Ferguson, SELMA And Hope
I saw Ava DuVernay’s Selma at a “for your consideration” screening the same night a grand jury in St. Louis County declined to indict Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.
Reading the headlines on my phone set off a bomb somewhere in the back of my head. I had just spent two of the last three or so hours sitting comfortably in a movie theater, watching DuVernay recreate the events of the 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, as led by James Bevel, Hosea Williams and Martin Luther King, Jr., portrayed in the film by the magnetic David Oyelowo. As such a film must, Selma puts special emphasis on the horrific violence inflicted upon participants in the movement, from the black men and women who made up its backbone to the white allies who made the sojourn from all around the United States - Michigan to Massachusetts - in support of civil rights, unity and equality for all citizens of this great nation.
That includes the atrocities that occurred on March 7th, 1965, better known as “Bloody Sunday,” in which some six hundred protesters were brutalized by a strike force (made up of both police officers and deputized hatemongers) gathered by Dallas County sheriff Jim Clark at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It includes the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose life was stolen from him by an Alabama State Trooper following a nighttime police raid on a peaceful march to the Marion courthouse. DuVernay soft-shoes none of this. She lets each swing of a billy club, each crack of a whip, each report of gunfire speak for itself. The agonized screams of Jackson’s mother ring through the air like a clarion call of the utmost heartache.
It is impossible to watch this footage as a socially aware, conscionable human being without immediately connecting the dots between what DuVernay shows us in her frame and what the networks from which we absorb our news choose to show us in theirs. Grant that Ms. DuVernay shot Selma beginning in May of this year. There’s simply no way that she could have let her images dovetail with those of reports from Ferguson even if she wanted to. But despite the absolute absence of intention, viewers will invariably walk into and out of Selma thinking about police violence, race politics, the deaths of young black children at the hands of vested authority figures and what the unrest in Missouri - hell, across the entire goddamn country - means for modern America. Some thoughts may be less weighty than others, but the discomfort felt will likely be universal.
How, in four decades and change, can we have advanced so little in our philosophies about racism and the notion that might makes right? How can something this awful happen in 2014? You would think somebody with the power to make a difference would care about the life of a teenager. Apparently not. Michael Brown won’t get any justice. His parents won’t get any justice. Wilson, however, has gotten plenty. To look at the photos taken of Wilson following his fatal scuffle with Brown, you would not think the two had scrapped at all. Wilson looks fine. At worst, he looks like he was in a pillow fight with a burlap sack. He does not look like a victim. He does not look like a person whose life was in any imminent danger. Meanwhile, Brown had the lion’s share of a full clip emptied into his body, and his corpse was left out to dry in the sun for more than four hours.
You may be the type of person who considers that justice. If so, Selma will not be your jam (though you may thrill at the sight of Lorraine Toussaint being beaten unconscious at the hands of white policemen bedecked in body armor and helmets). Michael Brown is guilty of shoplifting cigarillos. He may or may not also be guilty of smack-talking a cop in a Southern state (though we can just shuffle that into the “bad idea” file instead of the “lawbreaking” file, because black teens showing anything but the strictest deference to white cops are basically fair game). But neither of these are capital offenses, and Wilson - even according to the obviously slanted testimony offered by his friends and loved ones - made no effort to apprehend Brown through any means apart from lethal force. He didn’t so much as reach for a taser, but to hear it from Wilson’s camp, Brown came at him unprovoked, like a lunatic hopped up on Blue Sky. He looked like a demon, Wilson tells us, not a kid, or a fellow human being, but a monster clothed in hellfire. That sentiment alone should speak volumes.
What would King himself make of all of this? What would he think about Brown, Wilson and Ferguson if he still walked among us? To the former, he would likely be dismayed by the disorder. To the latter, well, he would likely say nothing; he’s already said it. “A riot is the language of the unheard," he told Mike Wallace in a 1966 interview, just a year or so after the Selma marches. As white observers contemptuously describe the turmoil in Ferguson as “mob justice,” far removed from the reality driving protest, it’s important to let King’s words echo in our hearts and minds. The outrage expressed on the city’s streets isn’t a just an inchoate articulation of baseless anger. It’s an expression of deep-rooted hopelessness and frustration, the product of years’ worth of systemic neglect and oppression. Frankly, the shocked disdain toward the protesters clashing with Ferguson’s finest is a sad joke, and a clear-cut sign of willful ignorance.
The people demanding justice for Brown are following in the footsteps of their activist forebears. In the 1960s, people like King, Bevel, Williams, Diane Nash, Amelia Boynton Robinson, James Orange and John Lewis demanded the same voting rights as white constituents. Today, new leaders in the contemporary civil rights movement are asking for far less: wide recognition that black lives matter just as much as white lives. The response to their appeals has been no less toxic than the response of Jim Clark and his coterie of officer goons, though we have labored in the interim to craft technology that’s more effective at inflicting harm. That’s not the sort of progress King had hoped for.
In Ferguson, King’s dream is turning to ashes and cinders. Black Americans still have to fight to make their voices heard in 2014 and even with millions of hands on the megaphone, their pleas are still turned aside by the opposition. Law enforcement still has a frightening tendency to dehumanize black faces, to see them as less than human and therefore less deserving of the same devotion to protocol and procedure. (During the Edmund Pettus sequence, I kept waiting for somebody to shout, “Bring it, you fucking animals” before melee commences.) There should be no refrain stating that black lives matter - human lives matter - but there must be, because it is clear that to far too many people in the United States, they do not, and that is its own tragedy.
But hope remains. Even in the chaotic aftermath of the grand jury’s announcement (which claimed the life of twenty-year-old DeAndre Joshua, found shot to death in his car on the morning of Tuesday, November 25th) King’s dream is not yet snuffed out. And if Selma, an awesome gift from a talented filmmaker, has one underlying message, it is that there is still hope. The ideals King strove for yet live, and that they live not only in his fiery, impassioned speeches or in his great deeds, but in the heirs to his legacy of nonviolent protest. The film offers no hagiography, and makes no bones about King’s humanity. The man strayed. He did wrong. He was cunning and calculating, not in the same nefarious category as a Tywin Lannister or a Hannibal Lecter, but King knew how to fight against the Jim Clarks and George Wallaces of the world without firing a shot. Most of all, though, King knew how to inspire, to lead, to lift people up and give them agency. He was an advocate in the truest sense of the word.
Selma is either an example of a movie choosing its moment, or of a moment choosing its movie. Either way, it’s a film that speaks to the major cultural watershed of 2014, and which for better or worse will act as a lens through which critics, scholars, academics and social commentators of all shapes and sizes will filter the lessons of Ferguson for months (possibly years) to come. The subtext here is the text: don’t give up. Don’t back down. Forty-nine years ago, hundreds upon hundreds of men and women bound together by common beliefs were beaten down, discredited, defamed, humiliated and suffered boundless injuries in the pursuit of their goals. The people who fought against them enjoyed triumph of a manner during their brief tenure as the ruling body, but today we know that they were on the wrong side of history. So too are the people waving signs proclaiming their support of Darren Wilson. It’s a strange, bleak time we live in, but rather than despair we all must do as King himself would have done: Overcome.