“People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.” –James Baldwin
I was raised by two civil rights activists – attorney John Due and the late Patricia Stephens Due—so stories of Martin Luther King, Jr. were common in my house. My mother first met Dr. King at a CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) workshop in Miami in 1959. My aunt, Priscilla Stephens Kruize, who attended with her, is an activist. Our godparents were activists, black and white.
Even without an official holiday, my sisters and I got to skip school every January 15 for annual birthday celebrations that brought neighbors, activists and politicians to our home to reflect on Dr. King and the legacy of The Movement. We held hands, listened to Dr. King’s speeches, and sang “We Shall Overcome.” As an adult, I co-authored a civil rights memoir with my mother, Freedom in the Family: a Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights.
My parents always stressed two things about the Movement:
- The Movement was not about a single man, but about the faceless marchers and activists who were willing to put their lives, safety and futures at risk.
- King was only a single human being. Often, he was afraid for his life.
The most vivid family anecdote, to me, was how my mother’s German shepherd, Scout, lunged at Dr. King at a press conference in St. Augustine in 1964 and filled his face with fear. (I can relate. My earliest memory is that same dog glaring at me, and I am still afraid of dogs.)
Which brings me to Ava DuVernay’s masterful film Selma, starring talented powerhouse David Oyelowo as Dr. King. This film, shot in only 32 days, took fifty years to bring to the big screen—and DuVernay’s masterwork is worthy of the wait. Although my parents did not go to Selma, this stirring film captures the civil rights movement – and the Martin Luther King, Jr. – from my parents’ stories. It is the truest civil rights depiction I have seen on film.
Its timing is also remarkable, released in the midst of a growing #BlackLivesMatter national social movement underway to complete the civil rights work depicted in the film. And it offers its own potential history: Ava DuVernay, already nominated for a Golden Globe, could become the first black woman nominated for, or to win, an Oscar as Best Director.
Selma is so relevant that it’s almost uncanny—the police abuses, the tear gas, and the brave masses willing to risk their lives for change. Bradford Young’s beautiful cinematography unfolds at times like a dream, at times like a nightmare, eerily reminiscent of so many images we see from protests here and now.
Selma is a film about Dr. King and the quest for voting rights—but it is also about politics, activist strategy, intergenerational divides, inter-organizational bickering, marriage strain and the heroism of young and old, black and white, to create that historic march. Selma depicts Dr. King and the civil rights era of my parents’ stories—a terrible and wonderful moment in history when, as my mother so often said, ordinary people did extraordinary things.
Some of my favorite moments are the most mundane, human ones: a husband and wife emptying the trash together, a man finding late-night solace in the voice of a gospel singer, comrades laughing around the table while they enjoy a meal prepared with love. But the film also doesn’t shy away from the Movement’s violence, pain and frailties. Part portrait, part love letter, part primer, part call to action, Selma is a singular film of its time.
Too often, black artists have seemed invisible to the Academy—or, when they weren’t, voters’ choices did not reflect our own sensibilities as viewers. Too often, we have been stereotyped and typecast or left out altogether, our stories relegated to the wings.
I have seen many fine films this Oscar season, but none as big as Selma.
When Brad Pitt’s Plan B Productions hired Ava DuVernay to direct Selma, he got it right.
Ava DuVernay got Selma right.
With Selma, Oscar has a chance to get it right too.
On Ava DuVernay
The only people surprised by director Ava DuVernay’s storming of Hollywood are those who haven’t been following her on Twitter. DuVernay, a former publicist, is a leader who has built her own national grass roots network of supporters as a woman filmmaker writing, shooting and distributing her own films through AFFRM (the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement)—and leaving a social media blueprint for others to follow. She is an eloquent champion of independent artists. (See her on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” here.)
Before Selma, she wrote and directed two independent films, I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere (the latter also co-starring Oyelowo, winning her Best Director at Sundance). The quiet scenes from Selma are reminiscent of DuVernay’s mature grasp of characters and relationships in her earlier films. Selma’s social justice message is subtly hinted in Middle of Nowhere, a love story set against our era of mass incarceration. (That film was presented before the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of prisoners fighting predatory phone rates.)
Ava DuVernay was the first guest I invited to Spelman College in 2012, at the start of my two-year appointment as Chair in the Humanities. I literally laid out a red carpet for her, introducing her as a future Oscar winner. (She brought a brief clip from Middle of Nowhere, but that film had not yet been released. She appeared with lead actress Emayatzy Corinealdi.)
Even then, I recognized DuVernay as someone who could change the face of Hollywood, just as I recognized Barack Obama as a man who could be president when he appeared before my Los Angeles church as a U.S. Senator in 2007.
DuVernay is both evidence of change and its agent. Her film is an homage to past activists and a visual mission statement to today’s, who themselves are learning the burn of tear-gas and the horror of facing down police officers’ guns.
Selma, after all, is about We the People.
Then, as now, the activists are the true stars of Selma: stalwarts in Selma and Birmingham and Tallahassee, Florida, and elsewhere who faced beatings, jail or death day by day, paying the price of our Constitution’s promise with their blood. It is impossible to include every face, every name, but surviving activists, their children and their grandchildren can see themselves reflected on the screen.
