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Get mad: Selma, women’s inequality, distractions

Ignore the distractions. Instead, get mad and right the wrong represented by the Academy Awards snub of Selma. Equality is the prize.

Selma, PSU Collection
Selma to Montgomery march, halted at the Edmund Pettus bridge (Tuesday, March 9, 1965).

I am southern, southwest-Georgia-southern. My Oscar night boycott arose in part because of the Academy’s shameful treatment of Selma. But I have also grown weary of the uphill battle for equality for women of all colors.

My husband and I saw Selma on the heels of the electrifying, Tony-award winning play, All The Way, which explored LBJ’s first year as president. Seattle playwright Robert Schenkkan won the 2014 Tony Award for best play for this Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned work. The Seattle Repertory Theatre sponsored a companion piece, The Great Society. Thus we were steeped in the mid-60s when we experienced Ava DuVernay’s vision of a pivotal moment in civil rights history.

 

President Johnson and Rev. Martin Luther King
President Johnson and Martin Luther King in the White House Cabinet Room. Wikipedia Media.

 

“You’re an activist, I’m a politician. You’ve got one issue, I’ve got a hundred and one!” a frustrated President Lyndon B. Johnson exclaimed in a meeting with the Rev. Martin Luther King in the movie Selma. “That’s OK. That’s your job. That’s what you do … Meet me halfway on this, Martin.”

In this scene, DuVernay echos Schenkkan’s treatment of the give-and-take that was essential to move forward on civil rights reform, to move forward on any controversial measure. Both playwright and director highlight the delicate and squishy nature of negotiation, whether it was LBJ trying to nudge a mulish coterie of southern Democrats or King’s need to unite factions within the movement.

Positioning knotty social issues as though they are actually complex, instead of simplistic, is what made both the play and the movie rewarding. In a similar but fictional fashion, Kris Nelscott provides yet another insight into the turbulent ’60s with her Smokey Dalton novels, which begin with King’s assassination.

LOC Selma
Aerial view of marchers crossing the Edmund-Pettus Bridge during the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965, Library of Congress.

 

I remain furious at criticism of Selma as a failing in historical accuracy.

It is a criticism that serves only one purpose: distraction.

It’s a distraction from an unequivocally horrific time in our history. One that we seem to willfully relegate to hear-see-speak no evil while simultaneously watching it play out today in places like Ferguson.

It’s a distraction that is doubly hypocritical because of the nomination, and win, for The Imitation Game screenplay.

As Monica Guzman wrote on Saturday:

The Imitation Game changed aspects of the real Alan Turing’s personality to conform more closely to our idea of the solitary nerd… [It] falls in line with the tired idea that only outcasts could love computers, rather than the reality that one of the pioneers of the field was a shy but nice enough guy who could work in a team.


Hells-bells: the screenplay completely fabricated the Turing-as-traitor scenes as well as the conceit surrounding his arrest, which is the central unifying theme of the movie! Oh, and the arrest occurred in 1952, not 1951, as the film erroneously informs the audience in its subtitles.

I enjoyed The Imitation Game as a fiction.

I appreciated its highlighting the despicable treatment of gay men in the 1950s. Its plunge into the moral dilemma of having to chose who to save and who to sacrifice to the German war machine in order to preserve the secret of breaking Enigma over-and-over. But I hated its unnecessary and substantive fabrications, about which there was barely a peep of criticism, at least on this side of the pond, last year.

Alan Turing
Alan Turing Statue at Bletchley Park, WikiMedia.

 

“If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants.” ~ Sir Isaac Newton

The screenplay for The Imitation Game situated Turing as the heroic loner. This is a trope which Hollywood loves (Dirty Harry, Die Hard, Batman, and Arnie “I’ll be back”, to name a few). Yet we know (from research) that this is parsecs away from how the world works, particularly when we are examining inventions.

The screenplay for Selma, on the other hand, underscores social change as a messy process, rife with many actors. I was surprised — and pleased — that DuVernay presented King as leader and consensus builder not an autocrat, not a savior, not a loner. In her vision, King is a man beset with doubt as he sought to steer a movement for equality that had no clear way forward. She showed us how the path was obscured by competing leaders and how sometimes (Malcolm X) those leaders might offer themselves as a sacrifice for the greater good.

