When we look at Selma through the lens of class, we are looking at a tale as old as time, Black criminality in the face on institutional violence. Black people wanting to vote and being told no. To be Black is to be criminal, savage, beast. From slavery to Selma, DuVernay’s film says it all out for us.
Last month, as part of Freshers’ fortnight, the Students’ Union screened Ava DuVernay’s Selma – based on the true story of that three-month period in 1965, during the Civil Rights Movement before the Voting Rights Act was signed. This was a part in history when Black people were not afforded their basic human rights. Like the vote, being systematically stopped from reaching the polls. And the same sort of voting fraud still happens today.
Following Dr Martin Luther King, Jr (David Oyelowo), the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and this all-star cast (including Common (The Hate U Give) and Tessa Thompson (Creed) in support) we are taken on a journey showing what institutional discrimination does to communities, including the covert racism that made voting harder for a Black person than a White person – the systematic use of legal innovations to strip Black people of their rights, (and dignity).
Since Selma was released in 2014, Ava DuVernay has since made the documentary 13th showing the history behind mass incarceration in American prisons, including slavery and convict leasing. Additionally, she has made the miniseries When They See Us – looking at the story behind the Central Park Five and how the small print (in the US legal system) described in 13th was used to incarcerate these young Black and Hispanic boys.
What got to me in rewatching Selma is how important the racial thinking that (mostly) came out colonialism / slavery is in how we think about race today. The fact discrimination only became a crime in the UK in 1965 (with the Race Relations Act), and the idea we still endorsed blackface minstrelsy until the late 1970s. BBC television still had blackface as entertainment until 1978. However, slavery was outlawed in the USA in 1865 but the slave-owning class won the war on race, as Blacks continued to be treated like slaves even though they weren’t – from convict leasing to Jim Crow Laws.
One hundred years after the end of the American Civil War, like-racism (from slave days) continued. The Voting Rights Act was signed in 1965 and Jim Crow Laws were abolished as well, but those ideologies are what built America from the days of slavery, in both the North and the South. Seldom is it acknowledged that slavery existed in some northern states too.
We don’t talk about slave codes in places like Virginia, where it was stated within the law that if an altercation occurred between slave and master, and the slave died, it would not be a felony. In the slave codes for Virginia of the 1660s, it states within the laws that it was legal to kill a Black person. This was systematic use of the law to deny Black people their rights. Whether this was Virginia 1660 or Virginia 1960, not a lot had changed.
When Rosa Parkes sat down, she stood up to the establishment and unjust laws. And before Rosa Parkes, we had Collette Colvin. Moreover, when Black people boycotted the buses, they almost bankrupted the bus companies. They were seen as a nuisance. People thought they should stay in line. This old tale of Black resistance against White authority can be traced back to master, mistress, stately homes, cotton, cane and king sugar.
From the get-go, Ava DuVernay is at your throat, with her depiction of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing. This film was not made to score political points but it’s a film that tells it how it is, with vivid imagery of attack dogs, tear gas and police on horseback. Very much like the Klu Klux Klan killing defenseless people on the basis of race. Brutal. From Sandra Bland to Treyvon Martin, those stories of police brutality still ring true today. The history of disdain from Black communities to the police in Britain and America is one we’ve all heard, and it’s one that I think is in-part at least responsible for the lack people of colour joining up.
Why would Black, Asian and ethnic minority members of our society want to join an institution that has a historic pattern of discrimination? Why would they want to join an institution that talks about recruiting more BAME people, but still treats the ones they have already abominably?
Despite being a British viewer, there are many things I took away from this film, especially the subjectivity of the law. How White people in authority expect people of colour to be objective in the face of racism. The recent Naga Munchetty debacle with the BBC comes to mind. “You’ve got one big issue,” states LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) to King (Oyelowo). “I’ve got one hundred and one.” For most of the film, he does not appear to be taking the Black vote seriously, until it directly impacts him and what he’s trying to do.
Tim Roth as Governor Wallace (Alabama) is brilliant – spewing hate, hate and more hate with such venom. You hate him from the second his face appears on screen, and his scenes with Dylan Baker’s J. Edgar Hoover are brilliant. There is no love for Wallace. He is a White supremacist and director Ava DuVernay makes sure we know that. However, it got me asking questions about how we depict White supremacists in Britain. Mainly, with statues dotted around the country, including Parliament Square!
Is Selma a controversial film or is it simply no-nonsense and very American? It talks about things people feel uncomfortable talking about. In Britain, that includes anything remotely sounding like race, racism, colonialism or its role in Slavery. But critique Churchill or Nelson in anyway and you’re the enemy? But it does a great job recreating moments like Bloody Sunday, as state troops and local police let rip on the marchers.
“The whole nation was sickened by the pictures of that wild melee.”Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo)
From tear gas to men on horses with whips, it was riddled with symbolism, as well as truly fantastic cinematography, sound mixing and musical score. Oprah (one of the producers) was great in her role, and David Oyelowo is one of the most underrated actors working today, and a testament to an alternative image of Black men on screen. Whilst my grandparents’ generation had Harry Belafonte (Carmen Jones) and Sidney Poitier (To Sir, with Love), this current generation of Black people have David Oyelowo.
