Fact Meets Fiction in Selma

Selma and the Place of Fiction in Historical Films

by Jeffrey Knapp

The essay begins:

“This isn’t right.” Almost as soon as the man resembling Martin Luther King Jr. has begun to speak, he interrupts himself in frustration. “I accept this honor,” he’d been saying, “for our lost ones, whose deaths pave our path, and for the twenty million Negro men and women motivated by dignity and a disdain for hopelessness.” What does he think isn’t right? Is it the racial oppression he has been evoking? Or is it the felt inadequacy of his words to that injustice? As the man turns away from us, we find that he has been speaking into a mirror, and that he is frustrated in the immediate context by his efforts at getting dressed . “Corrie”—it is King, we now understand, and he’s not alone; his wife Coretta is with him—“this ain’t right.” “What’s that?” she asks, entering from another room. “This necktie. It’s not right.” “It’s not a necktie,” she corrects him, “it’s an ascot.” “Yeah, but generally, the same principles should apply, shouldn’t they? It’s not right.”

This opening to Selma announces the complexity not only of the movie itself but also of the genre to which it belongs—the historical film. First, there is the tonal instability of the scene, which swerves from the tragedy of “our lost ones” to the comedy of the ascot. Then there is the rhetorical switch from King’s earnest and formal speech to the colloquialism of his “ain’t” and the domestic ease of his “Corrie.” As the film reviewer Michael Sragow comments, these transformations seem intended “to signal to audiences that we’re in for an intimate, maybe irreverent look” at King; in general, A. O. Scott argues, Selma is dedicated to “restoring” King’s “human dimensions.” But the start of Selma also briefly confuses us about the meaning of a word that one might have assumed was the last one the movie would want us to feel confused about: “right,” as in “the right to vote,” “the right to assemble, and demonstrate,” “equal rights,” “civil rights.” “I don’t like how this looks,” King says of his ascot: what’s troubling him seems to be an aesthetic, not a moral offense. Another change in emphasis apparently neutralizes that distinction. When Coretta replies that the ascot “looks distinguished and debonair to me,” King clarifies that his objection has all along had a moral dimension to it. “You know what I mean,” he says to his wife: the ascot makes it seem “like we’re living high on the hog dressed like this, while folks back home are . . .  It’s not right.” Just as King wants the language of his speech to match the weightiness of its subject, so he’s concerned that his clothes reflect his social commitments; in aesthetics as in ethics, he believes, “the same principles should apply.” Yet the disorienting shifts of focus in this first scene nevertheless emphasize the potential for principles to become misaligned. Something else “isn’t right” at the start of Selma: the man who speaks these words, the British actor David Oyelowo, is after all merely pretending to be Martin Luther King Jr., and for a moment we might think that he’s expressing nothing more than his dissatisfaction with his performance. The opening to Selma seems, in other words, to anticipate two sorts of skeptical responses to the film: first, that Selma falls short as a historical recreation, and second, that it does so because of its trivializing overinvestment in such merely aesthetic questions as how the recreation “looks.”

These are indeed the very charges that have been leveled against the film, although they have centered less on the portrayal of King than on the representation of another historical figure in the movie, Lyndon Johnson. In an editorial for the Washington Post, the former Johnson aide Joseph Califano Jr. argued that

the makers of the new movie Selma apparently just couldn’t resist taking dramatic, trumped-up license with a true story that didn’t need any embellishment to work as a big-screen historical drama. As a result, the film falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and even using the FBI to discredit him, as only reluctantly behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as opposed to the Selma march itself.

In Selma, Califano charged, aesthetics “trumped” ethics: the producers, screenwriter, and director felt “free to fill the screen with falsehoods, immune from any responsibility to the dead, just because they thought it made for a better story.” Even reviewers more sympathetic to the film have agreed with Califano about its misrepresentation of LBJ. Though praising Selma as “the best depiction of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s,” Albert R. Hunt nevertheless added that “it needlessly, and erroneously, casts Johnson as a reluctant supporter of the Voting Rights Act”; so, too, Ari Berman characterized the film’s account of Johnson as “unnecessarily one-sided.” What troubled all three critics was how “needlessly,” in their view, the makers of Selma had set their aesthetic desire for dramatic “embellishment” against a moral “obligation” to “the facts.”

