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‘Selma’ and the State of the Black Auteur

'Selma' and the State of the Black Auteur

In the late 1950’s French film critic and director Francois Truffaut defined an essential characteristic of what would later be called The Auteur Theory when he asserted that a,” …film would resemble the person who made it, not so much through autobiographical content, but rather through the style, which impregnates the film with the personality of its director.” (1)   Since his assertion The Auteur Theory was popularized in the United States by critic Andrew Sarris (1928 – 2012), criticized by detractors like film critic Pauline Kael (1919-2001) and eventually held in low esteem within current academic film studies and film theory.  Yet, there is a kernel of truth that remains imbedded within the spirit of the auteur theory from which it can observed that,” Intrinsically strong directors… will exhibit over the years a recognizable stylistic and thematic personality, even when they work in Hollywood studios.” (2)  

That is to say that even under the strict economic and production limitations of Hollywood studios, powerfully creative film directors will exert their stylistic and thematic obsessions often in open defiance to Box office considerations and studio pressure.  

By contrast, film scholar Robert Stam notes that, “The real scandal of the auteur theory lay not so much in glorifying the directors as the equivalent of prestige to literary authors, but rather in exactly who was granted this prestige.” (3)  And herein lays a key discriminatory concept that supports the notion of White supremacy in the cinematic art: Prestige.  While so many of us are distracted by short term first weekend box office totals, the real battle within the Global film marketplace is over the exalted ideal of Prestige.  The canonization within a majority white pantheon of a particular film, acting performance, director, producer and screenwriter as the best among their majority white industry peers and in the racially diverse eyes of world is contained and maintained within the ideal of prestige.

The gilded statuette or the golden leaf confers upon the receiver the grandeur of artistic significance above the herd of the second-best and the never mentioned.  Most importantly for the receiver of prestige is that regardless of the low box office totals for a particular film or group of films in their career, the industry has recognized the ability of an auteur to get the best out of his or her production team and actors as a mark of his or her style.  For our purposes today, we can modify the auteur theory to observe that an auteur is a filmmaker who makes the film that they want to make regardless of demographic and/or commercial box office considerations.  

For example, this year at the Academy Awards no one is holding onto 100 million dollar box office expectations for Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Morten Tyldum’s “The Imitation Game,” Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” or James Marsh’s “The Theory of Everything,” but each one of these films, along with DuVernay’s “Selma” and Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” are competing for the coveted designation of best picture.  In fact, one could say that White auteurs and those other ethnicities that make what are essentially White films like Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu are all enjoying a healthy and robust state of artistry in the sense that they can continue to make artistically challenging works with little to no regard for the box office, historical accuracy, or conventional subject matter.  

The same cannot be said for Black auteurs.

If there was a scandal concerning who got to be called an auteur within the auteur theory, then there is an even larger scandal concerning how easily prestige can be bestowed upon the works of White auteurs and how easily said prestige can be denied to Black auteurs- if anyone would dare to call them by such a term.

The ongoing controversy and dismay swirling around Ava DuVernay’s masterful and triumphant historical film “Selma” highlights several salient issues regarding the separate and unequal status of Black filmmakers working within and outside of the White controlled American Entertainment Complex.  I’d like to use these alleged controversies regarding the film and the dismay over DuVernay’s Oscar nomination snub for Best Director as illustrative of both the inherent pitfall of judging the quality of a Black film solely by its box office performance and how Black auteurs who seek prestige within the industry are forced to adhere to one unwritten cardinal rule to attain that prestige regardless to how this cardinal rule affects the historical accuracy of a film or diminishes the intrinsic dramatic and representational nature of a Black film.

