When I arrive at a theater to see Selma, I am 35 and still adrift in ways my peers are not. I have clawed my way toward minor recognition for a writing ability I’ve been honing for more than two decades. I am older than my friends with full-time writing or editing jobs, older than colleagues who are publishing first and second and third books. What, exactly, accounts for my achievement gap?
When asked, I am never quite sure what to say for myself.
I think, as I stand in the ticket line, that the answer to this question will stop mattering soon. That achievement gap just may be closing. I am musing, as I enter the theater: 2014 has been an exceptional year. I may be on the verge of my own full-time job at a major publication; I interviewed for three just two weeks before Selma opened in limited release. At long last, I hope, taking my seat, I may be at the precipice of national notice.
Proximity to the work of black women like Ava DuVernay is essential when I’m in transition, teetering between the self-doubt that’s become so familiar to me over time and self-affirmation, which is still relatively new. It’s imperative to bear witness to and invest in the success of the women with whom I most identify. Their present informs my future. DuVernay left the precipice of national notice behind three years ago, when she won the Directing Award at Sundance for her second film, Middle of Nowhere.
The air around this, her third film, is rarer. The earliest buzz for Selma, which hit when the film began screening in New York, months before it opened in limited release elsewhere, has been spectacular. Viewers and critics alike seem certain that this film will mark DuVernay’s entree to the Big Show. Awards season is nigh and it seems assured that she’ll be a red carpet staple.
As someone waiting in the wings, and as someone whose own route toward a Big Win has been circuitous, I am studying Ava DuVernay closely. So many of us black-woman-creatives are.
DuVernay is not a wunderkind soaring along a superhighway. She’s steady and patient and strategic. At 42 and after career changes (or career “fusings,” more accurately), from emcee to publicist to filmmaker, she understands how to play a long game.
In order to see Selma two weeks before it’s set to open in Baltimore, I’ve driven to Silver Spring, where it is playing in a single theater. I believe, before the opening credits roll, that I’ll have something astute and gorgeous to say about it — and that these insights will come to me immediately. I will sell these thoughts to someone. They will be read, dissected, contested, bookmarked, forgotten — all within a window of 24 to 72 hours. Then they will fade from view, floating off readers’ radars, finding themselves replaced by someone else’s fresher, more immediately critical take. This is the bridge the freelancer crosses — indeed, the bridge most new media writers cross, whether freelance or full-time.
But I won’t have to cross it for days yet. And long before then, there is the now, the darkened theater, the opening scene in Oslo, where Martin fusses over his Nobel Prize suit’s ascot, as Coretta stills his fidgeting hands.
When Selma ends, I have no profound thoughts. My mind feels still and cleansed, the way it always does in the aftermath of a thorough sob. Having been fully transported to the past, the only thing that tethers me to the present is the phrase “Directed by Ava DuVernay” burned into the sky onscreen. I stare at it until it gives way to other names; even then, it rests just behind my eyes. We all, as audience, remain seated until John Legend finishes promising that one day, when they glory comes, it’ll be ours. And when we rise, all at once, it seems that we believe him.
For weeks, I remain inarticulate about Selma — even as I watch the pushback build against the narrative it presents. First, the former advisor to LBJ is given a great deal of ink in The Washington Post. Then other “fact-checkers” emerge, insisting that LBJ is misrepresented in the film. Before long, they’re cropping up all over, from cable news programs to various online publications.
In the melee, Jimmie Lee Jackson is forgotten all over again. So is Viola Liuzzo. So are Richie Jean Jackson and Amelia Boynton Robinson. So is Cager Lee Jr. Every one is a character DuVernay added to the script, upon taking the directorial helm. No one seems overly concerned about their depictions — all beautifully rendered, even when their screen time is necessarily limited. Few fact-checkers seem to note these depictions at all.
This swift influx of biopic-policers all seem invested in the same concern: Never mind the embattled citizens of Selma. How’s the white liberator trope holding up here?
Soon, something unexpected happens. The pitchforks and scalpels being set to the film’s storytelling begin to feel like they’re prodding at something much closer to home than a gorgeous period film. They feel like they’re prodding at me.
It may seem a strange conflation: Ava DuVernay’s personal right to interpret what is essential to convey about a moment in history and my own right to create something — anything — meaningful and lasting (preferably within the context of a full-time, salaried position). But the conflation presented itself just the same.
