‘Is There a Problem?’ That Scary Brown Man And White Privilege
By GYASI ROSS • JAN 9, 2015
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Gyasi Ross, writer and lawyer.
COURTESY GYASI ROSS
Last year, I had a big business meeting in New York and a reading for my new book, “How to Say I Love You in Indian,” at the American Indian Community House in Midtown Manhattan.
For some inexplicable reason, some television folks were interested in me doing television work. Look, I’m from the rez – we’re hunter-gatherers. If someone is willing to give me free food and an opportunity to provide for my family and me, I’m definitely going to be there. The lunch meeting was at noon. I usually fly red-eyes so I can tuck my son into bed and spend as much time with him before I leave. This time, however, I wanted to be well-prepared and rested, so I flew the night before.
First half of the flight was cool. I wore my comfortable flying clothes – camouflage sweats, camouflage sweatshirt, braids and a skullcap.
It was on Southwest, which I’ve flown a million times, simply because they sometimes have cheaper flights and, most importantly, I didn’t have to pay separately for bags. I know that I still pay for them, but it’s just not a separate charge. I appreciate that.
First leg of the flight was from Seattle to Chicago. No problem – I got off the plane for my four-hour layover (seriously) and got an all-beef dog at Chicago O’Hare.
Then the second leg of my flight. Ugh.
I had a backpack and a small duffel bag. I was in the “C” boarding group, so I knew that I was getting a middle seat. Guaranteed.
When I got on, there was a seat in the very first row – it was a middle seat. I knew I was going to get screwed on the seating, so I figured why not sit in the front of the plane? At least I’d be first to get off the plane.
In the front row was a middle-aged white couple (Sarah Jessica Parker-type middle aged, where they tried to dress like they weren’t quickly approaching AARP-status). The woman sat in the window seat and the man was in the aisle seat, holding a baby. They were being slick (like I do as well) and had a pile of stuff in the middle seat pretending it was occupied and hoping nobody would sit there.
I know the game – I’m not mad.
I asked, “Excuse me, is somebody sitting there?”
The lady responded, “Yes, I’m waiting for a friend. She’s supposed to be boarding.”
I was pretty sure she was lying. Under normal circumstances, I would have just taken the seat – this is Southwest Airlines, for God’s sake – there’s no saving seats. Southwest Airlines is PURE social Darwinism. Every person for themselves! But since I wasn’t getting a good seat anyway, and I was at the very end of the boarding group, I decided to wait.
“OK, cool,” I said. “I’ll wait here to see if your friend gets on.”
The last person boarding – another middle-aged white woman – got on. The window seat lady literally grabbed her and asked her to sit there. I’ll call that lady “The Recruit.”
I smirked and told her, “You don’t know that lady at all – ha! You lied. You realize how rude that is right?”
She responded, “That’s not rude.”
I said, “OK, well I suppose that’s just you then.” And smile at her.
The Recruit got up QUICKLY and strolled toward the back – evidently she had zero interest in this discussion and saw more fertile ground in the back of the plane.
I put my bags up above and went to sit down. The man scooted over to the middle seat, chivalrously. No problem – until there was a problem.
The wife pointed at me and said to her husband, loudly, “I don’t want him sitting there.”
I looked at her to make sure I heard her correctly. “Don’t look at me,” she said.
White privilege is the inherent suspicion that people of color – and predominately men of color – are doing something wrong. Big black men and big brown men are presumed guilty. All the time.
Damn, I couldn’t believe that. Adrenaline rushed through me. I said, “Look, you have no input into where I sit or where I look.”
I sat down and got my MP3 player ready to play some Marty Robbins. I knew the drill – I’ve been trained since I was a kid: “You’re a big brown guy – don’t be too scary. Don’t be too big. Don’t be too brown.”
We’re taught these things for our own safety and to get along.
And I was cool – but before I pressed play on my Sony MP3 player, the husband – all 5-foot-5 and probably 125 pounds told me, “You need to shut your mouth!”
For a woman to tell me something rude, that’s one thing. I’m not going to clobber a woman for a rude remark. But this guy – let’s be clear, he would never talk to me like that under any other circumstances. Ever. But he was feeling bold or threatened or insecure or something and turned what were simply words into possibly a really bad situation.
I got really close to him and said, “Look, you know this plane ride is going end at some point, right? You have to get off this plane.”