Raise your hand if you knew, before seeing this movie, that there were multiple marches in Selma, marches that were started and aborted before the successful one of March 21, the one we know and celebrate?

Raise your hand if you were able to watch these scenes unmoved to tears, anger, or mortification that these acts of violence against peaceful protesters were done in your name?

This is the movie criticized for historical inaccuracy?

Selma beating 1965
Baton-wielding Alabama state troopers waded into a crowd of peaceful civil rights demonstrators led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Chairman John Lewis (on ground left center, in light coat) on March 7, 1965 (Bloody Sunday), in Selma, Alabama. Library of Congress photo.

 

Was DuVernay shunned because she’s black, she’s a woman, or her protagonist was a martyred black man? We’ll never know, but I believe her gender played a role in the Academy’s cold shoulder.

Which brings me to the other reason I boycotted this year’s Academy Awards spectacle, prompted after seeing She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry. That’s when I began to internalize just how far we have not come, baby.

“It’s time to have wage equality once and for all. And equal rights for women in the United States of America.” ~ Patricia Arquette

A truth met, once again, with nit-picking distractions.

I could trot out the facts. The 6,028 voting members of the Academy: 94 percent white, 77 percent male. Of the 43 people on the board of governors, only six are women. Not unlike its cousin up the road in Silicon Valley, the demographics of “success” are white and male.

In its 83-year history, only one woman has been named Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow.

The Sony emails released last last year revealed a wide disparity in the pay bestowed on the men and women of Tinseltown.

Research from San Diego State University’s Martha Lauzen peels back the curtain on how Hollywood makes movies. In 2012, 78% (195) of the top 250 films had no female writers . Last year, 79% had no female writers . There’s more: 99% had no female composers; 96% had no female cinematographers; 96% had no female sound editors; 78% had no female editors. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Looking at the top 100 movies of 2012: women had fewer speaking roles than in any year since 2007. Less than a third of the speaking roles were female characters .

And that’s just Hollywood. A pattern of exclusion and unequal compensation is the norm, not the exception.

An analysis of the NY Times home page showed that men are quoted 3.4 times more often than women. U.S. newsrooms are about 1/3 female. And overwhelmingly, managers are men. So are newspaper opinion columnists.

Only a third of the nation’s doctors and lawyers are women, and they make less money than the men. At the earnings peak — ages 45 to 50 — women earn 62 cents for every dollar that male doctors make (based on median earnings). The pay gap extends to nurses and other health care professionals.

Indisputable facts that reflect entrenched norms, yet allude to them at your own peril.

Arquette was criticized from the left for, among other things, acknowledging the role of mothers in our culture.

From the LGBT community. From the right:

 

Seriously, you don’t want someone who has a megaphone to remind people of stubborn, intractable facts?

We can argue about the outsized compensation of celebrity culture (let’s not forget sports and fashion) separately from the stark fact that, even there, women are treated differently from men. All women, black or white, straight or gay.

Distractions, people.

And this time it’s not external divide-and-conquer, like we saw with the attacks on Selma from LBJ’s alumni. It is internal sniping that can only result in maintenance of the status quo.

That’s another way in which DuVernay’s movie was powerful. She showed us how King moved forward despite similar — although far less public — sniping.

Arquette spoke the truth. DuVernay spoke a truth. Yet the Academy and the institutions it represents — including those outside moviedom — sit stubborn and inviolate.

Oscars chart
Oscars chart from International Business Times/Hanna Sender

 

This is why I boycotted the Oscars.

I object to distractions from painful truths.

Distraction as a method of preserving the status quo is at least as old as the Roman Empire. (Probably older.)

In the face of distraction, facts alone do little to spur action. For that, we need focused anger.

 

“First, you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a human being, goddammit, my life has value.'” ~ Howard Beale, Network (1976)

 

It didn’t hurt Sunday night’s ratings to have only one angry white woman of a certain age refuse to turn that dial (so to speak).

We won’t get Hollywood’s attention — or any other institution of power — until all of us are angry.

