Selma: The Past Isn’t Even Past, Especially on Twitter

Carol Biopic PortraitThis post is one of a series on AHA Today in which historians and filmmakers reflect on the historical value of the film Selma. The author, Carol Anderson, is an associate professor of African American studies at Emory University. She is the author of Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944–1955 (Cambridge, 2003) and Bourgeois Radicals: The NAACP and the Struggle for Colonial Liberation, 1941–1960 (Cambridge, 2014). Her op-ed on Ferguson and white rage in the Washington Post was the most widely shared in 2014.

Social media was on fire regarding the film Selma and the Oscars. Anger seemed to focus on the “snub”: no best director or best actor nomination. Indeed, within hours of the American Academy of Motion Pictures (AAMP) announcement of this year’s nominees, #OscarsSoWhite went viral with 95,000 tweets per hour: “Apparently to @TheAcademy, in 2015, only the stories (some made up) of white people are relevant.” Another tweet listed the “nominees for best picture”:


But, in the end, an Oscar nomination was not the point. As Spike Lee explained in a February interview, “People are protesting about stuff that really matters … the jury decision in Ferguson [and] Staten Island. That’s why people are storming the streets—not because of what the Academy says. There are more serious matters in this country than how the Academy votes.” He was almost right.

Selma provided another high-profile venue, like the 50th anniversary ceremony on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, to dilute the conscience-numbing Kool-Aid of post-racial America. With the killings of Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Trayvon Martin, Jonathan Ferrell, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, coupled with the wave of new voting requirements passed in many southern and swing states after the US Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision, the debate over Selma is less about the film than about what it symbolizes: a narrative of hard-fought progress in the 1950s and 60s dissolving into retrenchment and reversals in the 21st century. Selma shouts #BlackLivesMatter.

This was best revealed by the candid admission of an academy voter who voiced righteous indignation that “the cast show[ed] up in T-shirts saying ‘I can’t breathe’” at the film’s New York premiere. She was outraged, livid. But not at the chokehold that took Eric Garner’s life. Instead, her ire was directed at the t-shirts. “I thought that stuff was offensive. Did they want to be known for making the best movie of the year or for stirring up shit?”

The answer is “both.”

For many black Americans, past and present have merged recently in real and powerful ways. Fewer than 2 percent of African Americans in Selma were able to register to vote prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Discrimination so commonplace 50 years ago now coils like a python around Ferguson, a city nearly 70 percent African American, where black voter turnout in the 2013 municipal electionwas a paltry 6 percent. The Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2014 confirmed that the chicanery that created 2 percent registered black voters in mid-20th-century Alabama was as acceptable to powerful sectors in the United States as the machinations that made possible 6 percent turnout in 21st-century Missouri.

Similarly, the lack of African American representation in the Ferguson police force and at City Hall was as visible as that in the academy, where 94 percent of voters are white. The recognition that black bodies were no more than revenue generators, as the Department of Justice report on Ferguson made clear, was also—in a less violent or economically disruptive way—the case for the not-so-diverse academy. African American viewers are central to the financial health of the AAMP. And like protests in Montgomery and Nashville in 1955 and 1960 respectively, #BlackTwitter’s calls for a boycott of the televised awards show broadcast were designed to serve as a wake-up call. It may have worked. The show dropped 17 percent in the all-important 18–49 year old demographic. The 2015 Oscars, as the New York Times noted, “might be remembered as the Revenge of ‘Selma.’”

The award for Best Original Song, won by Common and John Legend for “Glory,”was no salve. The Oscars, many in the Twittersphere made clear, are about black people knowing “their place.” One tweet laid out the roles played by African American women with Best Acting awards: maids, slaves, a phony psychic, and abusive mothers. David Oyelowo, who portrayed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, underscored the point in an interview at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival: “We, as black people, have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings or being at the center of our own narrative.”

