When pioneering historian Carter G. Woodson began Negro History Week commemorations in 1926, the field of black history barely registered among professional historians. In the twenties, historians were more apt to blame African Americans for the tragedy of the Civil War and the failures of Reconstruction than to investigate them as significant historical actors whose lives and aspirations directly addressed the founding principles of the United States. Not until the 1970s did black or later, African American Studies become a distinctive element in higher education, an exclamation point to the more visible civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Black filmmaking was just getting underway in the 1920s as well. Oscar Micheaux and a few others began countering racial stereotypes found in mainstream cinema (most dramatically in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation) by making movies themselves, creating a niche independent cinema that soon would develop its own market for films made by and for black people. They appropriated melodrama, the western, and other genres before World War II. Black cinema was the equivalent of the Negro Leagues–created by segregation, it was nevertheless something black Americans could claim as their own.
By the time Black History Month came into being in the 1970s, black independent cinema was going through an important phase. Beyond the so-called blaxploitation films–some of them actually directed by important black filmmakers such as Ossie Davis and Gordon Parks–film school graduates such as Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep) and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust) blazed new trails and inspired up-and-comers like Spike Lee.
These strands of black history and black filmmaking come together in Ava DuVernay’s 2014 feature Selma, her Golden Globe and Academy Award- nominated retelling of the dramatic events in Selma, Alabama in 1965 that spurred passage of the Voting Rights Act. DuVernay’s powerful rendering of this significant civil rights campaign will be shown Thursday, February 21, at 7 p.m. at CSU Fullerton’s Humanities Building as part of the Phi Alpha Theta (History Honors Society) Film Series. I will be on hand to introduce the film and lead discussion afterward.
DuVernay’s film debuted two years after the United States Supreme Court struck down important elements of the Voting Rights Act, opening the gates to a flood of state laws designed to restrict voting under the pretext of combating (barely existent) voter fraud. Selma showed a small but dramatic part of the price paid by African Americans to gain and maintain the vote. In our time, efforts to combat voting restrictions and partisan gerrymandering gain strength from remembering past struggles. Selma is a reminder that in a democracy, there is no more important cause.