Proponents of Selma have by and large declined to defend the historical accuracy of Johnson’s portrayal in the film, instead choosing to criticize the very demand for accuracy as hopelessly naive. “Did ‘Selma’ cut some corners and perhaps tilt characters to suit the needs of the story?” David Carr asked. “Why yes—just like almost every other Hollywood biopic and historical film that has been made.” Differentiating Selma from “a documentary or even a dramatized history,” Jamelle Bouie defined it as “a film based on historical accounts, and like all films of its genre, it has a loose relationship to actual history.” Consequently, Bouie added, “it’s better to look at deviations from established history or known facts” in Selma not as defects but rather “as creative choices—license in pursuit of art.” “I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian,” Selma’s director Ava DuVernay similarly maintained in a televised interview with Gwen Ifill: “This is art. This is a movie. This is a film.” According to the reviewer Bilge Ebiri, the only relevant terms for judging the rightness of historical films are aesthetic ones: “These movies are not documentaries, nor are they acts of journalism. . . . They’re narrative works, and just like any other narrative work, they need to be true to themselves.”

“Every year,” the film scholar Jeanine Basinger wearily complained when asked to comment on Selma, “I know someone is going to call me about distortion of history when we hit the Oscars.” But there’s a reason that the objection keeps recurring. If it’s a mistake to look for accuracy in historical films, then why do historical films bother with accuracy at all? Although DuVernay rejected the label of documentarian in her interview with Ifill, that is exactly how she began her directorial career, with the hip-hop documentary This Is the Life (2008)—and her next project after Selma was a documentary on the US criminal justice system, 13th. What’s more, historical verisimilitude mattered enough to DuVernay in making Selma that she meticulously reproduced the look and feel of the sixties in her film, chose actors who bore an uncanny physical resemblance to the figures they played, and even spliced actual documentary footage of the final march to Montgomery into Selma’s recreation of it. In the same interview where she claimed that she was no more of a historian than a documentarian, DuVernay expressed her dismay at the “jaw-dropping” ignorance of moviegoers regarding the events her film “chronicled,” and she hoped that her movie would help Selma “resonate with people in the way that it should as being just such a cornerstone of democracy.” Prominent participants in the march have indeed championed the film as historiography. “Everything” except the film’s “depiction of the interaction between King and Johnson,” Andrew Young has said, “they got 100 percent right.” But then how could historical accuracy not be an issue for a film that ends with King’s proclaiming, “His truth is marching on”? The tensions between fact and fiction in Selma are anything but incidental to the movie: they instead reflect the irreducibly hybrid nature of the historical film.

Is it possible to argue that a mix of fact and fiction is necessary to Selma and to historical films generally? Continue reading …

Every historical film must contend with the possibility that its viewers will be scandalized by its mixture of fact and fiction, but no recent historical film has faced such pressure to justify its hybrid nature as Selma has, in large part because no recent film has taken on so momentous and controversial a historical subject: the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The renewed urgency of the issues Selma dramatizes, along with the film’s own commitment to the “moral certainty” of the civil rights movement, helps explain why Selma wavers in a self-defense that links the fictionality of its historical reenactments to the purposely theatrical element of the marches themselves. But politics are not the only problem for fiction in Selma, and to show why, this essay compares Selma to an earlier historical film, The Westerner (1940), that openly flaunts the commercial nature of its fictionality.

JEFFREY KNAPP is the Eggers Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Faculty Affiliate of Berkeley’s Film and Media Department.  He is most recently the author of Pleasing Everyone: Mass Entertainment in Renaissance London and Golden-Age Hollywood, published in 2017 by Oxford University Press.

