Triumph of Selma: Duvernay’s Cinematic Mastery of Blackness While Walking The Tight Wire of Whiteness

I saw the explosive, powerful, and touching movie, #Selma.


Selma is one of my all time favorite movies because of its touching portrayal of human complexity created within narrow psychological margins.  Selma also tries to correct the cinematic over-emphasis of the over-indulgence of seeing Black history through Black male experience. The movie recasts the lives of African Americans with a  more egalitarian perspective that seeks to connect the missing pieces of our collective struggle while promoting the lives of African American women.  Like watching someone walk a cinematic high wire, Ava Duvernay boldly presents a cinematic narrative that points to the major milestones of American black life: enslavement to civil rights to current extra-judicial and police violence. Duvernay reclaims an intertwined story of evolutionary blackness, although heterocentric in nature,  I won’t fault her for that.


I don’t mean strong representations of black women’s experience in the way that Julie Dash did in Daughters of the Dust but Selma is on the same cinematic pathway.  Duvernay reclaims the representational voice and experience of some American Black women, who all of us instinctively know, played a major role in our collective survival.  We need more movies about Black women, like the kind we saw in Spike Lee’s Crooklyn, where Alfre Woodard “got down’ and showed us Black multidimensionality as she cared for her family while battling cancer.


Selma ambitiously tackles the mythological surroundings many of us created when thinking about Dr. King.  Duvenay thrusts us into her subliminal view, recasts him in humanistic model as father, learning activist, minister, and husband.  By pulling us from our myths she wrangles the watered down White supremacist representation of King as powerful and mythological and reconnects his black struggle to our everyday experience of “Living While Black” in America. Duvernay does not shy away from his foils and shortcomings, a man whose infidelity could have altered his historical likability, instead she situates his struggle within its slimy, smothering, paranoiac context.


Like mimicry, she wisely uses on screen FBI wire tapping logs, showing us the depth of Hoover’s homoerotic federal surveillance on King and everyone around him.  Duvernay through impressive collaboration with the fantastical, imaginative, and masterful cinematographer, Bradford Young (who appears to be African American, but I do not know his ethnic heritage) —and employing a starry eyed soundtrack — also shapes our experience.


One of the most impressive cinematic navigation is the fine line of portraying White violence as a direct link to White privilege, and white supremacy in action.  White violence toward Blacks were done by White citizens and police officers who used it to assert Alabama state rights in support of White only voting.  If one critique would be offered it is that I would have liked to have seen other human dimensions of Whites who engaged in violence.  Instead we are presented a myopic view, perhaps a flaccid, objectified view of Whites as engaging in acts of hate with no exploration about their moral reasoning.

The performance of the actress, who portrayed Coretta Scott King, Carmen Ejogo is worthy of an Oscar nomination.  Through a tender and gentle portrayal, Corretta Scott King is captured in greater perplexity, although much more depth to her psyche was needed.  By far, and this is not to slight David Oyelowo’s masterful performance, Ejogo’s performance provided just the right amount of believability that serves as the glue to the movie.  Her acting brought a level of authencity, it breathed additional breaths of humanity into the movie.

Her performance is needed in the high wire act Duvernay so ambitiously aims to tackle, it was needed to re-calibrate or re-situate King from his historical pedestal.   Ejogo does what all great actresses and actors do, through the use of minute facial expression, body movements, timing and tone of language she communicates the fragility of human longing.  When movie critics and cinematic observers re-examine the mechanisms of this film, I will be surprised if her performance is not heralded as a triumphant cinematic piece.

Duvernay was hampered by her ability to use any of King’s actual speeches (due to former agreements, allegedly by the King family who may have loaned the intellectual rights to Spielberg) and further hampered by the unwillingness of the British screenwriter, Paul Webb to work with her.   Duvernay creates believable speeches that stand in for the original dynamic oratory.  Here, she does double and likely triple duty, shepherding her film, and believing in her ability to give the speeches metaphorical wings.  Like watching the old footage of the Wright Brothers as their makeshift plane successfully lifts off into flight, we wobble with the delivery of the earlier speeches by Oyelowo but marvel when we realize we are flying.  As a viewer we know that the speeches are not King but agree to sit on the plane of Duvernays’ creation.

Duvernay as a film-maker incorporates the characterological and historical greatness of many African American women, the ability to create sustaining caring environments with all of the items within their environments. In this regard, we witness not only Black women represented on the screen we also witness the creativity of a Black woman filmmaker whose own resourcefulness and creativity pulls her creation into light.  And may I remind you, on a shoestring budget of $20 million dollars. Go on with your bad self, Sister Duvernay.  Go on.

