Enjoying a film, like enjoying any art form, requires that there exist a certain connection, at some point, between the director and the viewer. I have felt such a strong connection to the director of Selma, Ava DuVernay each of the three times I have seen the picture (so far) that I have real trouble understanding how anyone cannot be equally moved, and how it is that she was not nominated for a best director Academy Award (as well as David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo, for acting nominations, and others in the film who were wonderful supporting actors). Recent events have given me a little insight into how the vernacular I share with Ms. DuVernay may help explain what’s going on.
At brunch over the weekend with a progressive gay couple, I held forth, practically drooling with enthusiasm about Selma and my frustration with the Academy.
“I’m planning a backwards march from Selma Avenue to Hollywood Boulevard to protest the lack of diversity in major filmmaking and the Academy!” I insisted.
“Yeah,” they agreed. “There need to be more movies from people of color. It’s incredible that so few get made.” We were all simpatico until a little while later.
“We just saw Selma. It was a great movie. But there was a little flaw in the directing,” one friend said. “It was disjointed and insular. I mean, that ‘little girls in the church’ scene just came out of nowhere without enough explanation. We couldn’t track it.”
Really?! I thought. The “little girls in the church”scene just came out of nowhere?
The story of the little girls killed in the bombing of the Birmingham church has been such a part of the miasma that surrounds me since I was a little kid, part of the historical air that I breathe, that when I saw them coming down the stairs, I knew exactly what they were there to invoke.
When the bomb would go off; how it would be shot cinematically; and how terrifying it might be — those were open questions. But the essence of what was going to happen was never a mystery to me. I shared a common vernacular with Ava DuVernay. It may be an especially profound a connection for me because DuVernay’s family is from Lowndes County, Ala., on the route of the march from Selma to Montgomery. My father was born in Dallas County, Ala., of which Selma is the county seat. He left Alabama for Chicago as a child and was long gone by 1965, but when we would go to visit my great-grandfather in the 1970s, my parents and grandmother took us to the Edmund Pettus Bridge and told us it was the bridge that Dr. King and the marchers had crossed.
Back then, as a little kid, I kinda got it, but it wasn’t until seeing Selma that the truth of the march, as a real moment and not a historical event, came alive for me for the first time in my nearly 52 years.
The importance of a shared vernacular was underscored by another film I saw this weekend. I attended a screening of Black or White, the Mike Binder-directed film financially supported by and starring Kevin Costner. The well-intentioned film tells the story of a legal and emotional struggle between a white grandfather, played by Costner, and a black grandmother, played by Octavia Spencer, of a little mixed-race girl, after the death of Costner’s wife, the child’s white grandmother.
A key moment in the film, which I saw in a theater in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley with an older, mostly white audience, comes when Costner is on the witness stand and the script gives him the opportunity to argue, with impunity, that he is entitled (privileged?) to use the n word to describe the little girl’s father, the son of Octavia Spencer’s character.
Putting aside my lawyer’s assessment of the pathetic portrayal of a courtroom scene and the fact that the son used that word as part of the seduction of Costner’s daughter, who died in childbirth, so Costner’s use of the word as an insult was completely unacceptable, what got me most during the screening was the audience reaction. There was almost a collective cheer from many who seemed to agree that finally they had the right to use the n word because black people sometimes do. My group of friends, mostly black or mixed, were as silent as outer space during that offensive scene and I felt a collective harrumph that the mostly white audience suddenly were being told it was OK to invoke that most heinous epithet.
That moment reminded me of my third viewing of Selma, which took place in Long Beach, Calif., on MLK Day with a mostly white audience. I’d taken my teenage daughters to experience and a mixed-race friend to re-experience (his second time) the power of the picture.
From the moment the film started, a white gentleman sitting behind us rustled and crunched food wrappers and popcorn, expressing not a moment of upset at the little girls in the church or any emotional empathy as atrocity after atrocity was inflicted on the black characters. But when a white Anglican priest was killed by a white mob after essentially being called an “n word-lover,” the man behind us and his wife gasped in horror, and the rustling and crunching ceased. From that point on, they were as silent as outer space.
My progressive gay friends had essentially told me they wished Ava DuVernay had given them a little more “education” in Selma about where that “little girl” scene came from. For me, it was “just right” for the director to use a familiar idea as a touchstone — almost a sacred shibboleth of our shared common experience.
It looks like she made the movie for me and those of us who share that cultural vernacular, and maybe not for a broader audience, which probably includes most Academy voters. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but what this all told me is we have a lot further to go, that there need to be more stories by people of all races and colors and diverse backgrounds, that educate all of us, that can create a common cultural vernacular that we can all share.
And that’s why I’m still planning March Backwards from Selma (Avenue) to Hollywood (Boulevard) on Oscar night; to try to bring attention to the fact that all of us need to have the opportunity to be educated and informed about cultural landmarks that should be familiar to every one of us.
TERRY FRANKLIN is a lawyer and the cowriter of the screenplay SICK!, which follows the fight of Barbara Gittings to remove homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association's list of mental illnesses.