Hilton Als in Conversation with Stephen Best

Hear Pulitzer Prize-Winning Writer HILTON ALS

Thursday, February 8, 2018, 7:30 pm
Nourse Theater, 275 Hayes St., San Francisco
(Rebroadcast on KQED fm, March 18, 2018)

Hilton Als began contributing to The New Yorker in 1989, writing pieces for “The Talk of the Town.” He became a staff writer in 1994, theater critic in 2002, and lead theater critic in 2012. Week after week, he brings to the magazine a rigorous, sharp, and lyrical perspective on acting, playwriting, and directing. With his deep knowledge of the history of performance—not only in theater but also in dance, music, and visual art—he shows us how to view a production and how to place its director, its author, and its performers in the ongoing continuum of dramatic art. His reviews are not simply reviews; they are provocative contributions to the discourse on theater, race, class, sexuality, and identity in America.

Before coming to The New Yorker, Als was a staff writer for the Village Voice and an editor-at-large at Vibe. Als edited the catalog for the 1994-95 Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art.” His first book, The Women, was published in 1996. His most recent book, White Girls, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2014 and winner of the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Non-fiction, discusses various narratives of race and gender. He also wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Early Stories of Truman Capote.  Als is currently working on an exploration of the literary luminary that is James Baldwin–his influences, his aspirations, and his relationships to the literary world and to himself.

Stephen Michael Best is an associate professor of English at University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Representations editorial board. He is the author of The Fugitive’s Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession, and is currently at work on a book about rumor, promiscuous speech, and slavery’s archive.

Sponsored by San Francisco’s City Arts & Lectures Series

 

On Race in Art

Black Futures: On Race in Art, Curation, and Digital Engagement 
with Kimberly Drew in conversation with Stephen Best

Arts + Design Mondays @ BAMPFA
Monday, October 16, 6:30pm

UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY ART MUSEUM & PACIFIC FILM ARCHIVE

2155 Center Street, Berkeley

Kimberly Drew has been dubbed an “international tastemaker in contemporary art” on account of her Tumblr blog Black Contemporary Art and her Instagram @museummammy. As social media manager at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she has been pivotal in moving that venerated institution in directions both democratic and dialogical. Drew will discuss curation, social media, race, and institutions with UC Berkeley professor Stephen Best.

Kimberly Drew is a writer and curator based in New York City. Drew received her BA from Smith College in art history and African-American studies, with a concentration in museum studies. She first experienced the art world as an intern in the director’s office of the Studio Museum in Harlem, where she was inspired her to start her blog and to pursue her interest in social media as it relates to the arts.

A member of the Representations editorial board, Stephen Best is an associate professor of English at UC Berkeley and the author of The Fugitive’s Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession, a study of property, poetics, and legal hermeneutics in nineteenth-century American literary and legal culture. He co-convened a research group at the University of California’s Humanities Research Institute on “Redress in Law, Literature, and Social Thought” that led, in part, to the special issue “Redress” in 2005. He is also the co-editor of the 2009 special issue “The Way We Read Now” and the 2016 volume “Description Across Disciplines.”

Fray: Art and Textile Politics

Julia Bryan-Wilson will be talking about her new book

Fray: Art and Textile Politics

in the Townsend Center for the Humanities‘ monthly Berkeley Book Chat series

 

Wednesday, Oct 11, 2017 | noon to 1:00 

Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley

In 1974, women in a feminist consciousness-raising group in Eugene, Oregon, formed a mock organization called the Ladies Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society. Emblazoning its logo onto T-shirts, the group wryly envisioned female collective textile making as a practice that could upend conventions, threaten state structures, and wreak political havoc. Elaborating on this example as a prehistory to the more recent phenomenon of “craftivism”— the politics and social practices associated with handmaking— UC Berkeley’s Julia Bryan-Wilson explores textiles and their role at the forefront of debates about process, materiality, gender, and race in times of economic upheaval.

After an introduction by Natalia Brizuela, Bryan-Wilson will speak briefly about her work and then open the floor for discussion.

Julia Bryan-Wilson, co-editor with Shannon Jackson of the recent Representations special issue Time Zones: Durational Art and Its Contexts, is Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art in the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to Fray, she is also the author of Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War EraArt in the Making: Artists and Their Materials from the Studio to Crowdsourcing.

