#editorsletter is an editor’s letter with a hashtag in front of it.
I watched Selma last week. I usually make it a habit of mine to watch all things Oscars related in February, when deadlines are next to non existent and spirits high, but sometimes life happens and you find yourself catching up with these things (translation: procrastinating with these things) when deadlines are a plenty and spirits, well…not so high. Waffle aside – I watched Selma last week and was lost for words.
For those of you who haven’t seen the film, ‘it’s a historical drama based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by James Bevel, Hosea Williams, Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis’. *thanks wikipedia* The marches were held in order to gain black American citizens the right to vote unencumbered and the film interprets everything from the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and the president Lyndon B. Johnson’s reluctance to change U.S. legislation to the murders of both black citizens and white allies during the marches and the eventual passing of a bill to eliminate U.S. restrictions held on voting.
It covers a lot in 128 minutes and it proves itself to be a brilliant film – thanks firstly to Ava DuVernay’s superb direction, secondly to an incredible ensemble performance and thirdly to its content. The opening scene in which four funny, young, black girls disappear at a moment’s notice had me cry before I even had a chance to sit down. There was no sugarcoating with this film and it struck a nerve.
Selma didn’t just strike a nerve with me, as a film, however – it struck a nerve with me as an important piece of culture in relation to our times. The historic events it depicts are in the past but the themes it explores are evident in our present. The racism it documents is not something that we can dismiss to times gone by but something which we need to address right now. One need only look at the unrest in Ferguson as a result of Darren Wilson’s killing prior to the release of the film and the unrest going on in Baltimore today in relation to Freddie Gray’s death to see that, not only does racism still lay embedded within the Western world, but people of all shades are still sick of it and we are still demanding change.
Come on world.
The fact that the majority of mainstream media in the U.S. concerning the unrest in Baltimore has referred to the goings on as ‘riots’ and labeled the predominantly black perpetrators of property damage and violence in the city as ‘thugs’ is perhaps one of the ways in which this ongoing racism is most evident. Via this lazy misuse of labels and people preaching for those in Baltimore to protest peacefully, the context of why people have been acting out with violence in response to Freddie Gray’s death is being ignored.
To echo the words of thousands of people clapping back at the situation – it is, as a result of the continued oppression of people of colour that these ‘riots’ have taken place in the first place. The fact that these words of MLK still ring true today goes to show just how s**t things still are:
‘I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.’Martin Luther King Jr.
And it’s not something which those of us outside of the U.S. can ignore. Not only because of globalisation but because of the racism present and embedded in our own home turfs. Just looking at Europe there are so many simple facts related to each country which allude to a systematic racism that exists within each. Take a look at the recent Miss France pageant in which all the contestants from French colonial islands were of colour and all the contestants from mainland France were white. Take a look at the oft ignored black, immigrant vendors who flood the streets of Italian cities. Take a look at the Wikipedia page containing the depressingly short list of all MPs of ethnic minorities who’ve ever stood for parliament in the UK. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that something is still wrong with race-relations in the Western world.
Even if we look past the realities of racism in each of our respective societies and to our culture, it’s clear that even expression is being restricted by the racism of today. Culture can provide and present us with an alternate reality, and yet much of western culture today simply reflects how whitewashed the Western world still is. The fact that Rihanna is the first spokeswoman of colour for Christian Dior is exciting but it’s also f**king depressing. The fact that Malorie Blackman’s best-selling black-led teen-fiction series Noughts and Crosses hasn’t received the film treatment of say The Hunger Games or Twilight is disappointing to say the least. The fact that it is hard to imagine the lead roles of Cake, Still Alice, Wild – all brilliant films of this past year – be given to women of colour is a problem. The fact that black mid-noughties popular R&B artists such as Ciara, Ashanti and Brandy have seen their sales dwindle and the genre they master lose popularity – is evidence that there’s a racial elephant in the room, which we still need to address.
CiCi’s still working it – why are relatively few people still listening?
If we return to Selma this societal and cultural racism is evident. Not only was the film snubbed at awards ceremonies but its box office success – although impressive ($62 million) – was a fraction of many of the white-led films up for awards this season. You could say that this is due to the seriousness of Selma’s content but then American Sniper, a film about the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history, grossed $542.3 million. Why is it that a critically acclaimed black-led film failed to make a fifth of a critically acclaimed white-led film? Yes there are reasons other than racism which have contributed to the fairly modest commercial output of Selma but it’s hard to imagine that racism didn’t play a part in it’s relative success. 12 Years a Slave, another black-led film, managed to make $187.7 million at the box office last year but it’s hard not to wonder whether that’s in part due to the famous white members of its cast. Both Michael Fassbander and Brad Pitt starred in 12 Years a Slave; whereas, a white actor of their level of fame did not feature in Selma.