Some on Twitter groaned that all of this black outrage was, frankly, outrageous. Was the academy supposed to nominate someone black just because he or she showed up in a film? This was about “art.” This was about quality. That paean to the AAMP’s colorblindness, however, was mocked in another tweet:


Yet, one Twitter follower did notice a silver lining of sorts:

FoxNews_admit_tweet_mediumSelma, then, and Ferguson now: both reveal the ubiquitous racism shared by moderates and right-wingers alike—racism that does not question black inequality but only the brazenness and brutality of the oppression that would guarantee it.

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  1. Eulas Kirtdoll

    I have not seen Selma, the movie. Some may think that disqualifies me from discussing the film. Truth is, I live 40 miles from Selma, and many of my neighbor were part of the civil rights movement in 1965, including Bloody Sunday. Some have the scars to prove it. I have talked with them and learned from primary sources about what happened in this region. Selma is getting all of the attention in the movie as a direct result of the decision of the producers and director to focus only on Selma. The fact is that the civil rights movement was active all around Selma, including Marion, Alabama, where Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot. He was not shot in Selma, as the film Selma leads one to believe (I am told by locals in Marion who have seen the film). Many of the people of Marion are outraged by the decision of the movie makers to leave Marion out of the story. It is documented fact that Jackson was shot in Marion, so the decision to portray the shooting as happening in Selma (this was done by not specifying Marion as the location of the shooting) was most likely done on purpose to fit the “artistic license” freedom the producers decided to pursue.

    I take the time to make this point for a few reasons. One, if Marion were a large city, such a misrepresentation of fact would not have occurred. I think that the movie makers decided that a small town like Marion did not MATTER. Therefore, it was OK to leave Marion out of the film. Second, to get an Academy Award is a coveted thing, otherwise no one would care. To accuse the academy of racism in this case (the perceived snub of “Selma”), in my opinion, is absurd. As a black person myself, I caution the use of the “race card”. In this case, Selma got a lot of bad publicity because of the perception that the film contained errors, misrepresentations, and omissions. Flying under the banner of “artistic license” can get you in trouble, and I think that that is what happened here.

    Martin Luther King Jr. got his non-violent philosophy from Ghandi. The film Ghandi, won eight Academy Awards and was nominated for three more:
    Best Picture (won)
    Best Director (Richard Attenborough) (won)
    Best Original Screenplay (John Briley) (won)
    Best Film Editing (John Bloom) (won)
    Best Actor in a Leading Role (Ben Kingsley) (won)
    Best Art Direction (won)
    Best Cinematography (won)

    I think that the success of Ghandi is NOT based on its historical accuracy. The film (I have seen it) touches the heart, and that is what I am sure the film Selma has done, based on everything I have heard, and read. The difference, I think, is that Selma touches on events much closer to Americans in time and place, than Ghandi. Ghandi, like King, was assassinated. But Ghandi was killed 20 years before King (1948 for Ghandi, and 1968 for King). The fact that the events depicted in Selma are 50 years old means that Selma depicts recent history. Fifty years, albeit a long time, is still recent history. Therefore, there are many, many people who remember the events because they lived them. By contrast, Ghandi was born in 1869, and the film Ghandi opens depicting a 24 year old Ghandi in 1893. My point is that the film Ghandi covers a broad period of time (1893 to 1948 – 55 years) while the film Selma covers a much shorter time frame, 1965, and focuses on one place, Selma. The civil rights movement of the 60’s is one of the most well documented events in American history.
    In short, I think Selma failed to many win academy awards due, IN PART, to the fact that the time and place under scrutiny in the film are much more concentrated, and therefore, much more susceptible to fact check. When it was discovered that only 90% of the film was accurate, and some of the inaccuracies were much more than cosmetic, the film was discredited. In other words, you cannot make a film that revises recent history and not expect to be called out on it. The producers and director should have known better. Like Ivory soap, Selma should have been 99 and a fraction of a percent true to the facts, with very, very little digression. Had Selma been virtually fact check proof, it might have won more Academy Awards.