Selma, History, and Corrective Mythmaking

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Muscogee(Creek) writer Craig Womack once bemoaned that just as Native Americans were finally starting to tell their own histories, academia via post-modernist philosophies decided history no longer exists. A similar no-win situation seems to present Ava DuVernay and Selma. The film is being slammed on multiple fronts for it’s perceived historical inaccuracies, despite the fact that in many respects film as a medium was created by misrepresenting non-White peoples and their histories..

These may be nasty awards seasons politics, the kind that somehow propelled Shakespeare in Love from forgettable rom-com to the movie that beat Saving Private Ryan. But there’s an added unfairness to these charges. First, let’s look at other historical films that generated smaller controversies but still ended up winning: I really enjoyed Argo, but it’s a film in which Ben Affleck may or may not have played an Hispanic man, and ignored the Canadian efforts of the
“Canadian Caper.” A Beautiful Mind, Titanic, Gladiator, Shakespeare in Love, and The King’s Speech all played with historical facts for dramatic purposes, and those are just films that have won in the last 20 years. And of course, then there’s Braveheart, a terrifically entertaining film that may also have been the least historically accurate film of the last 30 if not 50 years, a movie so inaccurate that someone once told me the only thing it got right was that it took place in Scotland.

Here’s perhaps the more important issue: Selma hay have misrepresented LBJ. But for 100 years, film has misrepresented African Americans. Should historical films be totally accurate? That depends on what you want movies to be and to do. If you want an educational experience about the Civil Rights movement check out the massive and magnificent Documentary Eyes on the Prize. But what about a dramatic film? I suppose I’m conflicted. Because my main interest is in racial representation on film, particularly of Native Americans, it’s rather important for me. Fake history, perpetuated by films (for one example, check out The Plainsman, a foundational and influential western that is outlandishly wrong about history; like they didn’t even try), has actually led to prejudices and informed federal policies that have hurt Native Peoples. On the other hand, Native mythmaking and my love for Brechtian theater, suggests that history is more important in its use value to current situations and allows for revisions, updates, and anachronisms.

Overall, I think audiences do want or expect historically accurate films, and it might be important for at least for the first wave of historical retellings of an event to try to historical fidelity. My problem seems to be as Black woman is making a long overdue film about Martin Luther King, Jr. (it’s shocking no true Hollywood film has ever been made about the most important figure in American history of the last half-century) suddenly Hollywood is adamant about historical accuracy as a prerequisite for acknowledging a film’s value (it was, for instance not nominated for a PGA award). Those supposed slights, maybe they just didn’t like the movie, are always tricky and may be unhelpful to any argument. We do not know at what point it’s because of aesthetic preference instead of distaste for content. In terms of quality, it’s impossible to determine if a film is objectively “the best.” And the Oscar winner usually is a mixture of popularity, box office, and some thoughts about the Academy’s legacy; a film must have some social or cultural heft to be seen as “important.” Selma may not have been one of the best films I saw in 2014 according to my expectations, but it was far more artistically adventurous (DuVernay’s use of empty space is terrific), emotionally compelling, and thematically interesting than a number of other films that have won in previous years. It could be that films about Black history made by Black directors are so rare that the criticisms seem disproportional. But it does seem like for years when non-White audiences have complained about historical inaccuracies or misrepresentations the response of the establishment has been “It’s just a movie.” Yet in this case, when a powerful White historical figure is misrepresented it’s seen as a fatal flaw.

There’s a scene in Selma in which MLK articulates his strategy for gaining mainstream awareness and most likely explains the reasoning behind DuVernay’s use of history to create myth. King tells his advisors that drama is the crucial component of his non-violent strategy, even if that drama is manipulated or instigated on his own behalf, and King is shown choosing Selma because it’s sheriff, Jim Clark, serves as a good villain for the TV cameras. Likewise, LBJ serves as DuVernay’s villain. He himself may not have been as antagonistic towards King, but he serves, like Jim Clark did for the real King, as a stand-in for the institutional prejudice and racism that faced the Civil Rights activists.

DuVernay has stated that she did not want to make another “White savior movie.” This may have struck some audiences the wrong way, but I see her project as corrective mythmaking to combat the White savior trope and its implications. Throughout history, Blacks, other minorities, and Women have had their contributions to history erased or attributed instead to White men. This film is an attempt to correct those historical myths by asserting Black agency in its own history. And this suggests an intended, active use of history. At one point in the film, Amelia Boynton is walking Coretta Scott King to a church. She tells King something of the effect that “we” invented civilization, survived the middle passage and countless tragedies, but have come out strong because of it. The purpose of history, in this scene, is to provide strength and support for contemporary struggle and possible change for the future. Likewise, this film, most strikingly through its closing credits song and perhaps to the discomfort of many of its audience members, sees the struggle as continuing, as active not as past tense. I think it is important that this is not a biopic of MLK. That he is not given a beginning, middle, and an end, as most traditional historical biopics provide their subjects. This leaves the films subject safely in the past tense. This film, by showcasing one event in MLK’s life, and showing the Selma march through nearly a collective protagonist rather as solely the efforts of MLK, its purpose seems to be to create a living historical myth to be used in very real, contemporary civil rights struggles.

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