I grew up roughly during the last dozen years of Apartheid, in a country that lived up to its tradition of supposed neutrality covering up business connections to an unsavoury regime. I faintly remember people boycotting Granny Smith apples and, somewhat less faintly, Eddy Grant’s song “Gimme Hope Jo’anna”. What I remember most from those times, though, is Cry Freedom, a 1987 film that zeroed in on the human cost of Apartheid: the exile of a liberal, middle-class white journalist and his family from their chosen home of South Africa.
Oh, and there was also something a corrupt, racist police apparatus torturing and killing the black activist and community leader Steve Biko.
Selma isn’t like that.
To be fair, Cry Freedom isn’t a cinematic atrocity. It is competently made and features an early Denzel Washington performance showing clearly that Hollywood had an immensely charismatic new leading man for the movies on its hands, if only it knew what to do with him. (It took a while to figure this one out.) The film was very much a product of its time, though, and its perspective is problematic: the movie was sold as the Steve Biko story, but Biko was very much a supporting character in journalist Donald Woods’ story. This made more sense in Woods’ memoirs, the basis for the film, but as a film Cry Freedom didn’t need to be about Woods first and Biko second. Whether it needed to be or not, though, it was very much made for a white audience, or more precisely, a white liberal audience, one that could feel bad about Apartheid and good about itself. As a political statement, it was decidedly limp.
Has mainstream cinema moved on since then? There have definitely been films addressing minority, and particularly black, experiences that didn’t come with a more or less heavily implied #notallwhites, such as Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station or the more recent Moonlight by Barry Jenkins. The big prestige historical biopic, though? That most traditional of Oscar-baity formats?
I have to admit that I wasn’t sure what to expect of Selma. I’d heard good things about it and I’d greatly enjoyed David Oyelowo, the film’s Martin Luther King, in other things. Nevertheless, I was wary: of a film that would be competently bland, that would pander to predominantly white, liberal audiences, making them feel good about themselves yet again. A film that would perhaps tend towards canonising MLK while also stripping him of his humanity.
Selma was none of these things. Yes, its villains are Southern racists, but it isn’t interested in focusing on them as a contrast to white liberals. Similarly, there are white people who come to the support of King and the Montgomery voting rights marches – though mainly they only come after they’ve seen black people being brutally beaten on TV, and again, they are not the focus of the film. This isn’t Cry Freedom: it doesn’t instrumentalise a martyred black leader to tell a story about white people to white people. Nor does it ignore them: the wavering President Lyndon B. Johnson features largely, as does Governor George Wallace, and in its epilogue the film does not omit Viola Liuzzo, who was murdered by Klansmen after her participation in the Selma marches. The film never panders, however, and it is never a film set against the background of US racism and the Civil Rights movement. It is a film about these things. It is not a detached piece of historical storytelling: it is deeply concerned with the continuity of entrenched, systemic racism to this day.
Cry Freedom was a film where white audiences were asked to identify with a good-hearted, smart, white journalist that looked like Kevin Kline. Selma is filmmaking that is angry and proud and mournful. It isn’t concerned with telling a white audience that in the end this is a story about them – and it shouldn’t be any other way.