Before moving forward I’d like to repeat my standard definition of a Black film which applies regardless of whether the director him or herself is Black:  The Black film is a film with a majority Black cast that situates Whites, if any, in peripheral or non-influential roles where the narrative resolves itself by giving more dramatic attention to the emotions and circumstances of the Black character(s).    Within this definition is the notion that dramatic agency (the ability to directly influence and change the dramatic circumstances within a story and survive the outcome of the circumstances) is explicitly exercised by the Black characters who are integral to the film’s plot and theme.  By contrast a White film is a film with a majority White cast or co-lead that situates Blacks and other minorities, if any, in peripheral or non-influential roles where the narrative resolves itself by giving more dramatic attention to the emotions and circumstances of the White character(s).  Dramatic agency is explicitly exercised by Whites in the White film.  

“Selma”, which recounts the events in and around Dr. Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights protest march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge from “Selma” to Montgomery Alabama and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing off on the Voting Rights act of 1965, was initially attacked by Joseph A. Califano Jr. for alleged historical inaccuracies concerning what Califano asserted was a mischaracterization of the political relationship between Dr. King and President Johnson.  Califano’s authority to make these and other assertions rests on the fact that he was President Johnson’s chief assistant of domestic affairs from 1965-1969.  

Califano emphatically claimed in a now (in)famous Washington Post Op Ed, “The Movie ‘Selma’ Has A Glaring Flaw,” that, ”Contrary to the portrait painted by ‘Selma’ Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. were partners in this effort.  Johnson was enthusiastic about Voting Rights and the President urged King to find a place like Selma and lead a major demonstration.”(4)  Another critic of the film, “LBJ Library Director Mark Updegrove said the film unfairly casts Johnson as a sort of composite character who represents the obstacles blacks faced in getting civil rights laws passed. What history shows, Updegrove said, is that Johnson and King had a partnership.”(5)  Implicit within Califano and Updegrove’s criticism is their disdain for the fact that Selma does not give the representation of President Johnson equal, if not greater, dramatic agency than the representation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the depiction of the Civil Rights movement in Selma at that time.  

The fact that DuVernay has made a Black film and that Black film gives greater dramatic agency to the historical representation of the Black characters involved within the movement than a White character somehow becomes a “glaring” historical inaccuracy that disqualifies “Selma” as an accurate filmic representation of historical events.  Never mind the fact that White historical films, since the inception of cinema, have always diminished the dramatic agency of Blacks and other races in historical representations as a means of maintaining White control over the narration of the past to justify White control over the narrative of the present. (e.g. Birth of a Nation (1915- Griffith)  The seemingly subtle change that Califano was noting in his characterization of the relationship between Dr. King and President Johnson by suggesting that it was President Johnson who,”… urged King to find a place like Selma and lead a major demonstration,” is really a grand theft that would rob the representation of Dr. King and Blacks in general of the self-determined dramatic agency that was accurate for the historical time period but offensive the those Whites who would today watch a historical film reenacting selected events of that time period.  

In short, what Califano and other White critics were arguing about in their criticism of “Selma” is the film’s lack of a White Savior character in historical representations of the Civil Rights Movement.  In fact, the White Savior character is necessary in all Black films that represent America’s horrific and tragic history of racial oppression and injustice because this seemingly benevolent character trope allows White spectators who may or may not be tacitly complicit in maintaining racial disparities/advantages/privileges a cathartic means to rehabilitate their self image in the face of powerful representations of America’s explicitly racist past.

Knowing that the majority of the voters of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences are older white males (94% are White, 76% Male and an average of 63 years of age according to one article), it stands to reason that no Black film will ever win best picture if it does not give equal or greater dramatic agency to a White savior character who has either been constructed for the film or found within the story and elevated with equal or greater dramatic agency than the Blacks who are caught within the oppressive circumstances. (6)

Historical films like Edward Zwick’s GLORY (1989), which resulted in an Academy Award for Denzel Washington in the supporting role category, to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Best supporting Actress, Best Screenplay) are Black films that have been compromised by the White Savoir trope.  The White Savior character robs the representation of Black characters of their full dramatic agency to liberate themselves from White oppression while it simultaneously soothes the moral conscious of those Whites who are watching the film of their active or tacit complicity with those oppressive circumstances as they have been carried forward systemically in our times.

