Maureen Dowd, the redheaded columnist at the New York Times, is the latest addition to what seems to be a recurring trend in the reception of Selma among white journalists, who incessantly lament over the omission of sympathetic white characters in a movie about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Civil Rights in America.
The article begins in strange fashion when Dowd appears to be surprised that she is watching the movie “in a theater full of black teenagers.” As her essay goes on, it is clear that she pays more attention to the Black teenagers than to the movie. Like a typical voyeuristic white woman, she describes their every move and her interpretations of their reactions to scenes, as if her observations are a window to their souls.
This sets the tone for whom else she would like to speak, Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma.
White women, too, show paternalistic behavior towards Black women. In condescending fashion, Dowd coaxes Ava DuVernay’s direction with praise while lambasting it with insult.
She says: “I loved the movie and find the Oscar snub of its dazzling actors repugnant. But the director’s talent makes her distortion of L.B.J. more egregious. Artful falsehood is more dangerous than artless falsehood, because fewer people see through it.”
What Maureen Dowd and other white critics deem “artlful falsehood” is DuVernay’s portrayal of former United States President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Dowd’s qualm is that she feels LBJ is depicted as being anti-Civil Rights, or at the very least indifferent towards the systematic disenfranchisement of Blacks in the South. In other words, she cannot understand how a liberal politician would not be an ally of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The incongruity is really not that hard to grasp.
As we can see by a blatantly racist non-indictment, which failed to take a renegade police officer to trial after he choked a non-violent citizen to his premature death, the so-called liberal blue state of New York in its so-called liberal metropolis of New York City is not so liberal after all.
Dowd’s concern for the way young Black viewers would interpret the movie reveals why she was so intent on committing her observations on their behavior to memory.
She writes: “Many of the teenagers by me bristled at the power dynamic between the men. It was clear that a generation of young moviegoers would now see L.B.J.’s role in civil rights through DuVernay’s lens. And that’s a shame.”
What else could be Dowd’s worst fear except that viewers, and young black viewers especially, might make the connection that Whites like herself who write for the New York Times and profess to be liberal, actually aren’t so liberal. If LBJ was a snake in sheep’s clothing, what stops the rest of them from hiding feelings of disdain behind a friendly visage?
The real shame is that Dowd, who professes to be liberal and possibly feminist, doesn’t want to extend a Black female director like Ava DuVernay the humanity to exercise her voice, to tell her story, to interpret history through her cinematic lens, no matter whether others find it fascinating, tedious, nostalgic, historically accurate, or reverent.
More important, Dowd doesn’t want young Black children to see history through the lens of how a Black woman interprets it, which would explain why whites are so intent upon being the vanguards of media and suppressing the communication of the masses, the global majority, who do not necessarily agree with them.
Even a trained historian, and not one trained to lie but one whose craft is rooted in the excavation of truth, can only recall history based on what was left behind. Sadly, we know the bulk of documented American history to be a bed of white lies that, over time, is patched with Black and multi-racial correctives.
It pains Dowd, as it does other whites, to have Black people—mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers, cousins, sisters, brothers—impart their perspectives, wisdoms, truths, and aspirations to their young. Dowd would much rather select a white filmmaker to play the role of the gatekeeper who would package history in quite a different cultural vehicle for mass dissemination.
If anything, Dowd would rather have her truth told to Black children and not some Black woman’s truth, which she considers false and inappropriate.
Dowd’s real problem is that “DuVernay had plenty of vile white villains” but provides no staunch white person to whom she can cling her skeleton of white guilt. Dowd, like other whites, desperately wants to attach herself to some white character in Selma and say that if she were an adult living during that slice of Civil Rights history, she would be that person.
A movie like The Help (2011) provided her with a few options, as do most Hollywood movies. But as per Ava DuVernay’s design, Selma leaves no white savior for Dowd to escape to, and rightly so.
Where were all the sympathetic whites while slavery lasted for 400 years and Jim Crow segregation for nearly a century thereafter? Where have all the white saviors been since the ongoing War on Drugs has debilitated Black communities and imprisoned Black youth at alarming and unprecedented rates?
Race isn’t just “America’s original sin,” as Maureen Dowd states to conveniently locate white privilege and oppression in a distant past, as some horrors that family members she never knew once committed that were heroically eradicated by some white savior by the name of Lyndon B. Johnson.
The truth is that race is more than America’s original sin.
Racism and white supremacy are America’s birth mothers and its abusive baby daddies.
Racism and white supremacy are America’s present sin, and America’s sin of tomorrow and the next day, unless Maureen Dowd and her self-proclaimed clean-handed colleagues would rather opt for something other than indifference and callousness in their dealings with Blacks and also Latinos.
Unlike most Hollywood movies, Ava DuVernay doesn’t delineate a sharp, and by most calculations, false line between those Whites in the South and these Whites in the north.
There is no white star for Maureen Dowd to hang her hopes on.
In Selma, whites are only left to confront the unsettling prospect that they and their ancestors were like LBJ–indifferent at best, callous at worst–alongside the centuries-long (and still ongoing) fight for Civil Rights in America.
Lest Dowd has forgotten, Selma is about Martin Luther King Jr. and Black southerners who forged a nationwide movement. But as history shows, white people like Maureen Dowd always aim to take anything–an issue, a movie—that focuses on something else and make it about themselves. In other words, we don’t care that Sal’s pizzeria burnt down, we want to know about Radio Raheem!
That white people can watch Selma and only come out of the theater ruminating on LBJ says a lot about a group’s unwillingness or perhaps flawed inability to empathize with the hardships that people unlike them face, if only for two hours in a dark room with few, if any, distractions.
Martin Luther King, Jr. himself said that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” As DuVernay’s film shows, MLK and other Civil Rights activists demanded that LBJ use his power to ensure that voting rights for African Americans were upheld.
But rather than place the power of agency on the oppressed, Dowd wishes to proffer credit to the oppressor. She writes: “There was no need for DuVernay to diminish L.B.J., given that the Civil Rights Movement would not have advanced without him. Vietnam is enough of a pox on his legacy.”
At this point, we realize that Maureen Dowd really does want to believe that LBJ is the white savior of Civil Rights, that the “Movement would not have advanced without him.”
And her statement that “Vietnam is enough of a pox on his legacy” tells us that for her, this movie wasn’t about Martin Luther King, Jr; it was about the legacy and character of a former white president, and the opinions that she believes Blacks will form about him after watching the movie—whether they will laud or despise him.
President Johnson’s inaction at the height of Civil Rights tension sounds a lot like a group of whites today who fail to indict white police officers for multiple murders against Blacks across the country.
Sounds like Ava DuVernay wasn’t that far off from history after all.