Working for Justice

Ava DuVernay and the Blame That Women Carry

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the movie Selma and all of the controversy that has swirled around it.  One way you could frame that controversy might be to lay out this series of questions that could be asked:

  • Why wasn’t the movie more historically-accurate when it came to President Johnson’s position regarding the Voting Rights Act?
  • Why wasn’t the movie distributed and marketed to Oscar voters more quickly and effectively?
  • Why didn’t the movie strike a different tone with respect to Coretta Scott King’s relationship with her husband and the movement?

Let’s take those same three questions, and bring to the surface what is floating (just barely) beneath the surface:

  • Why didn’t Ava DuVernay take responsibility to teach Americans their history when she was making her movie?
  • Why didn’t Ava DuVernay edit her movie more quickly to make it easier for Paramount Pictures to distribute it to Oscar voters?
  • Why didn’t Ava DuVernay portray Corretta Scott King in a way that highlighted all she did after her husband’s death and independent from her role as a wife?

To be clear, whether worded more politely up top or more directly down on the bottom, there is a whole lot of blame being thrown DuVernay’s way.

Blame.  Being thrown at DuVernay.  For making a beautiful, moving, powerful, demanding movie.  For being a trailblazer in a field that is notoriously dominated by white men.

There is a whole lot that could and should generate consternation around this movie, but Ava DuVernay is not anywhere on that list.  Going back to those same questions, here is how they might be more fairly approached:

  • What are we doing as a community, as a society, that we are comfortable deferring the responsibility for transmitting our history to our artists, rather than our parents, teachers and civic leaders? 

Look at where that gets us:

As a former teacher, as a history major, as someone who fears that if we do not know and understand and grow from our history, we will be doomed to repeat it, I am horrified.  Also, it’s a bit ironic to react to this movie by complaining we wanted a more glowy portrait of the President.  As DuVernay explained to Rolling Stone, “I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma. . . What’s important for me as a student of this time in history is to not deify what the president did.  Johnson has been hailed as a hero of that time, and he was, but we’re talking about a reluctant hero…”

  • How is it that we are still so starved for seeing true representations of women in our movies and for hearing about the real role that women played and continue to play in our social justice movements that the rich depictions in Selma leave us wanting more?

DuVernay added numerous roles for women when she got her hands on the script, and those roles resonate.  In my mind, they make the film feel like something warmer, richer and truer than most things I’ve seen.  I thrilled to see them, my eye drawn to even the subtlest expressions on their faces when they weren’t speaking.   As Brittney Cooper observed in her excellent piece (which you should read from front to end):

[The film is] one that features Amelia Boynton and Coretta Scott King having a conversation about what it means to be prepared, as we hear Coretta talking about her desire for a more active role in the strategy and organizing side of the movement. One in which Diane Nash reassures the men, on their car ride into Selma, that this is the next big place for movement building. One in which Annie Lee Cooper slaps the policeman who manhandles her.  In this film, we see black women resisting, organizing, strategizing and cajoling.

When I reflect back on the movie, the images that draw my memory are the women.  The resolve.  The humanity.  The strength.  Those closing images of Jimmie Lee Jackson’s mother Viola, crying on her porch.

  • How did the Directors branch of the Academy, which is 91% male and 90% white,  get to shift the blame – to shift the entire story – away from their agency and their choice?

Why are we talking about what more or different DuVernay should have done to make it easier for them to recognize what she had done?  Why are we still blaming women for the glass ceilings and destructive stereotypes that they face?  The Academy that votes on the Oscars is notorious for undervaluing and overlooking the accomplishments of women and people of color.  They decided not to nominate DuVernay for best director, or Oyelowo for best actor, or Bradford Young for cinematography, etc.  This was a decision they – the Academy voters – made.   Maybe they made it for legitimate reasons.  Maybe for illegitimate ones.  But it is their choice and they, not DuVernay, should be the ones who answer for it.

DuVernay made a beautiful thing.  I hope that you all get a chance to see it while it is still in theaters.  If not for the film itself (which I highly recommend), I hope that you all take the time to go if only to support a woman making her way in a very challenging field.

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP is a nationwide litigation law firm with offices in New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, San Diego, Nashville, and Baltimore. We represent individuals against powerful interests. We act as a private attorney general in support of the private and public good. Learn More

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