Advance Look: Jeffrey Knapp on “Selma”

In recognition of the speed at which the world and its histories are changing, we’ve just posted an advance version of Selma and the Place of Fiction in Historical Films” by Jeffrey Knapp. The essay will appear in print and online in our Winter 2019 issue, but you can read it here right now.

In the essay, Knapp compares the place of historical fictionality in William Wyler’s 1940 film The Westerner and Ava DuVernay’s 2014 Selma.

“’This isn’t right,’” the essay begins, in the voice of Martin Luther King as depicted by David Oyelowo, in Selma. “Almost as soon as the man resembling Martin Luther King Jr. has begun to speak, he interrupts himself in frustration. ‘I accept this honor,’ he’d been saying, ‘for our lost ones, whose deaths pave our path, and for the twenty million Negro men and women motivated by dignity and a disdain for hopelessness.’ What does he think isn’t right? Is it the racial oppression he has been evoking? Or is it the felt inadequacy of his words to that injustice? As the man turns away from us, we find that he has been speaking into a mirror, and that he is frustrated in the immediate context by his efforts at getting dressed. ‘Corrie’ — it is King, we now understand, and he’s not alone; his wife Coretta is with him — ‘this ain’t right.’ ‘What’s that?’ she asks, entering from another room. ‘This necktie. It’s not right.’ ‘It’s not a necktie,’ she corrects him, ‘it’s an ascot.’ ‘Yeah, but generally, the same principles should apply, shouldn’t they? It’s not right.’” Read full article …

JEFFREY KNAPP is the Eggers Professor of English at UC Berkeley and author of An Empire Nowhere: England and America from Utopia to The Tempest (1992); Shakespeare’s Tribe: Church, Nation, and Theater in Renaissance England (2002); Shakespeare Only (2009); and Pleasing Everyone: Mass Entertainment in Renaissance London and Golden-Age Hollywood, published this year by Oxford University Press. He is also a contributing editor for Representations.

Fireworks from the Archive

If you need a little respite from neighborhood shenanigans this weekend, consider these two flares from the Representations archive:

Michael Rogin’s “The Two Declarations of Independence”

and

“Glenn Ligon and Other Runaway Subjects” by Huey Copeland

In the former, Michael Rogin asks “What is the bearing of our radicalized national culture on the color-blind innovation of individual rights?” Discussing the American Declaration of Independence in light of the affirmative action debates of the 1990s, Rogin traces the declaration’s legacy through race relations in both the old and the new Hollywoods.

Less well known than Rogin’s other writings on race and film, this short essay appeared in Representations‘ special issue “Race and Representation: Affirmative Action,” edited by Robert Post and Michael Rogin in 1996. The issue quickly went out of print, but is now back in circulation in pdf format.

MICHAEL ROGIN was the author of many books on race, culture, politics, and history, including Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot and Independence Day, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Enola Gay. He taught for many years at the University of California, Berkeley, and was a founding member of the Representations editorial board.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Am I Not a Man and a Brother? Woodcut, 1837. Courtesy Library of Congress

Am I Not a Man and a Brother? Woodcut, 1837. Courtesy Library of Congress

Huey Copeland’s 2011 essay “Glenn Ligon and Other Runaway Subjects” looks at contemporary artist Glenn Ligon’s multiple engagements with the history of American slavery, particularly as evinced by his 1993 installation To Disembark. As Copeland shows, in casting himself as a runaway slave, Ligon points up the relationships between regimes of power, violence, and resistance that continue to produce black subjects as fugitives in life and in representation.

HUEY COPELAND is Associate Professor of Art History at Northwestern University, where he teaches modern and contemporary art. He is the author of Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America.