It is interesting to note here that Quentin Tarantino killed off his White Savior character before the self-determined liberation of Django from his oppressive circumstances- a gutsy dramatic move that no doubt cost the film, Django Unchained, its prestige in the other categories it was nominated for outside of Best supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay.

It could be said with a high degree of certainty that no Black Film will ever win Best Picture and no Black filmmaker will ever win Best director (let alone be nominated) if they do not compromise the dramatic agency of the Black characters within their film with the construction or narrative elevation of a White Savior character.  The reason for the high degree of certainty concerning this interdiction is simple: the voters of the Motion Picture Academy are 94% White and as a result a large contingent of them lack the empathy necessary to ‘suspend disbelief’ and surrender to the narrative of a Black film where Black characters exercise full dramatic agency within the narrative.(7)  A majority of these White voters are unable or unwilling to concede full dramatic agency to Black characters in a Black historical film as they are unwilling to give up certain prejudices and stereotypes against Black people in real life.  This unwillingness to concede to Black dramatic agency and forgo deep seated internalized racial prejudices justifies their need to have a White Savior character within a Black film before they will legitimately consider any Black film and it’s filmmaker for nomination.

I hope that I can clearly describe the Catch-22 situation here: If a Black film, by my very narrow definition, is a film that has a majority Black cast with Whites and others cast in peripheral or non-influential roles, where the narrative resolves itself by giving more dramatic attention to the emotions and circumstances of the Black character(s), then it stands to reason that by giving a White Savior character equal or greater dramatic agency than the Black character(s) a film then it is no longer a Black film: it is a compromise to the illusions of White supremacy- often solely for the sake of prestige and profit.

The White Savior trope in films that reenact the historical racial oppression of Blacks by Whites (or those ethnicities who feign whiteness) degrades the historical accuracy of the minority perspective of history in that the trope forces the events of history to be motivated, influenced and/or controlled by White power.  Blacks and other minorities are generally represented in the historical film as being unable to exercise agency independent of Whites.(8)  By contrast, DuVernay’s “Selma” contests this cardinal rule of the White Savior trope and the White racial frame that most often distorts the Black perspective of historical events in the favor of Whites, White power, and White moral authority.  

Without adhering to the cardinal rule of the White Savior trope in a historical or contemporary film the coveted ideal of prestige in the form of an Academy award for Best Picture or Best Director is denied to the Black auteur.

Turning our attention to the expressed dismay over the box office performance of “Selma” vis-a-vis the astronomical box office performance of Eastwood’s American Sniper (a film that is itself the antithesis of Selma in every way) one fact that has not been addressed is the fact that “Selma” was available as a bootleg DVD in Black markets across the country at least a week before the film nationwide release.  The bootleg DVD of “Selma”, of which I have screened a copy of, has been duplicated from a corporate screener copy that is loaned to Academy voters and foreign press critics: it has a clear image, excellent sound quality and has a subtitle that indicates, ”For awards consideration only: Property of Paramount Pictures Corporation” which appears at the 9:18 time counter mark.  These three clues: clear image, excellent sound and the intellectual property subtitle are indicative of External pre-theatrical release piracy that one can trace directly to those voters or critics who thought so little of a true Black film where White dramatic agency is respectfully curtailed that they were careless in their handling of the screener copy of Selma. (9)

Of course we cannot be certain as to whether the screener copies of “Selma” were deliberately mis-handled by disinterested White academy voters, Hollywood Foreign Press voters or those few but perpetually disgruntled Black academy voters who frown upon Black independence in filmmaking and in thought.  Yet the fact remains that the film “Selma” was bootlegged to Black communities across the country and the box office totals for the film were lower than expectations as a direct result.  Bootlegging directly lowered the commercial prestige of a Black film before its artistic prestige could be fully appreciated.

Under the prevalence of the External pre-theatrical release bootlegging of Black films which makes a major impact upon the domestic box office of Black films that themselves are often segregated from the global marketplace where most White films recoup the box office losses from piracy, it is extremely unreliable to use box office totals as a determining factor in the quality or popularity of a Black film.