Many activists did not recover from the emotional traumas they suffered in the 1960s. My mother wore dark glasses her entire adult life because of teargas thrown in her face in 1960, when she was 20. She died at the age of 72, and I have no doubt that the Movement stole years from her life. My aunt agrees with me.
The Stephens sisters, as they were known as students at Florida A&M University, organized a campus CORE chapter and began staging sit-ins after the 1959 Miami workshop. Together, they were arrested and jailed after a 1960 sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter. Once, Tallahassee police officer kicked my aunt in the stomach at a protest.
Aunt Priscilla fled the United States to live in Ghana in 1964 after a series of ailments she later recognized as stress: Hives. Ulcers. Temporary paralysis she suffered in a jail.
“We couldn’t allow ourselves to feel fear,” she says now. But her body felt it.
Activists’ PTSD went unnamed, and often untreated. Some were ashamed to tell family members they had been to jail. Some committed suicide. Some simply never came home.
Names you do not know. Movies that will never be made.
Selma captures the face of their sacrifice. My mother would have loved Selma, had she lived to see it. Like me, at times, she would have wept.
Today, on opening day, Aunt Priscilla, now 76, will see Selma with a group of friends in the city where she was first jailed. (After their Woolworth arrest, she and my mother were among a handful of Florida A&M students who spent 49 days in jail rather than pay their fine. During their time in jail, the students received a telegram of support from Dr. King.)
Aunt Priscilla knows the film will be painful, but she is eager to see it.
“People forget, and they don’t know what happened,” says the retired educator. “If someone can tell the story, it’s good for our children. We are losing our children left and right. They don’t know the importance of anything—Why is it important to vote? Why is it important to do your best? Why is it important not to go to jail? Our children are lost, and they think it’s always been the way it is now. They can’t compare, but we can. I know the struggle continues—it’s not over. But they don’t know what the Struggle was all about. They’re being prepped for jail instead of for life. It’s more dangerous for our children now.”
She recalls the first time she met Dr. King, at the same 1959 CORE workshop with my mother. The workshop ended with Dr. King leading the singing of “We Shall Overcome.” “He sang ‘We shall overcome someday,’ and I told him, ‘No, Dr. King, we shall overcome today.’”
Like the younger activists portrayed in Selma, she says she and other local activists groused about Dr. King’s tactics of swooping in and out of town. “That’s how they talked about Dr. King: He was getting all the publicity and we were doing all the work.”
Once, over lunch, she asked Dr. King how he kept his ego under control when he was lauded by so many. “He said, ‘I don’t know the answer to that, but you have to keep focused.’”
That, at least, is the way she remembers his words.
Selma and History
Selma has overcome so much and soars so high that the well-publicized complaints from some historians about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s portrayal are particularly painful. In the flurry of Oscar politics, the drumbeat will be: This film shouldn’t win because it isn’t the truth.
It also means that potential viewers might skip it. And some Academy voters might steer away, as they did when Denzel Washington was nominated for Hurricane.
I have both seen Selma and read the history, and this is my view: Historical films, like historical novels, are a form of fiction. Freedom in the Family, which was nonfiction, taught me that memory itself is faulty—so the notion of “truth” is always a bit slippery. Filmmakers could not get the rights to Dr. King’s speeches, for example, so those are fiction–reportedly penned by DuVernay, though the sole screenplay credit goes to Paul Webb.
In historical fiction, the “truth” lies in the essence of the story being told—the spirit of an event. Any historical film is the starting point for understanding history, not the destination. Selma is not a documentary, and even documentaries are subject to filmmakers’ interpretations. Historians can debate the actions and attitudes of President Johnson compared to his character in his film, and I would suggest, as I always do, that we all research the history ourselves for a fuller picture. The roles of some activists, too, are minimized while others are highlighted. All historical films have omissions, interpretations and scripted dialogue.
I believe Selma’s depiction of Johnson represents the Movement’s struggles with the White House through the 1960s civil rights era—the fight for change versus political expediency. A film called LBJ surely would have its own sensibility. Other civil rights icons are also worthy of their own films.
As DuVernay said in her interview with Jon Stewart, “We don’t paint anyone as a saint in this–we don’t paint anyone as a sinner.”
Selma sets out to mold a human character from an icon, but also to capture “The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Like No Film Before.” It’s a lot to ask.
Selma does that and more. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the marchers at Edmund Pettus Bridge come to vivid life.
Next month, when I participate in a speculative fiction conference on the Florida A&M University campus where my parents met and I was born, I will see Selma with my 80-year-old father, John Due. Like John Lewis, Andrew Young, Diane Nash and a shrinking number of other activists, my father is a survivor of the civil rights movement. Like all people of advancing years, those activists wonder if their legacies will be remembered.
My mother is no longer here, but my father is still a community organizer and lawyer with freedom on his mind and in his heart. In Florida, he inspired young activists who went on to help create the Dream Defenders.
Selma took far too long to get made. A decade ago or longer, so many more activists could have enjoyed the validation of seeing their contributions represented symbolically on the big screen. So many more young people would have gained a deeper understanding of how steep the price is for change.
But I’m so glad Selma is here today.
Tananarive Due is an American Book Award-winning author, screenwriter and filmmaker. She is the former Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College. She lives and works in Southern California. Her website is at www.tananarivedue.com. See her 2003 book appearance with her mother, the late Patricia Stephens Due.