Endō Shūsaku and Frantz Fanon

Crossed Geographies: Endō and Fanon in Lyon

By Christopher L. Hill

Textual evidence indicates that the novelist Endō Shūsaku read the anticolonialist writer Frantz Fanon in the early 1950s, incorporating Fanon’s arguments on color and colonialism into his depiction of Japanese subjects after 1945. In this essay, examination of that heretofore unnoticed encounter provides an opportunity to reconsider the paradigms by which each writer is understood today and the terms in which they imagined a world not ordered by empires, whether European, American, or Japanese.

The author writes:

“The paths writers trace in the world tell as much about the geographies scholars give them as the geographies they lived. Figures of international repute pass each other unnoticed if the conventions under which we labor don’t allow a meeting. Once acknowledged, such encounters are an opportunity. Unexpected encounters reveal greater forces at work; new questions demand answers. Through crossed paths we can see the world in a different shape, but only if we are willing. In disciplinary and conceptual terms, we shy away from the leap of scale that making sense of an encounter between, say, a novelist from Japan and an anticolonialist from Martinique requires. It is easier to blow up or clone—to ‘globalize’ a national field or to deploy a theory anew—than to struggle toward a geohistorical problematic, a transnational frame for criticism, that would not reduce the unevenness and heterogeneity of the geography of lived experience to a comforting, because familiar, model. Two discomforting journeys may suggest the way.

200px-Frantz_Fanon“In early 1943 Frantz Fanon, who later became famous for his writings on colonial psychology and the struggle against colonialism, dropped out of his lycée and took a boat from Martinique to Dominica, where he hoped to join the Free French army. He was sent home, but the following March, after Martinique rallied to Charles de Gaulle, he sailed for Morocco with some one thousand volunteers. Fanon told a teacher that when freedom was at stake, all were concerned—but only the officers and some of the noncommissioned officers onboard were white; the rest of the volunteers were black. In the training camp in Morocco, soldiers from Martinique and Guadeloupe (‘old’ French colonies) ate the same food and wore the same uniforms as white soldiers; they lived apart from recruits from Morocco, Algeria, and sub-Saharan Africa. Fanon and his friends quickly saw that the army that had been formed to fight fascism had a racial hierarchy: whites at the top, North Africans at the bottom, and black West Indians ambiguously above the African Tirailleurs sénégalais in the middle. When Fanon’s unit decamped to Algeria in July, he discovered that the locals loathed black men. By the time he was fighting in France, in autumn, he was doubting his position between European soldiers and the Tirailleurs, because the black soldiers seemed to face the worst action. In January 1945 he wrote his brother that his reasons for joining up had been wrong; in April he wrote his parents the same.

“Fanon returned to Martinique in late 1945 and finished his baccalaureate. With funds provided for veterans’ education, he sailed late the next year for Paris, where he planned to study dentistry. He left Paris abruptly a few weeks after arriving there and went on to Lyon, where he enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine at its university, specializing in psychiatry. He read widely, attended classes by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and gave some lectures of his own. In May 1951 he published ‘The Lived Experience of the Black Man’ (‘L’Expérience vécue du noir’), an essay on Antillean men’s discovery that in France they were considered to be black. He took a temporary post in Dôle while he finished his thesis, which he defended at the end of November. He spent several weeks in Martinique in February and March 1952, but, deciding against practicing there, he returned to France and took a post at the clinic in Saint-Alban run by François Tosquelles, where he developed the foundations of his social psychiatry. In February he published an essay on the psychosomatic illnesses of North African men in Lyon, ‘The North African Syndrome’ (‘Le Syndrome nord-africain’), and in June, Black Skin, White Masks (Peau noire, masques blancs). (‘The Lived Experience of the Black Man’ was its fifth chapter.) After another temporary assignment in 1953, he took a post in Blida in Algeria, where he moved in November, and began learning about the struggle against French rule; in 1955 he began his work with the anticolonial Algerian National Liberation Front. He never returned to Martinique.

