[image description: David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Selma”]
I watched “Selma” on Monday for MLK Day, and it was a very good but not phenomenal film. The movie is undeniably beautiful and the direction by Ava DuVernay in it is impeccable. The closing scene of the film especially is a cinematic delight, and you see why Nigerian-British actor David Oyelowo, despite not being African-American, is winning so much praise for his portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. “Selma” plugs us directly into the inner workings of Martin Luther King, Jr. and SCLC's organizational efforts during the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches. This made it doubly great for me to watch as an activist today, because it showed many of the strengths (organization, skills base, very clear action steps and goal orientation) and weaknesses (one messianic leader who can be cut down at any time, blatant heteropatriarchy, silencing of grassroots activists) of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. “Selma” never directly critiqued any of these strengths and weaknesses, but with historical hindsight being 20/20, it put them all in stark relief for me. This alone makes “Selma” a must-see for young black activists today, I feel, and it will greatly inform my own activist work as the #BlackLivesMatter movement continues to build and grow.
[image description: A screen cap from “Selma” with Martin Luther King, Jr. standing front and center with members of SCLC flanking him and black protesters in front of them on their knees with their hands behind their heads. Just as in the film, the women of SCLC are pushed to the sides of the frame in this scene, Source: Yahoo! Movies]
Despite all of this, the film was just a “good” in my book because I left the theater with one glaring question:
Where the hell were the black women and queer black activists?
The omission is really glaring and disturbing, especially since “Selma” was directed by Ava DuVernay who centers black women in so much of her other work. It was doubly disturbing because in an interview with Buzzfeed in December DuVernay said:
It was important that Coretta Scott King not be relegated to the margins of the story, because she was not. And it was important that a lot of the women were amplified and put in their rightful place.
All of this appeared to be lip service, however. Coretta Scott King, the wife of Martin Luther King, Jr., was the only woman with any dimensionality in the film, and she only had agency in as much as she was an accessory and devoted attachment to her husband. Coretta’s biographer Barbara Reynolds has critiqued this jilted representation of Coretta as a blatant misrepresentation of her story. Reynolds in her critique of the film recalls that Coretta once said:
Often, I am made to sound like an attachment to a vacuum cleaner: the wife of Martin, then the widow of Martin, all of which I was proud to be. But I was never just a wife, nor a widow. I was always more than a label.
Despite this, “Selma” reinscribes Coretta Scott King as all of these things and ends the movie again making her an “attachment to a vacuum cleaner” by saying “She never remarried” as the final words describing her real-world work post-Selma. A startling and disappointing reduction of a woman who in her own words “was never just a wife, nor a widow.”
[image description: A screencap from “Selma” with Martin Luther King, Jr. holding Coretta Scott King as she fixes his tie]
But sadly Coretta’s character in “Selma” was still far and away more dynamic than that of the other black women and black queer activists in the film. The characters for Bayard Rustin, Diane Nash and Annie Lou Cooper all got either very little screen time or were inscribed as largely silent hardworking supporters on the sidelines following the lead of the cis-hetero black men of SCLC.
Again, this is historically inaccurate. Black women and queer black activists played a central and pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement and were there every step of the way, and any fair reading of history shows this to be true. We know that the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom likely wouldn’t have been possible without the work of Bayard Rustin, a gay black activist who was snubbed and not allowed to lead the March due to his sexuality. We also know that the movement as a whole may not have met with half as much success without the tireless efforts of Ella Baker, who traveled across the country empowering grassroots organizers, and black women like Fannie Lou Hammer, the vice-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. And this is just naming a few of the countless more black women and black queer activists who made the Civil Rights Movement possible. Erasing their critical contributions to the movement in the movie perpetuates a grave historical injustice, and the violence of heteropatriarchy which continues to dog activist circles to this day.
Using film and art to rectify this false narrative is a powerful and subversive act to dismantle heteropatriarchy in our communities, but “Selma” simply didn’t go there. Instead it was a story that by and large failed to give any complexity to the black women activists who were present, or, when it did with Coretta Scott King, did so in a way that misrepresented them and made them into accessories for powerful cis-hetero black men. Additionally, “Selma” gave Bayard Rustin’s character basically no screen time and didn’t mention his queerness either.
In some respects, I feel that “Selma” did more to highlight the contributions of white allies to the movement than it did to really shine a light on the invaluable work done by black women and queer black people. When Viola Liuzzo, a white woman who was killed after the march to Birmingham, gets a scene and dedication in the final closing moments of the movie but Bayard Rustin gets nothing—that stings. Yes, Viola was killed and her sacrifice was worth noting at the end of the film, but in the larger context of a movie that erased much of the work done by black women and queer black people, an omission like that of Rustin coming hand-in-hand with praise for a white ally still hurts for me as a black queer activist today.The Civil Rights Movement is so much more than the heteropatriarchal legacy we know from the history books, and “Selma” sadly didn’t challenge that in the way it could have.
[image description: A screencap from “Selma” of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King marching arm-in-arm with other protestors]
Despite these issues, though, “Selma” is still a very important film for this moment in history, and it is definitely a movie people should see. I was disappointed to not see black women and black queer activists highlighted in the film in a way we should have been, but I still enjoyed it very much regardless. “Selma” is absolutely gorgeous, and DuVernay is a directing genius, and there are many points when you can point and see that the exact same things occurring in the movie are happening today from Ferguson to Oakland and Staten Island. We are at a crucial juncture in history and “Selma” provides us with much needed historical context to understand the circumstances we find ourselves in today. So definitely watch the movie and please do support it in theaters, but don’t forget the invaluable work of Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hammer, James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin and the countless other black women and black queer activists who made the Civil Rights Movement possible while you do.