Ava DuVernay, “Selma,” and Womanist Sensibilities

Before the movie “Selma” had been widely released, a historian of President Lyndon B. Johnson criticized the portrayal of the president in the movie. That criticism about “historical inaccuracy” became for some their introduction to Ava DuVernay, the film’s African American female director. I think that Ms. DuVernay’s response to the criticism was “womanist” in all of the best senses of the moral agency that Alice Walker outlines in the first part of her definition of “womanist, a black feminist or woman of color:” outrageous, audacious, courageous, or willful behavior, responsible, in charge, serious.1 In an interview Ms. DuVernay does say that the original script for the film had focused on President Johnson and some conversations with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  However, DuVernay shifted the focus; she spoke about shifting the intent of the movie to tell the story of the town and the people’s solidarity in the struggle for the right to vote in the South, thus the name of the film. It is that shift in perspective that is a first marker of her womanist sensibilities.

When Alice Walker shifted a cultural expression heard by many African American girls, “you acting womanish,” into a noun with a four-part definition, that shift signified for many African American women religious scholars a way to name theory and praxis that was and is flowing from our deepest spiritual, cultural, historical, political wells. The four-part definition captures the cultural, historical, familial, political, woman-centered, woman-identified, religious-spiritual experiential and contextual dimensions of African American women’s lived experience. Womanist sensibilities (a.k.a motivations, values, responsibilities and/or goals) derive from African American women, a sociohistoric racial-gender group, who share a deep communal consciousness about black liberation.  This consciousness compels us to make “the survival and wholeness of entire people–male and female” (Walker) the telos of social justice; we have a justice-seeking conscience. Therefore, when Ms. DuVernay shifts the perspective of the film from an individual to a town, she makes a womanist choice to focus on the impact of communities in solidarity working for change.

Moreover, you are drawn into this film because of the way Ms. DuVernay tells the story. History and memory merge as actual participants of the march are portrayed. Ms. DuVernay chose not to create composite characters, and the actors’ portrayals exude authenticity. Yes, the ability of the actors is important, but the director’s role is paramount. In the opening scene with Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), as she answers the literacy test questions until she cannot, we see her face and the determined weariness at being denied once again her right to vote. Likewise, we join the conversation with Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Touissant) and Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) as sisters in common struggle as they talk about their roles in the movement, and not solely about being the wives of important men. Ms. DuVernay comments on this scene with an interviewer on NPR; she says that she was about “letting them (Boynton and King) be the center of their own stories.” Also, DuVernay chooses “to show the array of roles women had in the movement.”2 Lastly, David Oyelowo’s Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is neither saint nor sinner. Instead we glimpse into the interior life of a man grappling with the challenges of leading a movement as a young man, minister, husband, and father. How does this director evoke that character from Oyelowo? Director DuVernay in that NPR interview speaks about having to write the speeches of Dr. King for the film because the intellectual rights to the original speeches are held by another director. She spent time listening to King’s speeches; and, after becoming attentive to some basic patterns and rhythms, she and Oyelowo brought forth the “spirit” of Dr. King.3 Again, Ava DuVernay’s choices about how to bring to life cinematically the actual women and men of Selma incarnate the womanist claim to be “committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.” (Walker’s emphasis)

Finally, the brutal violence of the march across Edmund Pettis Bridge is re-membered. Ms. DuVernay says, “I think it’s important to understand what the violence does emotionally. So each time that we show violence in the film, there’s at least one set-up or one shot that we slow down by tripling the frames. We slow it down . . . to make you watch it so at the peak moment of the violence . . . you have to really be with the person who’s been assaulted.”4 As the last line of the first part of the definition reads, this director is “Responsible. In charge. Serious.” (Walker’s emphasis) As a womanist ethicist whose current scholarship and praxis is about how violence and religion are the stuff of daily life as well as protest, I believe DuVernay’s choice to expose us to the violence as interpersonal conflict in the midst of systemic racial violence is critical. If we walk away from viewing “Selma” and cannot see the streets of Ferguson, then we do not have eyes to see and ears to hear. Ms. DuVernay’s choices as director of Selma should remind us that in these very difficult and violent days, we (wherever we are and whatever we are doing) must make choices that confirm that our moral agency is in sync with the universe that is on the side of justice.

  1. See the following for her full definition: Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), xi-xii
  2. Listen to a web outtake with Ava DuVernay from NPR’s Morning Edition. http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=371479848&m=372664165
  3. See transcript of NPR’s Morning Edition interview with Ava DuVernay at http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=371479848.
  4. Ibid.
Marcia Riggs

About Marcia Riggs

Dr. Marcia Riggs is the J. Erskine Love Professor of Christian Ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia.

Marcia Riggs

Marcia Riggs

Dr. Marcia Riggs is the J. Erskine Love Professor of Christian Ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia. She is interested in the relationship between social oppression and socio-religious ethical praxis, ethical discourse that bridges the gap between womanist religious scholarship and the church`s practice of ministry, the moral foundations for public policy, and the church`s role in social justice ministry.

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