“King is a great speaker. The secret of his greatness does not lie in his voice or his presence or his manner, though it has something to do with all these; nor does it lie in his verbal range or felicity, which are not striking; nor does he have any capacity for those stunning, demagogic flights of the imagination which bring an audience cheering to its feet. The secret lies, I think, in his intimate knowledge of the people he is addressing, be they black or white, and in the forthrightness with which he speaks of those things which hurt and baffle them. He does not offer any easy comfort and this keeps his hearers absolutely tense. He allows them their self-respect—indeed, he insists on it.”
— James Balwin
As usual, James Baldwin says it better than anyone else. In the case of this 1961 essay for Harper’s, he’s speaking of course of Martin Luther King, but, when this quote flitted down my feed today, I was struck by how it captured much of how I felt about Ava DuVernay’s Selma, which I finally saw this past weekend. Here are my initial impressions:
I hadn’t been paying too close attention to the media buzz around the film, because I knew I would see it soon, but enough filtered through for me to be genuinely surprised to find out that Selma isn’t a biopic. It’s barely even an historical film, in the sense that it avoids many of the conventions of ‘the big film about history.’ As an intellectually demanding and emotionally grueling experience, DuVernay’s film begins with the assumption that you already know something about the film’s historical moment, and has little interest in any textbook education for its audience. Selma isn’t a slow and decorous march through a shared history– it’s a political thriller, with much more relationship to an Argo or Syriana than a Lincoln, or even Spike Lee’s X. It’s a games and gaming, cat and mouse chase narrative, a story in which winning requires immense intelligence, and heroes are the ones who have the fortitude to press themselves and others forward, even when the lights go out and dawn itself might only come in an endgame we can barely comprehend in the present.
But what DuVernay puts front and center is the terror that comes with asking people to join you in that darkness, to be willing to die suddenly and brutally. Not only is the audience haunted by its knowledge that King will die, we must also come to terms with the fact that violence was King’s only real card, in the sense that it would take the spectacle of physical brutality to motivate recognition of the daily subjugation of black people. And, for that to work, people had to be willing to risk their lives, and King’s team had to be willing to ask them to do so and watch them as they suffered and died.
Death and brutality permeate DuVernay’s film. It makes sense, given the sheer brutality of violence endemic to black life, and the history of murder that in every era has accompanied every assertion of black people’s lives mattering, but in the sanitized present of King’s legacy, one in which appeals to “content of character” have become a mainstay of contemporary white supremacist rhetoric, it is easy to forget that people marched because they wanted to come out from under death’s shadow. In a stroke of brilliance, DuVernay opens Selma with a series of juxtapositions that move the viewer between the local and the global: a small and sexy scene of Coretta adjusting Martin’s tie before he accepts the Nobel Prize.
Coretta is beautiful and Martin is handsome and they are taking what we imagine to be a rare moment to indulge in domestic fantasy, as we transition into a voiceover of King’s Nobel acceptance speech. At the same time, DuVernay extends the domestic fantasy and draws us in more deeply by cutting to a clutch of young girls, talking about Coretta’s hair, which, one imagines, must have always been a hot topic with the black tween set, our own taste of Camelot.
I remember falling into the pleasure of DuVernay’s sequence, and the briefest moment when I realized that I shouldn’t fall because the girls are walking past a stained glass window. They are in a church and compulsively I count them. There are five and I know that four will die. Dread. The bomb explodes; we are five minutes into the film, and everything important about hope has already been murdered.
DuVernay is careful to carry that dread across the film. It taints every victory, so that even winning sours. Indeed, in another brilliant and subtle stroke, DuVernay is careful to visually feature an attractive white woman in the last quarter of the film, whom we are made to understand is important and present in the preparations for the Selma march, but who isn’t given any significant role. At film’s end, though, she is given a byline– she’s Viola Luizzo, a civil rights activist who was murdered by the Klan on the night after the group’s successful march. Even though Luizzo is not a mere cipher — she is the only white woman murdered in the Civil Rights Movement– DuVernay deploys her image in a way similar to Spielberg’s girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List, to catch our eye and to remind us that in times of crisis and injustice, no one is safe and that the very fact of the danger itself must be memorialized.
Forthright, Selma never lets us forget the terror because such terror can’t ever be recuperated. I keep thinking of the “failed” second Selma march, when King turns the demonstrators back on the bridge. DuVernay refuses to let the narrative moment sing and, even though I can make sense of it conceptually, I remember feeling let down by her refusal to give me drama, no lingering shots, no monologue. It’s like DuVernay takes her foot off the pedal, and forces her audience to experience the vertigo that must have come with the sudden shift and slowing, with King’s decision not to give in to the movement’s momentum. But what exactly did I want, especially on the heels of a set of scenes featuring one of the most graphic and difficult to watch depictions of police brutality I’ve ever seen depicted? What proof or refutation could I possibly expect her to give me, what kind of climax could I possibly hope for, what could possibly make me feel better after the brutality I already witnessed?
In every image of brutal beating and in the states’-rights zeal of the police, in her willingness to recognize both the realpolitik of King’s faith in the visual power of nonviolent resistance, and also the emotional cost of asking others to carry out that resistance, DuVernay reminds us that we aren’t because they were, as the new old adage goes; but that we are because they died, and that we should dare not flinch from that bare reality.