OC Register, Jan 8, 2015
by America Hernadez
As the civil rights movie “Selma” arrives in theaters throughout Orange County today, backlash has already begun regarding the film’s depiction of then-President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Director and co-writer Ava DuVernay has garnered praise in the past for her ability to craft complex black characters, most notably with the 2012 drama “Middle of Nowhere,” about a woman’s struggle to keep her marriage alive while her husband serves jail time.
Her depiction of Martin Luther King Jr. has received similar acclaim for its nuance, showing the activist preacher’s strengths and vulnerabilities in moments public and private.
The film has received many positive reviews and is widely expected to be nominated for the best picture Academy Award next week.
DuVernay has come under fire for minimizing Johnson’s role in securing voting rights for black citizens, some say even vilifying him as a stereotypical white foe of the civil rights movement. One former Johnson administration official said the march on Selma was the president’s idea.
But the outcry may be more about the film’s choice to not to depict Johnson – or King, for that matter – as the hero of the story.
“Selma” takes viewers behind the scenes of the 1965 demonstrations in Alabama to protest officials’ refusal to register blacks to vote despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act the previous year. Protesters set out on a march from Selma to Montgomery and were met by state troopers who beat, kicked and tear-gassed them in an incident that came to be known as Bloody Sunday. TV coverage of the assault shocked the world and galvanized public support for the Voting Rights Act.
“I think the woman producing is showing us a take that’s more around the movement and how people came together for a common goal to make a difference, instead of highlighting individuals,” said Donald Craig, director of the Orange County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“It’s important to say we don’t need to wait for a certain individual or certain events, but that when things are wrong, we need to unite all people of color to do what’s right for everyone – that’s the only way changes can be made,” Craig said.
The NAACP leader added that many local churches, including Christ Our Redeemer in Irvine, have organized group outings to see the film and hold discussions afterward.
Paul Garnes, executive producer of “Selma,” said bringing different perspectives to the discussion is exactly the film’s point.
“It’s not about ‘reclaiming the narrative,’ necessarily, but offering a point of view about the civil rights movement that many people haven’t seen before,” Garnes said.
“It was told from the perspective of the marcher standing on the bridge that day when there wasn’t government support during the actions that occurred on Bloody Sunday, about what it must have been like for these organizers to go into a pretty hostile environment using the skill set of nonviolence to push an agenda that maybe the country wasn’t ready for,” Garnes continued.
“There is a view from the political side that this was one bullet point on an agenda, and for viewers who say Johnson was for it, the film shows actions that helped change happen faster.”
Several previous civil rights-era films, such as “Mississippi Burning” and “The Help,” have drawn criticism for advancing a “white savior narrative,” in which a white hero stands up to injustice to help victims of racism.
At the Toronto International Film Festival in September, lead actor David Oyelowo said the original “Selma” script written by Paul Webb was much more focused on Johnson and “told through white eyes,” until DuVernay joined the project and did a major rewrite.
According to experienced civil rights organizers, the focus on mass involvement rather than charismatic leaders in making change is more reflective of reality.
Given the media’s tendency to paint historical events as successes or failures of individual leaders, they say, it can be hard for audiences conditioned to look for heroes and villains to view “Selma” through the wider lens of ordinary people taking on institutions of power.
“As a society we focus in on individuals as icons that stand for certain key moments in history, and that’s an important thing to help us structure what has happened, but it’s really important to recognize that that’s just one person, and that one was supported by years of organizing prior to them and years after,” said Rusty Kennedy, chief executive officer of the Orange County Human Relations Council.
The nonprofit organization was formed 25 years ago with a mission to eliminate prejudice, intolerance and discrimination in Orange County in tandem with the county Board of Supervisors’ Human Relations Commission, established in 1971.
Kennedy, who as a youth helped organize boycotts with the United Farm Worker’s Association and later pushed for fair housing in Orange County, among other causes, said the techniques and issues popularized by King and depicted in “Selma” are still relevant today.
“Certainly it’s not just about race anymore, but all ethnic groups – the issue of voter’s rights is so critical, just establishing that right, then seeing the ways in which over time voters are systematically discouraged or new hurdles are put up in their place,” Kennedy said, citing voter identification laws and mass incarceration that disenfranchise swaths of minority populations across the country.
DuVernay has spoken about her rush to get the film out in light of the proposed voter ID laws that critics say threaten to dismantle the hard-won protections for equal voting rights.
Since “Selma” wrapped filming in early summer, it has taken on additional relevance in light of widespread protests of fatal altercations between white police and unarmed black citizens in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere.
Orange County’s NAACP leader also cites Ferguson in discussing voter apathy among youth of color who feel a lack of institutional support from the justice and political systems.
And when people in communities don’t vote, Craig said, candidates from those same communities won’t bother to run for office.
“I think the youth have lost hope. They may have gone through school, graduated and yet can’t find a job or are struggling to make ends meet,” he said, counting off individual struggles that prevent citizens from working together to fight for communal change.
Recounting his visit to a candidate forum for Orange County’s 1st Supervisorial District this past Tuesday, Craig said he was disappointed that all minority groups were in significant attendance – except African Americans.
“That’s where it comes to us as adults to really reach out and get past that and say, ‘No, it does matter’ – through church and other organizations, being mentors and showing there’s a different way to get involved and make proactive changes,” Craig said.
Craig worried that without continued awareness, the progress for equal rights may roll backward.
Kennedy agreed, saying it’s never safe to stop thinking about the hard-won victories of the civil rights movement.
“The great hope riding in on a horse to make everything better is a fantasy concept of how lasting change occurs,” Kennedy said.
“These civil rights victories that happened along the way are just small steps on a long journey of vigilance.”
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