By: Tiyi M. Morris, PhD
Like many of us, I welcome diverse representations of Blacks in the media, in general, particularly on the silver screen. So as much as I enjoyed the movie, Selma, directed by Ava Duvernay, I would be remiss if I failed to point out issues around representation in Selma that must be addressed in order to produce the kind of historically accurate narrative that moves us forward. Still, I hope the film will inspire moviegoers to explore the rich history of the Black freedom struggle in America.
Selma’s largest flaw is both the misrepresentation and the underrepresentation of women who were centrally involved in the modern Civil Rights Movement, even with the acknowledgement that Duvernay had to incorporate most of the women in the script that we saw. Reportedly, the original script for Selma was devoid of any significant female characters. With the abundance of recent scholarship on the Black freedom struggle that centers women’s activism (i.e. Faith S. Holsaert, et. al., Hands on the Freedom Plow, Francoise Hamlin, Crossroads at Clarksdale, Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement) it is difficult to comprehend how such an egregious and glaring mistake could be made. Perhaps this is why intentionality is most important when sharing Civil Rights Movement narratives, as Duvernay’s attempt to rectify the script still fell short of giving the women proper representation in the film in several key ways.
First, one cannot talk about the modern Civil Rights Movement, and especially not the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), without including Ella Baker. Anyone who knows anything about SNCC knows that the organization would not have been as transformative and effective without Baker’s guidance. Baker secured the funding from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) for the students to convene at her alma mater, Shaw University, for what would be its founding meeting in 1960. It was also Baker who encouraged the students to create an autonomous organization that would not be beholden to, or limited by, the ideologies of the SCLC. In the film, having Reverend Hosea Williams (played by Wendell Pierce) state that it was Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. who told student activists to organize SNCC is a blatant denial of Baker’s key role. Furthermore, such a statement was part of a larger portrayal of SNCC as a group of politically immature “kids” challenging the older and wiser King. Not only were King and James Forman the same age, but by this time many SNCCers were seasoned activists whose disagreements with SCLC strategy were based on wisdom and experience gained on the front lines of civil rights activism in Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, and other Southern states. Baker’s influence on the organizing of SNCC as a whole and SNCC activists, as individuals, changed the trajectory of the entire Movement. Giving credit to Martin Luther King, Jr. for the organization’s development is unforgivable and a classic case of the erasure of Black women’s activism and leadership.
Second, another woman who is synonymous with SNCC is Diane Nash (played by Tessa Thompson). A leader of the Nashville student movement while a student at Fisk University, Nash spearheaded SNCC’s efforts to continue the Freedom Rides in 1961 after extreme violence in Birmingham caused the initial group to abort the rides and fly to their final destination of New Orleans. She coordinated SNCC’s efforts and trained youth activists in Mississippi during (and after) the Freedom Rides. Nash also did much of the groundwork for the SCLC in Selma before King’s arrival. Yet, she has little more than a few cameos in the film and didn’t even get a biographical summary at the conclusion of the film.
Third, two local women who were inadequately portrayed in the film were Mrs. Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey) and Mrs. Amelia Boynton (played by Lorraine Toussaint). Cooper’s physical resistance to authority (hitting Sherriff Jim Clark) was an important inclusion because it demonstrates the reality that self-defense existed alongside the practice of non-violence. But to have Cooper react violently in response to the abuse of a Black man re-centers men in the civil rights narrative and obscures the many ways in which Black women have historically defended themselves. Black women from Ida B. Wells to Joan Little have physically resisted abusive, authority figures, who violated their bodies, in defense of their womanhood. Why does a woman’s physical retaliation have to revolve around a man? Weren’t the injustices Black women faced sufficient to produce the rage that would inspire one to retaliate? All too often, narratives of the Black freedom struggle have overlooked the assaults on Black women’s bodies (see, Danielle McGuire’s At the Dark End of the Street). If Winfrey had channeled Sophia to defend herself against white male brutality, the audience would have been just as proud, perhaps even more so. In this case, the truth would have been more powerful than the fiction we saw.
Finally, Amelia Boynton, like Diane Nash, received short shrift in Selma, despite her slightly greater visibility because of the magnitude in which her leadership shaped history. Boynton was the president of the Dallas County, Alabama NAACP. When the NAACP was outlawed Boynton ushered the members into the Dallas County Voters League, which she and her husband had revived. She was the force behind much of the grassroots organizing in Selma. In fact, the Selma march would not have happened without bridge leaders like Boynton. Yet, one leaves the theater without a full and important understanding of the integral role she played. For a film about Selma, Boynton should have had a more prominent role in both lines and visual representation. Unfortunately Selma proved to be more about Martin Luther King, Jr., the individual, in Selma than the Selma movement, itself. Some might argue that the presence of women in a film such as this represents progress, that I should be happy about that. But, haven’t we moved beyond that type of reductive analysis? Black women’s mere inclusion is necessary, but far from sufficient. Any civil rights narrative, in print or on the silver screen, must re-center Black women’s leadership role and its importance to the Movement.
Tiyi M. Morris is Assistant Professor in the Department of African-American and African Studies at OSU-Newark and author of Womanpower Unlimited and the Black Freedom Struggle in Mississippi (University of Georgia Press, 2015). http://amzn.to/1KNcthZ