Wednesday, February 25, 2015

I wish Adolph Reed Jr. had a movie column: "The Real Problem with Selma"

From The Real Problem with Selma |
...the specific sensibilities that carry the spate of slavery/Jim Crow-era costume dramas are those around which the contemporary black professional-managerial class (PMC) converges: reduction of politics to a narrative of racial triumph that projects “positive images” of black accomplishment, extols exemplary black individuals, stresses overcoming great adversity to attain success and recognition, and inscribes a monolithic and transhistorical racism as the fundamental obstacle confronting, and thus uniting, all black Americans. History is beside the point for this potted narrative, as is art incidentally, which the debate over the relative merits of Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarantino’s Django Unchained demonstrates. The only metric that could make comparing such radically different films seem plausible is the presence or prominence of a black hero or black “agency.”
As usual with Reed, read slowly; almost every sentence has an important insight. He moves from a brilliant account of Reconstruction to black politics today, noting:
An interpretive posture that posits an unproblematic “black community” or “black masses” as a normative standard cannot adequately conceptualize the relatively autonomous tendencies toward neoliberal legitimation in black politics; much less can it confront them politically. 
This may be a reason that, as Cedric Johnson and I have complained to each other about since 2006, anti-racist activists focused their political outrage and calls for national action, including mobilization for mass marches, on a racial incident in Jena, Louisiana that was little more than a high school fight yet were incapable of, if not uninterested in, mounting any systematic or coherent action to protest the ongoing travesty of forced displacement and criminal inaction affecting hundreds of thousands of people little more than a three-hour drive away in post-Katrina New Orleans. Jena fit comfortably into a historically familiar frame of stereotypically southern small town racism/antiracism; the political and interpretive tools available in antiracist discourse did not work so cleanly in New Orleans. 
In the tradition of great researchers, Reed's footnotes are well worth reading (that's where nonfiction writers get to keep the darlings that had to be cut). Here's #2:
Du Vernay’s vision of the local movement doesn’t extend much beyond King and his SCLC confederates at all. Glen Ford rightly criticizes Selma’s characterization of the SNCC radicals’ relation with King and SCLC. Du Vernay reduces the tension to an expression of some of the SNCC activists’ ultimately petty and juvenile turf-protectiveness. Political or strategic differences are beyond her purview. While license is what it is, and the SNCC/SCLC tension is arguably not crucial to the story she wants to tell, her choice to portray James Forman in particular as a young, narrow-minded hothead may be as revealing as it is gratuitous and inaccurate. Forman was one of the most systematically leftist voices in SNCC, a Korean War veteran, a former teacher and organizer before going to join SNCC and was actually a year older than King. Du Vernay’s film describes King as having “led the Civil Rights movement for thirteen years” until his assassination in 1968. That view is consistent with her trivialization of SNCC; it is also in no way correct. King, for example, was not even the principal force driving or the main attraction at the 1963 March on Washington, which was most of all the project of A. Philip Randolph and his Negro American Labor Council. See, for example, William P. Jones, “The Unknown Origins of the March on Washington: Civil Rights Politics and the Black Working Class,” Labor 7 (2010): 33-52 and The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights (New York: W. W. Norton, 2014). In fact, I know several people who attended the march and left before King spoke because it was a long, hot day, and he was at that point in the minds of many activists just another preacher, albeit a courageous and progressive one.
I still want to see Selma someday, but I'm in no hurry.