b2767b0b“In June 1950, Endō Shūsaku, who later became famous for fiction about Catholicism, began a journey in a different part of the world that, like Fanon’s, took him to Lyon. The first leg was a fourth-class voyage from Yokohama to Marseille. As Endō observed in his diary, relations among the passengers were determined by wealth, race, and the hierarchies of Western colonialism. A group of African soldiers from the French colonial army shared his compartment. They were returning to Saigon after escorting war criminals to Japan. During several port calls, Endō, and other Japanese students too, were treated as war criminals by local authorities. In Manila they were assembled on deck, while Filipinos on the docks shouted ‘Murderers!’ and ‘Assholes!’ in Japanese. In Singapore they were forbidden to disembark. While passing through the Suez Canal he learned of North Korea’s invasion of the South and US President Harry Truman’s order to intervene. After arriving in Marseille, Endō spent July and August with a Catholic family in Rouen, where he encountered a Japan-hating young man whose brother had served in Indochina during the Asia-Pacific War.

“In September Endō settled in Lyon, where he enrolled at the Catholic University and the University of Lyon’s Faculty of Letters to study French Catholic writers. In the streets Endō encountered plaques marking locations where fighters in the French Resistance had fallen; he also learned about a massacre of civilians by the Resistance in the town of Fons. His experiences on ship and the traces of the Resistance in France pushed him in the following years to write several stories, two novellas, and a novel about collaboration, resistance, and war crimes in France and Japan. Twice in 1952 Endō spent time in sanatoria in the Alps for tuberculosis. He moved to Paris in the autumn of that year and was hospitalized there in December. One of the patients in his four-bed room, a veteran, berated Endō with memories of his treatment by the Japanese army in Indochina. In January 1953 he departed Marseille for Japan because of his health. In 1954 he published a semi-autobiographical story called ‘As Far as Aden’ (‘Aden made’), about a Japanese student’s time in France, where he discovered he was un jaune, a yellow man, in the eyes of French whites….

“Yet the geographies of each writer’s lived experience are not as distinct as those in which scholarship presently confines them. The circumstances that shaped their writings on color and colonialism were at once personal and part of a history that encompassed both the Caribbean and East Asia. Reading Endō’s work through Fanon’s, and Fanon’s through Endō’s, reveals a mid-twentieth-century history of race and racialization on a large (I will not say global) scale. In this history decolonization and what should be called the de-imperialization of Japan by the victors in the Asia-Pacific War are entangled with the demise of the European empires and the rise of the American. The transformations coincided with manifold changes in the social meanings of black, white, and yellow and the rights associated with them. A history and a criticism in which this kind of encounter is plausible and meaningful must dismantle the analytically separate problematics of anticolonialism and decolonization, on the one hand, and of “postwar” and the Cold War in Asia, on the other. Reconstructing the history that connects Endō and Fanon does more than historicize these two writers’ early works. It suggests too what can be gained from an intellectual history and a criticism that ignores divisions more constructed than real while acknowledging, rather than trying to reconcile, the heterogeneous and sometimes contradictory qualities of the geography that results.” Continue reading …

CHRISTOPHER L. HILL is Assistant Professor of Japanese literature at the University of Michigan. The author of National History and the World of Nations: Capital, State, and the Rhetoric of History of Japan, France, and the United States (Durham, 2008), he is currently completing a book on the transnational career of the naturalist novel and beginning a project on Japanese writers in the “Bandung moment” of the 1950s.

Blackface in 1950s Israel?

Bar-Yosef - fig 5
Eitan Bar-Yosef writes on “Zionism, Apartheid, Blackface: Cry the Beloved Country on the Israeli Stage” in Representations 123

Numerous theatrical productions in 1950s Israel employed blackface to simulate negritude on the stage. Focusing on Habima’s 1953 production of Lost in the Stars—the musical drama based on Alan Paton’s best-selling novel Cry, the Beloved Country—and reading it in the context of Israel’s involvement in postcolonial black Africa, this essay demonstrates how, by reflecting the slippery nature of Jewish whiteness, blackface performances on the Hebrew stage captured the complex relationship between Zionism and apartheid.

Image: You Can’t Take It With You (1947), courtesy of the Yehuda Gabbai Theater Archive, Sha’ar Zion Library—Beit Ariela, Tel-Aviv