Whose stories?  Vastly, overwhelmingly, the stories of white experience (particularly white male experience), ever strengthening the normativity  and value of white (male) life over all other life, white (male) life which is defended with award statues and choke holds.

I saw "Selma."  And I am still seeing Selma. 

I won't watch the Oscars and add my tally to the celebration of whiteness.  Instead, I will go see "Selma," again.  I invite you, too, to see "Selma." And to see Selma.