We. Must. Get. Mad!

Then we act: with feet, with fingers, and with pocketbooks.

Support movies (and other media) that feature realistic women characters (not objects) and those made by women producers and directors. If a tight budget means you’d need to pass on the latest derivative blockbuster, thoughtfully consider saying no to pablum.

Tell your friends what you are doing and why. On social media, in blog comments, during phone calls, at coffee chats. Ditto, those elected to represent you. And a timely letter-to-the-editor couldn’t hurt; neither will a touch of humor!

Speak up, knowing you are not alone and so that others might feel less alone.

Of course, Hollywood is only one brick in the wall. For some of you, it won’t be the first you tackle. That’s okay.

It took nearly a century for women to wrestle the right to vote from those who withheld franchise. Why should we be surprised that equal pay and true equality haven’t arrived simply because President Kennedy put pen to paper in 1963?

We can turn that law into reality if we put our collective minds and hearts to it and ignore attempts to pull us off course with distractions.

But first, we have to get mad.

Get involved

Learn more

Photographic citations

Photo 1: Jack Rabin collection on Alabama civil rights and southern activists, 1941-2004 (bulk 1956-1974), Historical Collections and Labor Archives, Eberly Family Special Collections Library, University Libraries, Pennsylvania State University. 1965. Source: Flickr, CC License.

Photo 2: President Lyndon B. Johnson and Rev. Martin Luther King, White House Cabinet Room. 1966. Source: Wikipedia

Photo 3: Aerial view of marchers crossing the Edmund-Pettus Bridge during the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. 1965. Source: New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

Photo 4: Alan Turing statue at Bletchley Park. Source: WikiMedia.

Photo 5: Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. Library of Congress photo. March 7, 1965. Source: U.S. House of Representatives.

Chart: Oscars infographic from International Business Times, by Hanna Sender. February 22, 2015.

Photo 6: Civil Rights Memorial Mural, painted on the side of a building on the west side of the bridge in Selma. May 29, 2007.
Source: Flickr, CC License

Selma Mural
Civil Rights Memorial Mural, painted on the side of a building on the west side of the bridge in Selma. May 29, 2007. Flickr CC License.

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

6 replies on “Get mad: Selma, women’s inequality, distractions”

A new report released today: “Compared to minorities, women enjoyed fewer gains in Hollywood employment since the previous report.”

AND “Women accounted for just 25.8 percent of the lead roles in broadcast scripted shows during the 2012-13 season, a slight increase over the 24.5 percent share the group posted in 2011-12.”

AND “11 percent of the creators of digital platform and syndicated program- ming during the 2012-13 season were women. This share consisted of two shows in 2012-13 — Orange is the New Black (Netflix) and Dr. Phil (Syndicated); it corresponds to underrepresentation by a factor of more than 4 to 1 for women among the creators of digital and syndicated shows.”

http://www.bunchecenter.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/2015-Hollywood-Diversity-Report-2-25-15.pdf

And (because I’m unable to leave well-enough alone) — blatant fabrications of a “true” story didn’t hurt the McQueen/Pitt film:

From The Atlantic
“Steve McQueen’s film fudges several details of Solomon Northup’s autobiography—both intentionally and not—to more completely portray the horrors of slavery.”

Critics who don’t like the message of films that take this tact of exaggeration/fabrication may call them polemics.

Of course, this criticism arrived in October 2013. The 2013 Academy Awards were held March 2, 2014 – a bit later than this year. But much longer to “forget” the criticism. (Ammunition for those who argued that Selma was released too late in December and those who claim that the awards really reflect only 11 months of releases these days.)

In response to a comment at TheModerateVoice about 12 Years A Slave:

I argued that the distraction from having a conversation about CIVIL RIGHTS came from nitpicks before Academy Awards were announced and, I thought, made an argument that the picture was snubbed in part (large part?) because the director is a woman.

The 1960s ain’t the 1850s. Not. Even. Close.

Oh. And 12 Years A Slave?
Directed by Steve McQueen
Produced by Brad Pitt (et al)
Screenplay by John Ridley

Notice anything about that list?

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