I wonder: is this what inevitably happens when black women publicly wield the power of interpretation? Will we always be asked to defend our vision, our credibility, our grasp of history or creative license? Will we have to remain ever magnanimous in the face of it? Will our centers hold?
Concurrent to this reshaping of public discourse around Selma, I’m losing steam (and hope) on the personal progress front. I hear back from one of the three big jobs for which I interviewed in December. It’s a no. That first no sets a precedent of worry. While worrying, I find myself entirely unemployed. This is another bridge the freelancer crosses. It can seem infinitely longer than any other. Glory, if it’s meant for me to have at all, never feels more distant than in times like these. Times like these come often.
Newly dispirited, I think back to the emptying of the Selma theater: the crescendo of closing credits, the crash of a reluctant exit, the reality into which that exit would drop me with a thud — one where a beautiful story’s chances of mainstream accolades are quickly diminished, even as other stories (with predominantly white casts), inspired by true events, are allowed to flourish, inaccuracies uncontested.
In too many ways, the film’s debut has come at a most auspicious time for me. It captures what happens when a community refuses to defer its dream any longer. And we, as viewers, are compelled by knowledge the characters onscreen do not have. We know what will come: the gutting of that dream, the dismantling and deferral of racially equitable gains, the shriveling, festering, running of bodies in the sun.
In the time of Selma, we contend with the idea that the more things change, the more they remain the same. We begin to understand that white audiences don’t want to see too much of themselves in Ava DuVernay’s Selma, Alabama (or in Ava DuVernay’s Washington, for that matter). The audiences most enthralled with her film are filled with viewers who understand the agonies of its characters most acutely.
Those viewers are not the ones who vote on awards at the Big Show. Those able to vote on which films are deemed “best” prefer to award times they can better argue as completely bygone. The brutality of enslavement as it existed in the 19th century, for instance, can be wholesale refused as in any way echoing our current national reality. Bloody Sunday at Edmund Pettis Bridge, an event just half a century gone, cannot.
I am still watching Ava DuVernay, whose cinematic vision has made stark the parallel. She is handling a spate of historical scolders with grace, aplomb, and preternatural calm. Every photo of her that emerges features either a poised, beatific expression or a joyous one, as she’s embracing her cast members and captioning each snapshot with gratitude and excitement. Her film is nominated for Best Picture at the Golden Globes. It is not named the winner. She is nominated for Best Director there. She is not crowned the victor. We who identify most with the thesis of her film seem more upset about this than she is. The film’s song, at least, takes home a prize; the truth of John Legend’s promise is in no way dimmed.
One day, when the glory comes, it’ll be ours.
It may seem that this morning was not the dawn of that long-promised glory. When Oscar nominations were announced today, DuVernay’s name wasn’t called among the directors, though film and song were both named in their respective categories. Characteristically, DuVernay remains upbeat. The film — as the work of a passionate and engaged community — has been recognized. Its key song, with its haunting, prophetic, reassuring hook, has been feted. And the director herself can rest assured that greater heights are coming.
I don’t know how she can remain so calm. What’s she’s confronting on the other side of a prestige-leap seems daunting. A less prepared, less steeled, less loving person might feel — however mildly — demoralized. I feel demoralized and my stakes — a decent-paying job I find fulfilling — are far lower.
But DuVernay, just seven years my senior, understands something those of us who cling to her backstage curtain like it’s the skirt of a big sister, have yet to learn. The glory isn’t awards or in pay or in prestige. The glory is in being respected. It’s in the invaluable currency of community, in people clamoring to work with you, in the ability to re-partner with prior muses and find yourselves able to make something even more spectacular the next time around. It’s the resplendence of being able to remain resolute in your interpretation of a thing, regardless of who contests it.
Ava DuVernay understands completely. The glory has already come. It is already hers and, by virtue of who she’s willing to extend it to, the glory is also ours.
This is an infinitely more powerful thing for me during this year’s befuddling award season than seeing Selma showered with with uncritical adulation. The announcement in the film’s arrival is this: Keep working. Keep crossing the bridges you come to — or fighting for access to the bridges you’ve been denied. The fight adds to your splendor. Someone is charting your path. Someone is crowning you daily for your effort.