I am also aware of some of the chatter about the accuracy of the portrayal of LBJ.  Like Ava Duvernay, I too feel that these criticisms are misplaced. Directors, writers, and artists can use artistic license in advancing plot line and ensuring viewer engagement.  This is an artistic right not one that should be placed in a historical critical gaze, as it would if Duvernay had created a documentary.  These charges of inaccuracy seem unfair but not unexpected given the rejection of Black thought and life in America.

The problem, I gather, is that the White “leadership” viewpoint becomes inarticulated, nonredeemable, or perhaps circumlocutory in its portrayal of LBJ.  LBJ is not central to the action of African American protesters but critical for the viewer to understand the White to Black struggle in getting the Voting Rights passed.  I suspect the absence of a proscriptive White leader, one who can be idealized for showing benevolent intent for Blacks undermines the historical narrative.  Many of us would rather see American history portrayed with White certainty, when wrestling with complex moral decisions. Instead, we watch Dr. King and his advisory team master a political and social architecture around LBJ. This shift of emphasis away from LBJ destabilizes the White supremacist ideology embedded in the White historical narrative that often overvalues the value of White male thought.

Duvernay and company reveals a less powerful White president, who is pushed up against a moral window.  We watch a human struggle within LBJ who gets out of his own bag, to act not to impress his White political and social peers but looks into the future and guides our country into a moral trajectory that honors democracy. Can any LBJ supporter deny this observation?

This dislodging of White man’s ability (President Lyndon Johnson) and to watch him pressed -metaphorically-against a conceptual wall, outsmarted by a Black PhD, Dr. King, rejects the persistent stereotype of Black intellectual inferiority.  Through indirect use of cascading characters the County sheriff, Governor Wallace, and LBJ, Duvernay hints at the clear link between White masters united in thought about the enslavement of Africans/African American.  Like taking a flashlight into a funky dark White supremacist basement, Selma shines the light on the social fissures created by Black political and Black religious rejection of slavery as a viable economic solution. It rejects the implicit twisted religious use of its justification.  Through marching, Dr. King used the black body as a symbol, reflecting the interconnected ways our bodies had been used in political, social, and economic ways. Dr. King faced a real tight wire of his own, knowing well the historical propensity for White violence toward Blacks, and then risking Black lives by his stance of non-violent group action. Through the development of this social activist campaign, black protester’s adherence to non-violence as social resistance dethrones violence as a form of Black social control.  Non-violence and peaceful protests become tabula rasa (blank metaphorical canvases) and the potentate force of White hatred and use of terror becomes background to the foreground of Black innocence.

Black progress can not be stopped, as shown in the marchers progression across a symbolic bridge.  Literally we watch as African Americans face the potential of dying.  In this brave scenery, stripped of many cinematic devices, it becomes exclamatory, an act of affirmation of human rights played out on American streets.  Timed just perfectly within the movie, the initial scene of the bridge crossing becomes both the darkest day and the light of day, simultaneously. Black action is contextualized against a larger canvas of human right agentic behavior, rather then fitting neatly into a White to Black binary.  With nimble precision, Duvernay recasts the narrative of our Black experience as trauma victims, who were merely beat down, and reconstitutes a narrative that highlights our resiliency, steel resolve, social empowerment, and determination.  This view disrupts the previous narrative of African Americans as “institutionalized” into accepting violence, enslavement, concepts that are replete in many films.

In any respect, the movie detractors who raise the historical accuracy portrayal of LBJ, is squashed by Andrew Young who has countered these critics by saying outside of the protestation of the LBJ portrayal, everything else is accurate.

I wonder why no one has contested whether local and state police use bats to club African Americans who were peacefully protesting?

Why not?  Because all of us, on some level, have always known this singular truth; #Black Lives Matter.  We have watched similar acts of police brutality and twisted forms of politicized hate in Ferguson, Staten Island, and in the shooting of Tamir, a 12 year old black boy with a toy gun.  We can go far back in history to see it, we can go to the present day and see it, and we can go into the future and see it.  I am hopeful that in the future this violence will become laughable, satirical even, but for now we must struggle vehemently against it.  Selma works because we are all familiar with levels of hostility, indifference, hatred, and the acts of violence that are encountered by many African Americans–solely for being born with an immutable,  phenotype.

In the moment of viewing the marchers crossing the bridge, I wept openly because in their determined walking, I saw the faces and bodies of my own Black parents and relatives who “walked” through this time period.  Selma reclaimed a long lost personal memory, an action that I had known but was forced to revisit; I marvel at my family’s ability to have shielded me from these acts of White hatred and violence.  Certainly, having this knowledge would have undoubtedly affected many trajectories in my life.  I was born in 1959 and would have turned 6 years old in 1965.

Selma is not for the faint of heart but it is food for the collective American soul.

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