MOVIES AND LAWS have at least one thing in common: they are proclaimed to be institutions of the people but have historically been made by and for white men only. In the last few years, however, the white establishments in Hollywood and Washington have, to varying degrees, started to erode. After Obama’s historic election, Hollywood has finally learned that making movies about people of color is not only the right thing to do but is also profitable. As a result, audiences are being treated to a kaleidoscope of stories Hollywood used to think they weren’t ready for, culminating in 2013’s explosion of successful films about race. 12 Years a Slave won the big prize on Oscar night, Fruitvale Station became a smash on the festival circuit, and Lee Daniels’s The Butler found both commercial and critical success.
Still, there are caveats. Too many of these films continue to rely on a regressive archetype known as the “white savior,” a character who uses his or her elevated position of power to help blacks escape from poverty, servitude, or outright slavery. It’s Emma Stone in The Help, Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, or Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey in 42. Even a film as progressive as 12 Years a Slave cannot escape the trope. In the end, Solomon Northup becomes free due to the actions of a white contractor who visits his plantation and takes up his case.
It’s not that these movies are racist, only that they are the unfortunate byproduct of a white-dominated system. Their impact, however, is felt beyond that system. Because they continue to depict blacks as victims rather than the makers of their own destiny, these films present a skewed view of racial history and perpetuate systems of subjugation. The same could be said of race relations off-screen, where white lawmakers have for centuries tried and failed to heal our racial wounds by prescribing solutions to the inequities they themselves have often caused.
But the times may be a-changing. Selma, the story of Martin Luther King’s 1965 march for civil rights, casts off the white savior archetype by portraying a real-life civil rights battle that was won only when the black community organized themselves and forced the white man’s hand. Selma may be a historical film, but it is imbued by its black filmmakers — director Ava DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb — with an urgency that brings the sepia tones of films like The Help and 42 into painfully clear Technicolor. It helps that the images in the film bear a disturbing similarity to those that have flooded the news these last few weeks. An innocent young black man killed by an overzealous policeman. A nonviolent protest met with police brutality, brought to nationwide attention by on-the-ground journalists. Most of all, it is the depiction of a system rigged against those seeking equality that resonates with our outrage over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
The official purpose of the march depicted in Selma may have been to support federal legislation on voting rights, but as King explains to President Lyndon Johnson in the opening scenes, the real issue at stake is justice for victims of white-on-black violence. His logic is clear: In 1965, perpetrators of these crimes are routinely acquitted by all-white juries. Blacks cannot sit on these juries because they are not registered voters, and judges and local election officials stack the deck against blacks who try to register. After Johnson tells King to wait on legislation, King and his devoted followers take to the streets to raise awareness.
Unlike most political films, Selma does not celebrate the change-makers at the top of the political ladder. Instead, it is an example of how an oppressed minority, through organization, solidarity, and sacrifice, forced the white man’s hand. For example, consider the choice of Selma to host the historic march. The small Alabama city was picked by King for strategic purposes; civil rights workers had already discovered a strong and enthusiastic black community there that was eager to play a larger role in the national effort. In addition, Selma was ruled over by a racist, violent white sheriff, Jim Clark, that King thought could be used to their advantage. Organizers expected him to respond to their protest with violence, which would horrify the nation and rally the white community to their side.
Which is exactly what happens, and Selma shows it without ambiguity or restraint. On the protesters’ first attempt at a march, Clark leads an armed police response, brutalizing black marchers with clubs and tear gas, while local white civilians cheer them on. The incident makes national news, inspiring religious leaders and even white civilians to join their protest, which eventually forces Johnson to act. To its credit, Selma does not shy away from the contributions made by whites. A touching sequence shows several anonymous white civilians leaving their families behind to join the march, and it is true that the presence of those protesters turned the tide in King’s favor — especially the death of a white priest at the hands of an angry Southerner. And yes, ultimately, it was a white president who championed King’s proposed legislation. But there is a distinct difference in emphasis between Selma and, say, The Help. The white characters are not saviors here. They are followers, while King and his colleagues are the heroes. The film functions as a call to action for the non-black community to join their fight, not to rescue them from it.
Now more than ever, we need those heroes. The idea that systems created and enacted by whites can provide justice for blacks has proven itself a farce countless times in our history, and it is happening again right now. In Ferguson, the segregated population and mostly white police force and grand jury have formed a cycle of violence and discrimination, and it is becoming clear that grassroots movements are the only way forward. Modern-day protesters are taking a lesson from King and Selma. The NAACP launched a march — known as the Journey for Justice — from Ferguson to the state Capitol in Jefferson City to demonstrate that today’s injustices have their roots in the civil rights battles of the 1960s.
And so with the fight against racism off-screen proceeding more slowly than it should, its depictions in pop culture can offer both lessons to today’s activists and a glimmer of hope. Winning over the white establishment that has dominated our nation for so many years is no easy task, but Selma provides an example of how it can be done. In the film’s postscript, we learn that two of King’s fellow marchers went on to become elected officials. One of them, current US Congressman John Lewis, has been active in condemning the actions of the police in Ferguson and recently weighed in on the lack of black police officers there: “How can you have a city and expect to have peace and order when there’s very few symbols or representatives of the people making up the public safety department of the city?” In other words, the savior must come from within the black community. Selma gives us a roadmap to such a scenario, even if it’s clear we need to do more than simply buy a ticket.
Noah Gittell has covered film and politics for The Atlantic, Salon, and RogerEbert.com. He writes regularly at ReelChange.net.