How Accurate is Selma in Portraying the African American Women Activists of the Civil Rights Movement?
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5 days and 54 miles later, March 25th 1965 saw the arrival of thousands of Civil Rights activists at the door step of Montgomery, Alabama all the way from Selma. Yes, the march was physically led by Martin Luther King, Jr. but African American women activists were the backbone of the initial proposal all the way to the final details of the march. When Selma hit the “big screen” in 2015, the opportunity arose for director Ava DuVernay to shed light upon the pivotal women activists who risked their lives attempting to gain racial equality. Unfortunately, Selma fails to capture the fiery passion of these women whilst also missing an opportunity to evoke a women’s empowerment history. DuVernay did manage to intertwine notable women into what could have easily been a male-dominated narrative, but the nuanced appearance of the likes of Diane Nash, Annie Lee Cooper and Amelia Boynton Robinson is simply not enough to positively represent their real life and very important actions of the Civil Rights Movement.
We are introduced to Diane Judith Nash, co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), early in the film when the camera scans past an FBI field report excerpt and the audience learns her name. However, Nash is very much stuck in the background throughout Selma. If anything, Nash could easily be mistaken for just being James Bevel’s beautiful wife who acts as a silhouette to Bevel, offering her love and support, the same way that many of the women in the film are characterized. If you did not know that Nash was in fact the instigator of taking action in Montgomery, then you would not have learnt this from the film. Julian Bond also contends that it was Nash and her husband Bevel who created the idea, not King nor was it President Lyndon Johnson’s idea as the film highlights. In a report created by Nash from 17 – 20th September 1963, accounting for her activity whilst she attended the funerals of the deceased in the Birmingham church bombings, it is made clear that she was more dedicated than her male counterparts in getting an agenda created for Montgomery. “I expressed these sentiments to Rev. Shuttlesworth who suggested that I talk to Dr. King. I did so as well as showed him the proposal for action in Montgomery. I also suggested that a strategy meeting be set. I did not feel that our conversation was fruitful.” Selma painfully fails to educate the viewers on just how important African American women activists were. If it were not for Nash, the march would not have happened so quickly, or even at all.
In the opening scene, Coretta Scott King is shown assisting King with his tie. She is represented as a stereotypical housewife by offering her hardworking husband moral support by aiding him with the conventional duties of a woman who is only useful in the gendered role of choosing items of clothing. This scene is a narrative for Coretta’s role throughout the film, depicting her solely as an accessory to her iconic husband. The film’s misrepresentation of Coretta harms her accomplishments in many accounts of the Civil Rights era. DuVernay fails again to showcase one of the movement’s most significant figures by presenting a Coretta who makes King feel guilty for leaving home and their family to take part in the critical movement. The film’s Coretta exists only as a shadow of her husband as she suffers the horrors of the racial attacks surrounding her in Selma; a Coretta who gives in to the rumours that her husband has been unfaithful, emotionally enquiring if he loves his mistresses. “I know what you sound like,” Coretta timidly accepts the accusation. When asked if he loves the “other woman,” King painfully pauses before answering, “no”. DuVernay portrays Coretta as emotionally unstable, pushing viewers to sympathise with her. Selma is unsuccessful in mentioning the fact that Coretta herself argues that “...the tape, it had nothing to do with my husband having sex. It was a loud social function with people telling dirty jokes, nothing like what I have seen reported in the press.”
Selma’s inaccuracies have been described as “tremendously irritating,” but they are more than this: they degrade the real life female activists whom the film should celebrate. Annie Lee Cooper, played by Oprah Winfrey, is first introduced towards the beginning of the film where she is seen failing to answer the impossible demand of the scowling clerk. She is understandably unable to name the sixty-seven county judges in the state of Alabama. What Selma fails to mention is that this was in fact Cooper’s fifth time attempting and failing to register to vote. In reality, Cooper was unable to gain employment after many failed attempts, which DuVernay dismissed from the film, with Cooper’s contribution in Selma minimized.
Shall we leave the history to historians or shall we take it upon ourselves to venture into a historical period by using film as a visual aid? Historians such as Peniel Joseph argue that many celebrated films dramatize historical events, that films are not scholarly books. Joseph believes people should not learn about historical events through films. But the inaccuracies in Selma are important because generations of young people learn about history through film. Barbara Reynolds believes that although Selma’s misrepresentations of African American women might not affect those who believe the theory that filmmakers are not in fact historians, it is still wrong to distort history this way. It is wrong for filmmakers to exploit false history, fictionalize Civil Rights activists, and diminish the historic truth of these activists’ lives.
A recent graduate of Swansea University in South Wales, Martha Lott writes regular blog posts about American history, politics and film.
Jesse McCarthy, “'Selma' Ignores the Radical Grassroots Politics of the Civil Rights Movement”, New Republic, (2015), https://newrepublic.com/article/120685/selma-lessons-ava-duvernays-film, [accessed 02 August 2016].
Douglas Blackmon, “Civil Rights Legend Julian Bond on “Selma””, Miller Center, (2015), http://millercenter.org/ridingthetiger/civil-rights-legend-julian-bond-on-selma , [accessed 01 August 2016].
Penial Joseph, ''Selma' Offers a Window into the Civil Rights Movement”, Newsweek, (2015) <http://www.newsweek.com/selma-offers-window-civil-rights-movement-297957> [accessed 11 October 2015].