Adolph Reed, Jr. at nonsite:
Ava Du Vernay’s film Selma has generated yet another wave of mass mediated debate over cinematic representation of black Americans’ historical experience of racial injustice. The controversy’s logic is at this point familiar, nearly clichéd. Du Vernay and others have responded to complaints about the film’s historical accuracy, particularly in its portrayal of Lyndon Johnson, with invocations of artistic license and assertions that the film is not intended as historical scholarship. However, even Maureen Dowd recognizes the contradiction at the core of those claims. “The ‘Hey, it’s just a movie’ excuse doesn’t wash. Filmmakers love to talk about their artistic license to distort the truth, even as they bank on the authenticity of their films to boost them at awards season.”1 And that contradiction, as I’ve noted [“Django Unchained, or, The Help”], permeates the dizzyingly incoherent and breathtakingly shallow pop controversies spawned by recent films dramatizing either the black experience of slavery or the southern Jim Crow order.
Notwithstanding their boosters’ claims about these films’ relation to the historical moments they depict, Selma and its recent predecessors, like other period dramas, treat the past like a props closet, a source of images that facilitate naturalizing presentist sensibilities by dressing them up in the garb of bygone days.