There’s a scene early in Selma, Ava DuVernay’s dramatization of the political struggles that led to the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which neatly encapsulates the film’s ideological perspective on its protagonist, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King, played by David Oyelowo, has just arrived in Selma, Alabama with other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and is facing a hostile reception from James Forman of the more radical Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (played by Trai Byers). He defends the SCLC’s modus operandi as a series of three simple, but effective tactics: “negotiate, demonstrate, resist.” And he asserts that “raising white consciousness” is as important a goal to the movement as the mobilization of Black communities.
The importance of “white consciousness” to civil rights activism in 2015 is as thorny an issue as ever, and for good reason. Contemporary movements–most prominently, the ongoing “Black Lives Matter” protests against police brutality–continue to be judged on the basis of their ability to win the hearts and minds of white people, despite what often amounts to a complete lack of consideration and empathy for the Black experience. Less malevolent, but still troubling, is the tendency for even well-meaning white liberals to co-opt civil rights struggles for their own purposes, turning them into just another footnote for the white progressive narrative. Indeed, Selma is such a commendable film in part because it resists the trend, shared by so many Hollywood films, of sidelining its African American protagonists in favor of a hackneyed “white savior” narrative; and, predictably, it has faced its share of criticism for this decision, most prominently from supporters of ex-president Lyndon B. Johnson who would have preferred a version of the Selma story in which Johnson, not King, was the hero.
But there’s another side of the white consciousness argument that, regardless of one’s personal position on the issue, makes it impossible to ignore. This side was perhaps most succinctly expressed in a recent New York Magazine interview (officially, if not thematically, unrelated to Selma) with comedian Chris Rock, who expounded on the absurdity of the term “race relations.” “There are no race relations,” Rock argued. “White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before… [T]o say that Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress.” In short, white consciousness is so damnably, unfairly important to the struggle against racism because, when it comes down to it, racism is no one else’s problem but our own. And that’s why Selma, for all its well-earned accolades as a film by a Black director with a predominantly Black cast, is perhaps most important for the implicit question it poses to white audiences: what kind of white person do you want to be?
The choices Selma provides for white viewers are, it must be said, mostly unflattering ones. One of the first white faces we see on screen belongs to character actor Clay Chappell, whose Dallas County registrar denies voting rights to Annie Lee Cooper (played by producer Oprah Winfrey) with an expression of seething, barely-veiled race hatred. It’s a look that quickly becomes familiar, repeated again and again across the contorted faces of white Selma residents as they stare in disbelief or hurl racial invectives at Black protestors. But there are other looks, too, just as disturbing in their own ways. Tim Roth invests his Governor George Wallace not with a literally ugly expression of hate, but with a smug self-assurance of racial superiority that is all the more chilling to behold. Stephen Root, meanwhile, is positively inscrutable in his role as Alabama Highway Patrol Colonel Al Lingo: his expression as blank and impassive when he discusses plans to disrupt the protests with Wallace as it is when he surveys the fruits of those plans, the brutal “Bloody Sunday” attack by state troopers and civilian posses on unarmed marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And while Tom Wilkinson’s L.B.J. is hardly the antagonist some critics have suggested Selma portrays him as, he is a clear embodiment of white center-left impotence: an establishment figure threatened by King’s efforts to control the flow of political progress, who only cedes to his demands for justice when the overwhelming injustice in Alabama makes it impossible for him to remain neutral.
You probably see where I’m going with this. Selma was released into one of the most racially charged historical moments in recent American memory: a time when it is more important than ever for white audiences to consider the kinds of white people we want to be. The connections to current events were made clear by Selma‘s cast and director, who famously wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts protesting the police killing of Eric Garner to the film’s New York premiere last month; later, the Golden Globes acceptance speech by rapper Common (who played SCLC activist James Bevel in the film) evoked the police shooting of Michael Brown and asserted, “Selma is now.” And then there’s the film itself, with its many vivid and unflinching scenes of violence by white police against Black people, impossible to watch without bringing to mind the deaths of Brown, Garner, and others. The challenge Selma represents to white audiences–the challenge to, quite simply, be better white people–is as serious and meaningful in 2015 as it was in 1965. Chris Rock was right, of course: white people aren’t as “crazy” these days. There are refreshingly few George Wallaces among us. But if watching Selma with an eye to current events underlines anything, it’s that we still have more than our share of Sheriff Jim Clarks, in whose callous, almost effortless abuses of authority there are tangible echoes of Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo (and Timothy Loehmann, and…). And far too many of us are expressing the kind of wishy-washy, “neutral” outlooks that were anathema to Martin Luther King’s struggle, not just with President Johnson in 1965 but throughout his career.
This, to me, is why the Academy Awards’ “snub” of Selma is such an issue. It’s not just that African American actors and filmmakers remain criminally underrecognized by the Academy–though, of course, that’s true, too. It’s the fact that, quite simply, the people who most need to see Selma are the white liberals who remain the Academy’s prime audience. It’s the people who see the Civil Rights Movement of the ’50s and ’60s through rose-tinted glasses, forgetting that it wasn’t just a high-minded pursuit of “equal rights” but a desperate, tooth-and-nail struggle for the right not to be brutalized by a white supremacist power structure. It’s the people who disingenuously invoke Dr. King in their criticisms of the protests in Ferguson and New York, forgetting that even King’s nonviolent methods were aggressive, forceful, and yes, radical (“negotiate, demonstrate, resist”). And it’s the people who sit back and complain that anti-racist activists aren’t sufficiently engaging “white consciousness,” but don’t make the effort to understand why people of color might have a different perspective in the first place.
The good news is, there are good white people in Selma; we see many of them watching in horror as the television networks broadcast footage of “Bloody Sunday,” then coming in droves to join in solidarity for the second march from Selma to Montgomery. But to be one of those good white people, they had to meet King and the SCLC halfway: they had to stop rationalizing white supremacy, stop biding their time like Johnson, and take a stand. And being a better white person, the film is quick to remind us, is not without its risks: a central figure in the film’s central act is James Reeb (played by Jeremy Strong), a Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston who joins the movement in Selma and is savagely beaten to death by a group of white racists. We don’t all have to be martyrs, however; for most of us, in this era of “#AllLivesMatter” and obstructionist white devil’s advocacy, simply not getting in the way will be sufficient.
So yes, everyone should see Selma–not just for its relevance to contemporary race issues, but for its stirring performances and DuVernay’s powerful direction. It’s a great movie, and yes, it probably deserved more Oscar nominations than it got. But if you’re white, and you have even the vaguest sympathy for Martin Luther King’s cause, then you should definitely see Selma–and consider it a personal challenge to be a better, more engaged, more “conscious” white person. Personally, I know that I still have some work to do. But I’d rather be aware and do that work than sit by and do nothing at all.