Serving The Story, Part Deux: Selma

by Yuleisy Michel Audain

I have been rather ill for the last week, and while in my bed I was dealing over the fact that I couldn’t breathe right, I couldn’t stop getting these thoughts out of my head. I mentioned in my first post, many moons ago over my first encounter with Ava Duvernay’s Selma and the impact that it made me feel because of how she structured the movie and the encounters leading  Martin Luther King’s trajectory.

Still, to this day I am surprised as how to it took me this far to talk about Selma and the interactions that it did to me as an audience member, how the first few moments of the movie made me tear up, as if I just lost someone very dear to me. The reason why this resonates with me is her homage to the assassination of the devastated murder of the four little girls in the 16th street Baptist Church bombings, the staring point where Reverend King began his trajectory as the icon that we all know.  

In one of the few but very powerful images that Selma conveys the assassination of the infamous four little girls while being in an environment that is meant to be safe. In the early morning of September 15th 1963, these girls were on their way to change into their chorus robes where their lives were taken from them.

In an interview with NPR, DuVernay speaks of this extreme, yet powerful statement that she made to the world. She explains that “ [I] was approaching it from my point of view as a woman filmmaker: The idea of showing a bombing, showing a blast, showing any kind of detonation might be different from that of a male director who might be more interested — and this is just based on what I’ve seen for many, many years — might be more interested in the physicality of the blast, the gusto of that violence. I was much more interested in reverence for the girls. It was important to me that you hear their voices.”

She also explains that “ They’re talking about what little black girls talk about — getting your hair wet and keeping it pressed and doing all that kind of thing. You start to come into their world just as they are taken out of the world. And so from there, what is the next thing to show? Is it shrapnel? Is it fire? For me it was the fabric of their dresses and their patent leather shoes, all of the things that remain from the souls that were lost.” Not only DuVernay’s approach not only comes from a filmmaker, it’s her duty as the director to bring, but also she shares her womanhood in a time where style and discreet talk gets completely changed at the sake of racist intentions. To change such a topic in a matter of seconds takes a lot of emotion and change of mood.

I remember seeing this happening and me unconsciously saying “no no” until the smoke was the last thing I saw. It was surreal, it was something as simple but deadly that changed the perspective that the movie could have ever happened. I wanted to do something, anything that could help them to not go through such suffering but when the explosion occurred, my running thoughts just went to what everything turned into, black.

It’s not easy to see such images. Immediately, my tears couldn’t stop and I could contain the emotions that were running through me. What captivates me to this it’s not only what happened, and how Duvernay’s way of showing the images, but the way that she positioned such images to her advantages. She decided to hit us with a hard, cold punch of emotions that left me, and many more in that same devastation that reminded me the first time that I encountered the history behind the four little girls.

My First encounter with this specific impact of how this story captivated me not only as an audience member, but as a woman is Spike Lee’s Four little girls, where I encountered while I was taking a class of his works. This out of all of his films attracted me, because the ways and style of how the documentary film aimed to show  the stories of the girls and the families, it ultimately made me connected to these girls in a way that I never thought I would.

In an interview with the Hollywood reporter, Lee explains that “ The most trying moment I had was in post-production, when our great archivist Judy Aley had found post-mortem photographs of four girls, which were gruesome. And many nights, I prayed at night. It was a conflict. Should I include these shots or not? And finally, the Spirit told me to include it.” These decisions, strike you as odd but can become of extreme conflict when a director has to choose that would impact audiences that like to me, where significant to the impact that these four little girls made in my life.  Lee’s spirit is the voice in our minds that helps us choose in times of conflict, where such choice affects your film either in a good or bad way. Either way, that choice is hard.

DuVernay in the 2 minutes of the film already has me crying and this is not fair. You usually lure the audience to see that this is important to watch because, but she attracts you and smacks you cold, using that to your advantage to present that what we are going to see, it’s not just some rendition of an event, but the little stories that fueled a man to keep pushing while having what it felt the whole world against him. She showed such an important man and his struggle to keep it together amidst all what’s going on, and how his life and most important, his family where at the eye of the storm.

A while back, I wrote about this worry, this face that we as people of color filmmakers have to fill in order to serve the story, but at what cost we are sacrificing our work? Ava, the dear that she is responds with the most simple yet powerful statement that implies towards the service that we must do and she does, she explains to just simply , but powerfully serve the story. To just serve it without worry and all else just will come after.

Denise MCnair Carole Robertson Addie Mae Collins Cynthia Wesley were the names of these little girls who impacted my way of being and that are the example of loosing young lives at the hands of people who want to do malicious things to prove a point. The innocent needs to be protected and we have a duty to always, serve the story.