Sleeping. A little black girl, lying on her couch, in her home in Detroit. Dreaming little black girl dreams. Her sleep shattered by a firebomb lobbed through the window. Police force their way in, desperately looking for a man. A shot daggers the air. A bullet to her head. Aiyana Stanley Jones. Seven years old. Dead.
TV remote in hand, I watch Aiyana's grandma sitting to the left of her lawyer, staring at some spot on the table, talking about her grandbaby. I think about Aiyana when I see the four little black girls in the opening scene of Ava DuVernay's stunning film, Selma. They are walking down stairs, sharing little black girl conversation about their hair, about how Coretta Scott King wore hers, how she parted it in the middle, how she slept to keep it fresh, how she pressed it. We witness the beauty of innocence and childhood. I wonder what Aiyana dreamt about when she slept. I wonder how she wore her hair to school, what her favorite subject was, who her bestie was. I wonder because DuVernay has rendered the humanity of black girls in full. In America, on a Hollywood big screen, the humanizing of black girls—their childhood, their innocence—is historic, radical, revolutionary. And so in Selma we watch: horrified, devastated, traumatized, haunted as each part of that life is blasted to smithereens by white racist supremacy. Slowed down, broken dolls, a piece of fabric, destroyed. Devastating. Selma 1965. Detroit 2010.
That moment is Selma's first victory. It is the telling of unspoken, untold history: emotionalizing black girls, centering their destruction in a specific way. Our history-telling when it comes to Martin Luther King Jr. can be linear. Restricted to a set of facts about organizations and presidents and a civil rights leader. There are, and must always have been, other truths: untold and unseen, lenses untrained on and immune to black emotionality.
That beginning scene in Selma emerges in the context of ongoing activism around the inclusion of black girls and women in a movement that sees protests all over the country, and across the world, against police brutality inflicted upon black bodies. The names Mike Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Trayvon Martin are headlines. #ICantBreathe is a rallying cry; "Hands Up, Don't Shoot," the beat to which protestors poured onto streets, left homes, walked out of schools and office buildings. #ICantSleep is not part of that cry. This space sees a push for reminders of the names of black women killed by police and state violence. That roll call of black women includes: Rekia Boyd in Chicago, Yvette Smith in Texas, Shereese Francis in New York, and so many more. This space is one where 200 girls were simply taken from their village, schools and homes by Boko Haram in Nigeria—and the silence of their taking, the absence of a unified, multicultural, multiracial sustained outrage on the streets of nations, lingers. That space sees six African presidents stand up for one apparent ideal in the form of Charlie Hebdo, but remain silent over the disappearance of 200 girls and the most recent massacre of up to 2,000 Nigerians—mostly women and children—by Boko Haram in Baga. But here is Selma, centralizing black girl childhood.
So much of the world walks with the absence of black girl emotionality: of not needing protection, of not being seen as human, of never being the motivator for mass protest, action, or resistance. The beauty of black girls—their lives, their childhoods—are erased, omitted, silenced. DuVernay's power as a filmmaker is the centering of black woman complexity in all of her films. Her first was I Will Follow. Her second, Middle of Nowhere, earned her Sundance Best Director, the first African American woman to win the award. I've interviewed DuVernay before and what is clear is her primary lens is a revolutionary love of black folk, and a specific focus on black woman complexity.
Selma is Hollywood's first studio film about the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Martin Luther King. I was stunned to learn that—it feels as though there must have been others, but no—Selma was the first. We've had dominant narratives around King for so long. And in Selma, here comes not simply a counter narrative, but a beautifully, thoughtfully complicated drawing of the people that contributed to a movement, and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Critics of Selma have three major issues: outrage at President Lyndon B. Johnson's portrayal, its depiction of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and its concern about the absence of women. The LBJ critique reminds us how much white privilege expects a particular centering in any black narrative. Richard Cohen's piece in The Washington Post laments:
In its need for some dramatic tension, Selma asserts that King had to persuade and pressure a recalcitrant Johnson to introduce the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The movie also depicts Johnson authorizing FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to smear King and—as King himself suspected—try to drive him to suicide. It is a profoundly ugly moment.
