Tuesday, February 10, 2015

White Folks in the Film Selma

I saw Selma on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  I went by myself and sat in a sparse theater for a matinee.  I was enthralled and moved by Ava DuVernay's work, and the many talented actors that brought the piece to life.  As I watched the movie, I was struck by the vast range of Black faces and bodies on screen: tall folks, short folks, old, young, fat, thin, beautiful, tired, sad, joyful. And I realized how amazing--and rare--it was to see a movie that not only starred Black characters, but displayed a world that was largely populated by Black folks.  It was like a breath of fresh air, or a glass of water when you didn't even realize that you were thirsty.  This, in many ways, is the definition of privilege: it's hard to realize the extent of the dearth of stories of color until we actually see an example of centering those stories.

But I'm not here to talk about DuVernay's ability to honor the movement, or Oyelowo's nuanced portrayal of Dr. King's humanity.  It's not my story to tell.  I want, of course, to talk about the white people in Selma.

First, a lot has been said about the film's portrayal of LBJ; some critics claim that it is too critical of him, and portrays him as less enthusiastic than he was about the Civil Rights Movement.  I was surprised (though I probably shouldn't have been).  I thought they portrayed Johnson as a president who was doing his best to hold together a country he loved in a time of turmoil, and though he didn't perhaps understand the intensity with which King made his demands, he eventually came down on the side of good (signing the Civil Rights Act) when he was forced to come face to face with the ugliness of white supremacy (a skin-crawlingly racist George Wallace explaining his point of view).  It didn't flatter LBJ, but it wasn't insulting, either.  It was an honest, nuanced version of a white man trying to do the right thing, but still inhabiting the most privileged position possible in his society; as such, it took him awhile to come to the right conclusion.  Isn't that what we, as white folks, should strive for?  To recognize that our reluctance has no place in this world, and learn and grow and change?

Well, that may be what we should strive for, but it isn't what we want.  For better or worse, we white folks are uncomfortable with such a realistic portrayal of white privilege.  In fact, we are far more comfortable with George Wallace's blatant racism; it's much easier to deal with somebody that we can discount as "evil" than it is to realize that any of us--no matter how strong we proclaim our allyship to be--may still be getting it wrong.  What if we're the ones King was talking about when he stated:

"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order'; than to justice."
We don't know what to do with a white character who is neither villain nor savior.  The truth is, we would rather play a villain than a supporting role, so terrified are we of ceding even that small piece of narrative power.  Lyndon Johnson as a reluctant ally, and not a knight in shining armor, offends us.

I suggest that we listen to that disquiet, and challenge ourselves to move beyond it into action, as LBJ did in the film.  Growth does not occur without discomfort.  It is hard not to react to that ache with an attempt to push it away, but I have found that my most rewarding moments have been when I invite it in.  If white folks want to be allies, and want to claim that we're "not racist," that means examining why we are so reluctant to embrace these portrayals of whiteness.

In addition to Lyndon Johnson, the film also included one of my favorite white allies, Viola Liuzzo.  I first learned about Viola in the book At the Dark End of the Street.  The book describes how she became an ally and advocate by working with the Civil Rights Movement.  She did not seek leadership positions, but rather came to offer her service.  She was heavily criticized by many, and in fact, when she was murdered by Klansmen for giving a Black man a ride after the march from Selma, over half of the readers of Ladies' Home Journal felt that she brought her death on herself.  Actress Tara Ochs has some amazing insight into playing this role and being "the white girl" in the cast.

The reasons Viola Liuzzo is such a hero of mine are some of the same reasons she is not well-known.  She did not seek power within the movement, or ask for special recognition just for doing what was right.  She acted out of her prescribed role, because not doing so would make her implicit in a system of racism.  In doing so, she had her life taken.

I want a piece of that bravery.  I want to break out of the expectations laid on me as a middle-class, educated white woman, and fearlessly advocate for justice.  I also want to humility to recognize that, though my allyship may be powerful, it must be done in service to those who have been marginalized.  I may be a leader among my privileged colleagues, but I strive to surrender power and leadership to those who have disproportionately had it stolen from them.

Go see Selma.  Embrace the subtlety of the actors' performances, the exquisite timing, the lush soundtrack.  But note the examples of good allies.  And if something in the movie makes you uncomfortable, don't rush to react.  Invite it in, and see what it can teach you.

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