11 March 2015


Gosh, it's been more than 2 weeks since I started writing this post. But you should be seeing more posts on here for awhile at least: my plan to force myself to do academic writing involves starting with 15 minutes of writing for this blog. We'll see how it goes.

I spent a lot of time thinking about Selma after I saw it, sorting out what I thought, pondering what it did well and what it could have done better. The film was certainly quite affecting, but I also found myself frustrated by it in some ways: I could not really decide how "good" a movie it really is. In some sense, it is both easy and impossible to make a good movie about this subject, no? The history is so powerful and moving that it is bound to be a good story, and yet, it is so important, particularly now, that it will of course be under heightened scrutiny, and everyone will have some kind of complaint. And I'm not even talking about the historical accuracy question, which I am not well informed enough to comment on.

Selma avoids, I think, the obvious problems of this kind of film. It does not ride on easy sentimentality, and it is not a hagiography. It does not create an oversimplified narrative or an easy, step-by-step story. Indeed, this is, I think, one of the most impressive things about the film (aside from the cinematography, which is unbelievably gorgeous) -- the way that it presents the lead-up to the march as a series of difficult decisions. One is reminded that this was a political event, first and foremost, and that there were strategical questions to be considered. This is the kind of thing that historical narratives really struggle with: how to convey the tangled confusion of all the different options and possibilities that existed at the time, when to us in the future, certain choices can appear obvious or predetermined.*

But this is also the problem with the film; that in striving to faithfully capture the confusion of the time and avoid simplistic storytelling, it ends up being a somewhat chaotic plot. Because it is corraling all the various moving pieces and considerations into one frame, many of the narrative choices seem arbitrary or haphazard. This is particularly clear at the ending, when we briefly zoom in on a handful of faces and get captions telling us what happened to them next. Some of the people have been central characters throughout, others are minor, or even entirely new. Why them, and not any of the other many people in the crowd?

Finally, as mentioned above, the movie is unbelievably beautiful visually** as well; an aspect of the film that we often forget, but that carries as much weight as the plotting and dialogue. This might be the most successful thing about the film, what it does with image. The composition of the frame is so careful and intentional, it's amazing. The attention to detail is just incredible. It could be argued, perhaps, that this is where the sense of "history" comes in: not in the storyline, which, as I've said, is somewhat jumbled and chaotic, but in the imagery, and the way they convey a sense of dynamism, tension, and prolepsis. Were I writing a more formal piece (instead of a thinking-out-loud blog post), this would be the thrust of my argument, that this is what makes the movie required viewing, and fascinating as an active reflection on the representation of the past: the way that it uses image to create the sense of a broader historical art, and actively refuses to do so on a level of plot and dialogue.

* If this is something that interests you, I refer you to an excellent book on the topic, one that really shaped my thinking: Michael Andre Bernstein's Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History.

** Teju Cole has a wonderful piece on the cinematography, situating it within a history of representations of black skin in photography.

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