This film is rough when it needs to be but delicate when it needs to be. It’s engaging, emotional, and leaves a lump in your throat right up to and through the credits. It’s also very funny – “that White boy can hit” says Dr King after being decked by a racist local. All the speeches, all the symbols, all the nods to America’s history of slavery and oppression – it’s intertwined with how the US is today – Trump’s Twitter tantrums and all that jazz.
“We must march! We must stand up! […] it is unacceptable that they use their power and keep us voiceless.”Dr Martin Luther King, Jr (David Oyelowo)
Ava lingers on faces (especially eyes) in scenarios of extreme violence longer than what is humanly comfortable, much alike to Kathryn Bigelow with Detroit and what Steve McQueen did with Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) 12 Years a Slave. From cinematography to acting, music, sound and visuals, I have no complaints. And at moments, it was like documentary.
And nearly everyday, I’m hearing people say the system is broken; is it broken, or was it built this way, fit for purpose – for the use and upliftment of a White, male, patriarchal, able-bodied, hetero-normative society?
Dorsey, Bruce. “Virginian Slave Laws, 1660s”. History 41. n.p. n.d. Online. Access: 19th October, 2019.
Fryer, Peter and Gary Young et al. Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. London: Pluto Press, 2018. Print.
“Moral Mission.” Black and British: A Forgotten History, written by David Olusoga, directed by Naomi Austin, BBC, 2016.
Olusoga, David. Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Pan Books, 2017. Print.
Selma. Dir. Ava DuVernay. Pathé, Paramount. 2014, Netflix.
n.d. “Slavery and the Law in Virginia”. history.org. n.p. n.d. Online. Access: 19th October, 2019.
n.d. “Slave Law in Colonial Virginia: A Timeline”. shsu.edu. n.p. n.d. Online. Access: 19th October, 2019.
“History is not just stuff that happens by accident, we are the products of the history that our ancestors chose, if we are White. If we are Black we are products of the history our ancestors most likely didn’t choose.”Kevin Gannon, 13th
And many of our cities in Britain are this melting pot due to the very same history our ancestors chose / didn’t choose; and the reason Britain has a variation of different faces is much to do (but not only) because of Britain’s colonial ambition.
Episode seven of the latest series of Who Do You Think You Are? was on TV entertainer Sharon Osbourne. Her family were victims of the Irish Potato Famine. Whilst the episode skirts over it, saying it occurred due to crop failures (with no real explanation), some would suggest that it was due to heavy-handed (British) colonial rule which assured those crop failures, leading to mass migration, starvation and death. For a show that is basically a series of history lectures, it does a good job of tiptoeing around uncomfortable (truths) bits of history.
As the late Jamaican philosopher and academic Stuart Hall said, “We are here because you were there” and we are now all here together, the products of our ancestors’ choices. I’ve been following this series of Who Do You Think You Are? with great interest and fascination. Almost every episode has had me hooked. And this latest episode with Sharon Osbourne was heartbreaking, with her great-grandmother Annie being the sole survivor of her six siblings, after disease and weakness took them.
The family emigrated to Massachusetts, USA in the mid-19th century and they worked in a cotton mill, the biggest in America and the second biggest in the world, only dwarfed by one in Manchester, Lancashire.
What irked me was the lack of contextual explanation around cotton during this time. Why wasn’t there any explanation regarding the history of cotton in the United States? Moreover, that relationship between American cotton and the mills of Lancashire and Cheshire (some 4500 mills in Lancashire and southern Scotland). What about the Industrial Revolution and how colonialism and the enslaved Black people that paid for it?
In a country still living in the aftermath of The Slave Trade, you cannot talk about cotton in America without talking about where the cotton came from. The same cotton made into cloth in Massachusetts would have came from cotton plantations, whether picked by African-Americans slaves (pre-1865) or “like-labour,” post-Civil War – since after abolition, the establishment entered into something called convict leasing. Prisoners loaned to plantation owners for a period, which (in itself) was legalised slavery. A loophole in the 13th Amendment stated that you could not be a slave, unless you were a criminal and imprisoned, thus America enters mass incarceration.
Black people in America were arrested for minor crimes like theft and vagrancy, and then imprisoned in mass. These prisoners were “rented” and put to work on plantations through the South – sugar, tobacco, cotton and more. The fact they didn’t feel the need to mention the context behind cotton in America is astounding, nor how the American cotton trade impacted Britain, for example the Lancashire Cotton Famine (1861 – 1865).
Yes, this episode is about Sharon Osbourne’s ancestors, but they were part of a longer story – a subtler history – the other half of cotton’s history that isn’t taught at school. And in places like Mississippi, where cotton was sailed down the Mississippi River by paddle steam, the local planters said:
“Cotton Is King.”
In Britain, we learn about spinning jennies. We learn about water frames and the Child Labour Act (1833), but not where cotton came from. This is American history and British history. It’s also working-class history. But in addition, it’s Black (British) history.
We are here because you were there; this is the history our ancestors chose, if you are White. But if you are Black, it’s the history your ancestors didn’t choose. And the least we can do is tell it right.
13th. Dir. Ava DuVernay. Netflix. 2016. Streaming platform.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. New York: The New Press, 2010. Print.
Olusoga, David. Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Macmillan, 2016. Print.