Selma: Does Ava DuVernay Tell Truth to Power?



This article originally appeared in the Raven Review, February 5, 2015.

There is much to like about Ava DuVernay’s film, Selma. It is a long overdue movie about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is undeniably powerful, exceedingly well acted, and gorgeously shot. As a ticket buyer, I liked it very much.

Selma, however, is being hailed as a movie which tells truth to Power. My question is whether it succeeds in that respect.

This is important to consider. Princes and potentates are not the only locations of Power – audiences are, too. The audience for Selma will to some extent determine how America’s future plays out.
In an interview with Tavis Smiley, DuVernay revealed she does not like historical dramas. That comes through. Her portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson is careless, as Bill Moyers and others have said, presenting LBJ as both condescending to MLK and wanting to “go slow” on voting rights. DuVernay dismisses complaints in “Rolling Stone” saying she “wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie”.

The year prior to Selma, LBJ had capitalized quickly on President John F. Kennedy’s assassination to push through a stalled Civil Rights Act. When challenged to go slow, he shot back, “Well, what the hell’s the Presidency for?” After Selma, he announced before television cameras that he intended to enact a Voting Rights bill. Invoking the Movement’s anthem, he leaned in emphatically and said, “we SHALL overcome!” It was electrifying. With that well-understood reference, Johnson had announced not only that he intended to achieve voting rights, but that he intended to dismantle the South’s entire caste system. That scene in Selma, which should have been riveting, is flat. Watching it, I was baffled as to DuVernay’s intention.

Accurately conveying who LBJ was does not imply making him into a white savior. Had she wanted to create a story centering on LBJ and MLK about failed v. successful moral authority, DuVernay could have shifted the focus of the movie to Vietnam. It was in Southeast Asia that LBJ constructed his moral downfall. It was there where MLK emerged as America’s full-blown prophetic voice. But DuVernay chose Selma and it was not in Selma that LBJ faltered. DuVernay opened wide the door to LBJ. She had an obligation to tell truth to the Power that is her audience about him.

I grew up in Albany, Georgia and Birmingham, Alabama, two places which in the movie provide back drops to Selma. My parents were civil rights activists there. In the movie, Mrs. King is shown listening to an anonymous phone caller threatening the lives of her children. My mother, too, received those calls. I can imagine that Johnson, the most famous “race traitor” of the day, was well aware that hidden racist crackpots might have them in the crosshairs of their well-oiled rifles. Yet, he and his family, as did my and other families, persisted in plain view of those hidden crackpots. Does she tell truth about Southern whites who were allies in the struggle, often at palpable social and personal risk, to the Power that is her audience? In my opinion she does not.

When JFK was assassinated, his brains blown out over his wife’s exquisite pink suit, the children in my 7th grade classroom erupted in foot-stomping cheers: “the nigger-lover is dead!!” The day after MLK was assassinated, a neighbor in “Bombingham”, where we lived then, joked to my father: “Did you hear they got the man who killed King? Got him for shootin’ coon out of season!!”.

These things happened in Selma, too, but we don’t see them in the movie. The wide, wretched sociopathy that turns otherwise decent people into momentary degenerates who delight in murder does not come through. DuVernay does not successfully convey the long unbending stretch of injustice which humiliated so many thousands at the hands of these momentary degenerates and that made a battle on the Edmund Pettus Bridge all but inevitable. She does not convey this truth about the era to the Power that is her audience.

DuVernay told Jon Stewart that she had wanted to “deconstruct’ and humanize King. She took the easiest route – exposing his infidelities. Infidelities which are none of our business. Using characters and issues she introduced, there were other ways to go.

Emphasizing King’s failure in Albany would have been one. King bailed out of Albany’s jail after two days. Having entered Albany bearing the derogatory sobriquet “De Lawd” for never having participated in a Freedom Ride, he lost stature among Movement people there. More intriguing is the reason why King and the Movement failed there: Albany’s Sheriff Laurie Pritchett out-Gandhied King. The story of King being schooled in the tactics of non-violence by a small town racist Southern sheriff could have humanized him indeed.

DuVernay could have edited out Coretta King who serves primarily to convey King’s infidelities. In the remaining female-less space DuVernay could have emphasized Diane Nash, Viola Liuzzo, or Nina Simone, all of whom received a nod in the movie.

Simone, for example, in “Mississippi Goddam” caustically sang about being told over and over to “go slow.” DuVernay could have humanized King by depicting him as the Movement’s Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth saw him: as a “go slow” man. DuVernay may have succeeded in humanizing King by exposing his infidelities, but she failed in telling truth to the Power that is her audience about King’s sometimes uneasy place within the Movement itself.

I want to emphasize that I liked Selma very much. I hope everyone will go to see it. I also hope that those who think it has achieved greatness in terms of telling truth to Power will reflect upon the issues I and others have raised.

Ellin Jimmerson

Rev. Ellin Jimmerson has a Ph.D. in 20th Century US cultural and intellectual history. She is the director of a migrant justice documentary, The Second Cooler, narrated by Martin Sheen.


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