And I suppose this is where the real crux of the problem lies – producers still rely on white actors to sell films. Culture still predominantly relies on ‘whiteness’ to be successful. For every Denzel Washington, there is a Bradley Cooper, George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey etc. The number of universally acclaimed actors of colour are few in comparison to their white counterparts.
This film was made to educate white people and yet I wonder how many white people have watched it.
It is oft assumed that white people sell and people of colour don’t – but how f**ked up does that sound when you say it out loud? We live in a society in which people of colour are encouraged to consume white media and idolise white people and in which white people are not encouraged to do the same vice versa. Culture Editor at Buzzfeed UK, Bim Adewunmi, put it brilliantly: ‘Everything all-white is for everybody, but all-black things are reserved for black people (unless it is being Columbused as the “new” thing).’
When I was younger my brother teased me for listening to predominantly black female singers – at the time he found it odd that I, a white boy, would listen to people so apparently different from me. However, these black women spoke to me. In spite of our differences their respective works marked me – and so can they any white person. As soon as you discard of prejudice towards a group of people, be it conscious or subconscious, you can almost instantaneously recognise yourself within the individuals within them.
Perhaps if the media stopped labelling and portraying black people as some sort of ‘other’ – the response to the unrest in Baltimore would be different and maybe even the discrepancies between police interactions with white people and police interactions with black people would begin to disappear.
This joke, like many great jokes, is funny because it’s based on a sad, sad truth.
Question whether the majority of culture you consume is white. Question how many of your idols aren’t white. Question what exists in our society that is encouraging the systematic racism created by generations of white people to continue today. If you find that your way of life leaves little room for diversity, seek to change it. Read books by authors who aren’t white, find people of colour to admire (beyond Beyoncé, Obama, Oprah) and call out racism where you see it. Simply by supporting and valuing culture that isn’t created by white people – you are listening to and supporting the voices of people too often unheard and encouraging those in power to listen to them and promote them in the work they produce and create too.
It is not racist to actively seek culture created by people of colour but it is racist to actively ignore it.
* * *
Over the past few months Prancing Through LIFE contributors have spoken out about matters varying from: living with a facial birthmark and online takedowns to sexual assault and disability among other things. However, we started this season of PTL with a focus on race and racism. Our launch week featured only articles concerning race and our kickass FILM, THEATRE & TV Editor, Hannah Oliver, created a #blackonblack feature in which black people speak up about black experiences. The feature remains ever relevant and important. Just take a look at our most recent #blackonblack article, Rianna Walcott’s ‘The Paradox of Race‘ – it’s so brilliant I can’t do it justice with words.
These stories need to be told. These voices need to be heard. If we’re ever going to prevent the unrest in Baltimore and Ferguson happening again, we need to listen to those oppressed and act in favour of change.
‘Justice for all just ain’t specific enough.’ – Common
When PTL returns we are going to move our focus from race to gender identity. With Bruce Jenner’s coming out as trans to book publisher, Scholastic’s, decision to stop labelling books as ‘for boys’ and ‘for girls’ – the question of gender and what it means to be a boy and what it means to be a girl could not be more relevant. Just like with race relations: gender stereotypes and gender related problems plague Western societies. However, just because our focus is shifting from one important topic to another does not mean that the discussion of race is over, nor does it mean that we’ve stopped using PTL as platform to celebrate the things we love, as well as the things with which we take issue. The conversation continues – and, perhaps most importantly, the topics crossover in a myriad of varying different ways.
So if you’d like to write something on gender/race or anything that inspires or aggravates you for PTL – please do not hesitate to contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org. As MLK said: ‘a riot is the language of the unheard’ and we at PTL aim to provide a space for people of all walks of life to be heard.
Today, as we sign off for our break, we are publishing a final piece. It concerns marriage equality and the impending referendum in Ireland. Please take the time to read it; it deserves to be heard.
Sam is the Editor-in-Chief of PTL. He likes adapting surnames into brand names and pretending to be professional. His possibility model is Janet Mock and he turns to Beyoncé interviews for guidance on the regular. Sam tries to make out that he has his shit together but more often than not can be found crying watching Desperate Housewives reruns. Some episodes are really sad okay.
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(Image sourced from: here)
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