Instead perhaps the quality of a Black film can be determined by the filmmaker’s deliberate ability to retain, guard and/or increase the dramatic agency of the Black character(s) to directly influence, change and survive the circumstances within a particular film.  This alternate method of determining the quality of a Black film is proposed in response to the fact that Black filmmakers are forced to create within the framework of a White controlled Entertainment system and therefore the ability to retain, guard and/or increase Black dramatic agency within a film is the most contested artistic concept of cinematic representation.  I am reminded of Black actor and icon Fred Williamson and his contractual restrictions for any Hollywood film that he would perform in:  “One, You can’t kill me; Two, I got to win all my fights in the movie; Three I get the girl at the end of the movie if I want her.”(10)  Regardless of the intransigent patriarchy imbued within Williamson’s restrictions what this actor, director, producer was really doing in the early Seventies was that he was attempting to retain, guard and increase his dramatic agency should he appear in a White Hollywood film.  One could think of Williamson’s three contractual restrictions as a powerful form of anti-tokenism in an era where Blacks were often used as tokens of racial diversity in a heavily prejudiced film industry.   

How much has this tokenism changed today for Black actors appearing in White films?  In this respect if Williamson truly wanted Black dramatic agency within a film he would have to make the films himself, which indeed he did.

So what is the state of the Black auteur today?  The Black auteur has to fight a creative war on two fronts.  One front is against the White controlled Entertainment Industry which uses a panoply of weapons to force the Black auteur to concede to the illusions of White supremacy.  From screen ratios, external bootlegging, critiques of historical accuracy, ratings denials, budget restrictions, segregation from the global marketplace all the way to the forced inclusion of a White Savior character, the White controlled Entertainment Industry exerts an enormous amount of pressure on the Black auteur to not make a Black film where Black characters retain, guard or increase their dramatic agency within a narrative.  The final weapon of the American Entertainment Complex can use against a Black auteur if they persist in making the film that they want to make without regard to demographics, commercial box office and the cardinal rule of the White savior trope is the denial of prestige in the form of national and international awards.

That Ava DuVernay was able to complete “Selma” on her own terms of artistic integrity in the face of inevitable White criticism is a testament to the quality of the film made under the auspices of a White controlled industry and her undeniable strength as an auteur.

The second front upon which the Black auteur must fight is the rampant bootlegging of Black films within the Black community that is often aided and abetted by industry insiders who attempt to sabotage promising Black films and filmmakers so that Whites might retain their monopoly on dramatic agency within cinematic narration and their monopoly of the ideal of prestige.  

Indeed, the state of the Black auteur is one of constant struggle where prestige is often denied.   But it is the defiance of the Black artist to complete their vision of full Black dramatic agency that has its own prestige in the path created so that others might follow.

(1) Page. 84, Film Theory: An Introduction by Robert Stam, Blackwell; Malden, 2001.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Page. 87, Op Cit.


(5) See: Historian Questions Accuracy of ‘Selma’

(6) See the Altantic article: Oscar Voters 94% White, 76% Men and an Average of 63 Years Old

(7) See previous article: Why White People Don’t Like Black Movies in the book (DISMANTLING) The Greatest Lie Ever Told to the Black Filmmaker by Andre Seewood

(8) This conclusion provides a cogent explanation as to why Danny Glover’s long delayed passion project on Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution can’t get funding and why the French film of the Haitian Revolution by Phillippe Niang hasn’t been released in the United States.  See:  and  

(9) For a more detailed discussion of External and Internal Bootlegging please see the article: Bootlegging and the Plot Against African-American Film in the book, (DISMANTLING) The Greatest Lie Ever Told to the Black Filmmaker by Andre Seewood

(10) See the entire interview with Fred Williamson:

Andre Seewood is author of  “(Dismantling) The Greatest Lie Ever Told To The Black Filmmaker.” Pick up a copy here

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