Following the previous night’s showing of the critically acclaimed film “Selma,” directed by Ava DuVernay, Rapaporte Treasure Hall filled to capacity as students gathered for a discussion on race and civil rights on Thursday, Jan. 22. Moderated by President Fred Lawrence, the panel featured speakers including Chad Williams, professor and chair of the African and Afro-American Studies Department; Thomas Doherty, professor of American Studies; Daniel Kryder, professor of politics; and Jasmine Johnson, professor of AAAS and Women’s Gender and Sexuality studies.
Beginning the discussion with a historical overview of the Civil Rights Movement and the time period framing “Selma,” Lawrence pointed to the failure of the Constitution, as it was originally drafted to address the relationship between states and individuals. Lawrence stated that this omission was a deliberate maneuver to avoid the topic of slavery. “Slavery is the one issue that preoccupies the Constitution even though it never showed up in written form,” he said.
Despite the tremendous work and accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movements since, Lawrence emphasized, “The price of liberty is indeed eternal vigilance.” With the timing of the release of “Selma” coinciding with the pain and controversy surrounding the grand jury decisions on the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, a point addressed by audience members, race relations continue to be a point of pertinent discussion. It is also an issue that clearly resonates with members of the Brandeis community, as evidenced by the overwhelming attendance.
Describing “Selma” as a serious portrayal of “the perennially anguishing issue of race in America,” Doherty pointed to the historical intersection of race and film.
With the 100th anniversary of the release of the film “Birth of a Nation” rapidly approaching, Doherty addressed the potential of films to be both aesthetically brilliant yet devastating in their effects. He described “Birth of a Nation” as a “horribly destructive work of racist revisionism … appalling in its impact in that it led quite directly to the rebirth of the KKK.”
Although Doherty acknowledged the flaws in “Selma,” including the perhaps unjust portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson as a resistor rather than a facilitator of the Civil Rights Act, he commended the film’s brutally honest rendition of the racial tensions of the time period.
Discussing “Selma” from the perspective of black feminist thought, Johnson claimed the film reveals beautiful aspects of the black community. Although the film is not afraid to show instances of horrific racial violence and suffering, it also offers scenes showing what she coins “gorgeous black living.”
However, Johnson asserts a key failure of the film is its portrayal of Coretta Scott King, the wife of Martin Luther King Jr. Claiming the film “represented her as if she did not have her own agenda before [King],” Johnson points to the undermining of black feminism within “Selma.”
From the perspective of strategy, Kryder pointed to the genius of King as a political organizer. However, he claimed the film failed to depict the “highly fragmented white power structure,” which he asserted ultimately played in King’s favor. “What ‘Selma’ shows us is a moment of time when coordination was an advantage of the disadvantaged,” according to Kryder.
Recalling his first time viewing “Selma,” Williams shared the emotional nature of the experience. “I was in tears. I was sunk into my seat. It really hit me hard,” he said.
“It made me think about my own grandparents … what was it like to have to reaffirm their identity on a daily basis?” he asked. Williams commented on his own experiences with racial tensions, including his memories in college when affirmative action was dismantled, to his experience being racially profiled by police while at Princeton University.
“It made me think about my two little boys, my sons,” he stated, pointing to the question of what it means to be a man of color in America today.
“Selma is not some distant event in the past. Selma is here. Selma is right now. Selma is in this room,” Williams said, emphasizing the need for love and compassion when coping with these issues.
Although he also acknowledged the potential flaws with the film, he stated, “There is no such thing as a completely objective historical reality … it is and always has been a matter of interpretation and contestation.”
Alluding to Johnson’s previous commentary on the role of women within the film, Williams recalled a powerful scene featuring King, explaining, “King wanted to hear the voice of the Lord, and he calls a black woman.”
Concluding the discussion, Williams said, “‘Selma’ does the work of reminding us that black people are beautiful … it is an affirmation of black humanity that matters today. It reminds us of black pain, of what it means to have violence inflicted on black bodies.”