The new movie Selma begins with an uncertain Martin Luther King getting dressed for his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He is trying and failing to put on an ascot–a failure that is gradually revealed to represent a larger ambivalence about winning the prize. In particular, he wonders how this might change the way that he is perceive by the Movement. From this very first scene it was obvious to me that Selma was going to be a very different type of Civil Rights era movie.
What makes Selma unique is its refusal to make the White gaze central to the narrative. It is a Civil Rights era movie that refuses to portray Black people from the perspective of a sympathetic White character. This does not mean that the movie makes all White people into villains. This also does not mean that it erases the contributions of White people to the Civil Rights movement. Instead, it positions them as what they were–allies (sometimes reluctantly) to a Black-led movement.
This refusal of the White gaze allowed for a fresh perspective of both Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement more broadly–a fresh perspective that was apparent in this first scene. This was a private conversation between a Black man and his Black wife about his ambivalence at being embraced by the very White Nobel committee. A movie centered on the white gaze would have either eliminated this scene all together or changed it so that it was about a sympathetic White character learning something about themselves through King’s ambivalence–it would have made central the growth of the White character instead of the ambivalence of Dr. King.
Another illuminating scene that illustrates this refusal of the White gaze was a scene where Dr. King is negotiating with representatives of SNCC about the role that King and his organization might play in Selma. King acknowledged the important work done by SNCC in the community to raise Black consciousness and added that his job was to bring attention to Selma in ways that raised White consciousness by provoking a violent response from the racist White establishment that controlled the city. This scene provides nuance that is not often seen in Civil Rights era movies in that it depict Black activists disagreeing about strategy without falling into the typical White gaze caricatures of a saintly non-violent King versus irresponsibly violent Black Power nationalists. It also illustrates King’s confrontational approach–an approach that relied on utilizing provocative images to stir liberal Whites into action as chess pieces in a larger campaign for social transformation.
This scene reverses the script of so many Civil Rights era movies. In most of these movies Black collective struggles are transformed into individualistic narratives of White self-actualization. Black people become chess pieces in helping these White characters discover their own goodness. In the Help, Aibileen’s primary function is to help Skeeter discover her value as a writer. In The Long Walk Home the Montgomery bus boycott and the life of (yet another) Black maid provide the context for the journey toward anti-racism of a rich White woman. In Mississippi Burning Black people provide the background context for a fight between good and bad White people. Selma, on the other hand, focused on the experiences of Black people during the Civil Rights era with White characters playing the peripheral role of helping Black characters achieve their goals of collective racial uplift rather than individual self-improvement.
It is this refusal of the White gaze that is at the core of much of the criticism of the film. Many White liberal critics yearn for the sentimentality of prior Civil Rights era movies that focus on the good hearts of White liberals who were inspired by the noble actions of Black people. But there is nothing sentimental about the Civil Rights era once the white gaze is removed. Without the White gaze it becomes about the systematic oppression and murder of Black people and the systematic silence of White people. Without the White gaze non-violence is no longer a sentimental tool that saintly Black people used to help White people discover their own goodness. Instead, it is a political tactic used by people with no other recourse than to put their bodies on the line knowing that many of them would be beaten and some of them would die in the hopes of convincing mainstream White society that Black lives matter (sound familiar?).
White liberal critics yearn for a depiction of the Selma campaign that makes the White gaze central–some going as far as to say that Lyndon Johnson was the mastermind behind the Selma campaign. They yearn for a White narrative that makes Lyndon Johnson the lead player and focuses on how his benevolence saved Black people. Instead, Selma turns President Johnson into a small player in a Black narrative that focuses on how Black people used political tactics to pressure White people into challenging White supremacy. President Johnson is transformed from a kind-hearted liberal who is brought to tears by the goodness of Black people into the calculating politician who is pressured to respond to the beating and murder of Black people only through a systematic and disciplined Black-led civil disobedience campaign. The first narrative is designed to make White people feel good about themselves. The second one forces White people to look at themselves through an unapologetically Black gaze –a perspective that White liberal critics can’t accept because of what it might tell them about themselves.