Cohen goes on to line up historians who refute this version of events. A second piece in the Post by former White House aid Joseph Califano stated: "In fact, Selma was LBJ's idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted." Jaw-droppingly laughable for black folk, deadly serious for re-writers of history seeking to set records straight of LBJ as a great uniter.
White privilege routinely expects, and has so often gotten, a centering in black historical narratives, so when it fails to see this delusional version of itself reflected back on screen it lies flat on its belly, pounds its fists on the floor and screams. Put in the context of how presidential action traditionally happens, through consistent creative lobbying, activism, people power, and pressure, it implodes, pouts and cries foul: why, why, why do black people refuse to let me keep being their savior? In the film, LBJ is neither savior nor demon; he reflects the reality of being president—caught between competing forces. LBJ might have been proud of the Voting Rights Act as Califano claims, but LBJ's pride at this legislation doesn't make his portrayal in Selma wrong; it makes him one player in a piece of history, not the single vote-giving liberator of black folk.
Selma passes the Bechdel Test when it comes to women in the film. The Bechdel Test requires Hollywood films to have at least two women together, talking about something other than men. The scene between Coretta Scott King and Amelia Boynton Robinson talking strategy, fear, and the power of a shared heritage does as much. America, too, learns the name Diane Nash. For millions, she was not very well-known, despite her influence in the battle for civil rights. Does that mean Selma is perfect? Since when has perfection been the measure of important, revolutionary, powerful art.
It is not that I am either unconcerned or uninterested in a historian's critique. It is that, for me, there have always been multiple histories. That includes the power of the emotional journeys: the joy, negotiation, pushing, arguing, anger, devastation, connectivity, and community. Our history has always been more than the facts of a moment. It's emotionality was erased. Introducing it, making it present, clear, creating connection is an act of film-making genius. So I am reminded not of a historian's critique of SNCC as portrayed Selma, but their limitations at recognizing and verbalizing history's breath in an emotional articulation of what it took to pass these historic acts. This territory is not contested, it is unchartered. It is also crucial to the fullest telling of our history.
From Selma to Ferguson has been the cry. For me, it was Selma to South Africa's Soweto then to Ferguson. In the global black context, the concern around SNCC and the SCLC and LBJ and King reminds me of issues around the African National Congress (ANC), the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), F.W. De Klerk, and Nelson Mandela (the 1994 elections in which black South Africans voted for the first time, as well as the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission). That history is told via Nobel Peace Prizes, through forgiveness, of black and white hands joined, held aloft in mutual victory of justice over legislated segregation. But the working truths are messier, uglier, and more powerful. The tension between ANC and PAC, between Steve Biko and ANC leadership, including Mandela, is similar to that between SNCC's leaders and the SCLC.
Selma's Sheriff Jim Clark mirrored Soweto's Theuns 'Rooi Rus' Swanepoel. Swanepoel, a police commander, gave the order to fire on the schoolchildren during the June 1976 Soweto Uprising that killed 500 people. At the TRC, Swanepoel said: "I made my mark. I let it be known to the rioters I would not tolerate what was happening. I used appropriate force. In Soweto, where I operated, that broke the back of the organizers." In Ferguson, Staten Island, and Chicago, we heard police officers explain lethal force was appropriate, a grand jury's lack of indictment said lethal force was appropriate, militarized police against peaceful protestors in Soweto, in Selma, in Ferguson—appropriate. Apartheid-style policing now finds its home on the streets of an America with a president who revealed during a 2013 trip to Senegal that his "first act of political activism" was a campaign against apartheid.
It's all connected, knotted by circumstance and history: Aiyana Stanley Jones and the four girls bombed in a Birmingham Church in 1963; Ferguson, New York City, and Selma; the SCLC and the ANC; King and Mandela.
Selma reminds us: portrayal of a historic icon and portrayal of a movement are more than different stories when it comes to black folk. They remind us of the interdependence of individual and institutional power, of strategizing and organizing, of people and presidential power, of our connected global black histories. It is also a dismantling of the emotionality of historical patriarchy on Hollywood's big screen, preserved spaces where men—black and white—brought people various freedoms.
These are hard stories. The important stories. We must tell them.
[Image via Paramount; photo by Sam Woolley]