American Civil Rights Movement films are a staple of Tinsel-Town. Dozens of these sparkly items have been released over the last fifty years, and almost all of them tell the same alluring story. Beleaguered African-Americans struggle under conditions of oppression and violence, to be saved – at last – by some non-racist white person who teaches them, defends them in court, or saves them from death. These shiny baubles lie, as do all dangerous snares. In actual fact, African-Americans fought and clawed basic legal protections from a white-controlled society that was (at worst) inveterate in its racist hatred and (at best) begrudging and betraying in its performance of such fundamental governing duties. No better illustration of this can be found than that represented by the paired Hollywood films 12 Years a Slave and Selma, paired since both were released within a year of one another. The former repeats the White Man as Saviour narrative, while the latter steadfastly and courageously refuses to do so, insisting instead upon telling the truth. In fact, the young female first-time director of Selma Ava DuVernay completely rewrote its original screenplay so that she could tell this truth. The verity she speaks exposes white America as using discrimination for universal gain, rather than being an isolated product of a few twisted racist whites. The reality she discloses reveals that even northern, so-called “liberal”, white America refused black equality, except where absolutely forced to do otherwise. Her courageous film puts the lie to the White Man as Saviour narrative.
While both 12 Years a Slave and Selma acknowledge the exploitation of African-Americans in the confederate region of the United States, London-born black director Steve McQueen makes it the effect rather than the cause. He spends plenty of time showing slaves working the fields of cotton plantations, but he consistently depicts this deadening drudgery as the outgrowth of either simple cowardice or, most often, a psychotic racist hatred limited to a few bizarre individuals (such as slave-masters Ford and Epps). The latter, especially, brings to mind no other character in film history but Amon Goeth, from Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Like Goeth, he is mercurial, sadistic and perverse. He profits from his slaves’ labour, but ultimately it is the pleasure of racist brutality (such as his every evening whippings) that drives him. The audience is given the comforting, but finally disempowering, belief that the horrors presented in McQueen’s period drama result from the behaviour of “others”, insane people who are thankfully dwindling in number upon the earth. Rather than spread comforting lies, Ava DuVernay lays bare the stark truth. It is not racism that causes money-minded exploitation, but rather the bleeding of innocents for one’s own benefit that requires racism. DuVernay uses the character of Alabama Governor George Wallace to embody this truth. Acted superbly by Tim Roth, the segregationist governor explains to President Lyndon Baines Johnson why he is “on this Black thing.” He lays it out, thus:
‘Cause you can’t ever satisfy them. First, it’s the front seat of the bus; next it’s take over the parks; then it’s the public schools; then it’s voting; then it jobs . . . then it’s distribution of wealth without work.
Work, wealth, jobs, satisfaction of life – these are the true, but hidden, sources of racism. Knowing it empowers all wishing for justice.
The above are real, material, universal, motivations for violence. Selma director Ava DuVernay not only casts a clear eye over them, but also over the actual, provable, courageous and steadfast, reactions to such horrible violence of African-Americans in the South at that time. This is not true of most Civil Rights films, and certainly not true of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. In that film, main character Solomon Northup repeatedly shrinks (whenever white violence erupts nearby) from either defending himself, organising his fellow slaves, or even escaping. He simply waits. He waits for his non-racist white friends in New York to finally locate and free him. Ava DuVernay, on the other hand, writes dialogue into Martin Luther King’s mouth such as the following: “We will not let your sacrifice pass in vain! We will not let it go! We will finish what you were after!” The movie’s initial credit sequence scrolls over a shocking, slow-motion, depiction of the Birmingham Church bombing that killed four little girls. It then goes on to take note of the deaths of black activist Medgar Evers, Nation of Islam leader Malcom X, Selma citizen Jimmy Lee Jackson, Boston priest James Reeb, and finally Selma march participant Viola Liuzzo. Nine viscous murders are depicted or are mentioned in the film. Martin Luther King’s wife Coretta calls it the “constant closeness of death, like a thick fog.” Unlike Solomon Northup, who waits, Martin Luther King organises the town of Selma, Alabama, in response to the four girls’ deaths. He is jailed. He is seized with righteous anger at the death of Jimmy Lee Jackson. He steadfastly demands voting rights from President Johnson so that black jurors can find white murderers guilty of their crimes. He places his own body into mortal peril repeatedly; no White Man as Saviour is needed.
While 12 Years a Slave argues the wonderful value of being white, Selma refuses to do so. Clear-eyed director Ava DuVernay attaches no importance to Enlightenment diction, elegant dress, or accomplishment in the minutiae of classical music. Her attitude toward these things is clear. The first words, almost, she writes into Martin Luther King’s mouth are “This isn’t right”. Manner of speech, dress, and behaviour have nothing to do with people’s moral character or quality. There have been plenty of well-spoken, finely dressed, tasteful, monsters in history. There have been plenty of Emperor Neros. DuVernay also attaches little importance to the protestations of white middle-class so-called liberal Northerners who cry out their opposition to segregation from the comfort of their suburban homes. She uses supporting characters and her secondary lead to do this. Supposed Civil Rights Movement allies Lee White and John Doer (both Presidential aides) constantly try to slow down, side-track, and stop Martin Luther King’s resistance actions because they embarrass the president and undermine America’s image as a freedom-loving nation in the wider world. They constantly say things like, “maybe we can make a deal”, don’t “go wrong”, “call off the march”, and “just for a while”. Their actions speak louder than words, and the same is true of President Lyndon B. Johnson, whom history now credits with helping to end American apartheid. In fact, the original screenplay by Paul Webb was about Johnson the selfless Texas non-racist (a contradiction in terms). DuVernay, in several scenes, exposes this falsehood for what it is. President Johnson patronises King, tries to overawe him, and brushes aside his just claims for legislation. When the Selma actions begin, he increases FBI surveillance on him. Later, when he does not get obedience from the “nigger”, he orders FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover to destroy King’s reputation and family with evidence of extramarital affairs. The only reason he finally does submit the 1965 Voting Rights Act to the U.S. Congress is that he fears he will go down as a racist in the history books. In truth, Johnson only helped out because he felt he had no other choice.
Ava DuVernay’s Selma isn’t the only film in recent years to challenge the White Man as Saviour narrative. The HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero does the same. Maybe Ferguson, Missouri’s police murder of black teenager Michael Brown and the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement have had an impact. Those tragic events occurred while Selma was in post-production. Two years later, there have been an additional one thousand killings of people of colour by police in the United States. The curtain has been drawn aside, and the “Home of the Free” has been exposed for what it really is, a horrible place where every aspect of life is subordinated to need for older, rich, white men to concentrate wealth. The lives of ethnic minorities don’t matter. The equality of women doesn’t matter. The rights of gay people don’t matter (except as a propaganda tool). The “One Percent” will naturally want to return society to its sleepy quiescence, and so it will fund more films, like 12 Years a Slave, that celebrate the values so dear to Western civilisation. The genie, however, may be out of the bottle. With courageous directors like Ava DuVernay and Paul Haggis (of Show Me a Hero) making scathingly true films, the consciousness of just how rigged a game industrial capitalism is may spread among the population. It may spread not only in the United States and Great Britain, but throughout the English-speaking world. Hopefully it may spark greater awareness here in New Zealand as well.