He shut up. But his wife didn’t. “You can’t sit there,” she said.
By this time, I was really mad. Not at the lady, necessarily, but that this grown man would talk to another grown man like this and expect no response. “I’m not moving anyplace so if you don’t want to sit by me, I suggest you move.”
Just then the captain came out. I was elated. Yes! I don’t like feeling like I have to run and tell anybody anything, but I also don’t want to get thrown in jail for stomping this dude into the luggage area below the plane. So I was happy to see an objective person. But unfortunately, that’s not how it went down.
The captain looked at only me. “Is there a problem?”
I said, “Well, this lady right here told me that she doesn’t want me sitting here for whatever reason and her husband tells me to shut my mo– ”
The captain interrupted me. “Well, I only hear you.”
I said, “I understand – I have a loud voice, that’s why I’m telling you what happened. Ask any of the folks sitting here –” I pointed to the people staring at us. He didn’t ask anybody anything. Instead, his focus was squarely on me.
Captain: “You need to lower your voice. Do you want to take the next flight?”
(Admittedly, I DO have a loud voice, and I WAS agitated by this time. I think that was understandable.)
Me: “No, I don’t want to – I’m telling you what happened.”
Captain: “Well I only hear you out here hollering.”
Me: “Well, I suggest that you have selective hearing.”
Captain (staring me down): “Oh, now you want to get in MY face?”
I was a bit confused because that implied that I had gotten in someone else’s face. Maybe he meant he thought I had gotten in the husband’s face?
He didn’t wait for my response. “I suggest you quiet down before you take the next flight,” he said.
I was stewing. But I knew I couldn’t take the next flight – that would not have been until the next morning, and I would have missed my important meeting. I don’t have a lot of very important meetings – I’m not a very important guy – so I didn’t want to miss one of the only ones that I’ve had.
When I got to baggage claim, a couple of younger white guys sitting behind me came up to me (one of them was from Hicksville on Long Island in New York. I laughed when he told me that – I thought he was joking): “That was bullshit. I told the captain afterward that everything happened exactly like you said.”
Made the meeting. Thankfully. Made a complaint on the Southwest Airlines website. They responded with an incredibly condescending email that said that they were sorry for my “less than pleasant” experience on the plane (it wasn’t “less than pleasant” – it was humiliating).
I couldn’t do anything or I would have been thrown off the plane or provoked into physical conflict – in the same way cops provoke men of color by staring us down and asking if we have a problem and other rhetorical questions intended only to provoke.
The email also stated, as a matter of fact, “As you know, our Pilot did not hear any other Passengers, which is why he only addressed his question to you.” (No, I have absolutely no reason to know that – I do know that he only addressed me). Also, the captain flat-out lied and said that he asked me to lower my voice twice before asking if I wanted to take another flight – not true. Finally, the email said, in ABC after-school special speak:
“We realize that sometimes it’s not what you say, but how you say it, and we apologize that you feel as if our Pilot could have used a more patient and professional tone when intervening in the exchange between you and the Customers in question.”
This is just insulting: As if my problem was with the captain’s TONE. No, it was that he didn’t ask anybody else a single question before singling me out and asking me if I wanted to take another flight, and then stood staring at me as if I were supposed to stand down from his authority (which I did, by the way, because I had to make the flight. I would have loved to have three minutes alone with that captain in a small room).
The window seat lady clearly did not like something about the way I looked – she made up her mind before we exchanged any words. I smelled good (or as good as I could) – I showered that morning and wasn’t in any way offensive with my clothing (I wasn’t wearing a T-shirt with swear words or anything like that). Perhaps it was the camouflage – looked terrorist-ish? Maybe it was the braids or long “Native” earrings? Maybe it was the huge Native guy in braids and camouflage?
Either way, after being overwhelmingly gracious and waiting for her to find her “friend,” the lady’s first words about me (to her husband) were, “I don’t want him sitting there.” For the life of me, I cannot think what would have caused her to say something like that about me other than an inherent dislike.
Moreover, the man felt completely comfortable telling me, “You need to shut your mouth.”
I don’t think it’s possible to see a stranger as a human being and talk to them like that. They didn’t see me as a human. I was something less. I’m not overly sensitive – sometimes people are just rude. No racism, no sexism, no anything other than everyday mundane rude behavior.
This was different.
White privilege is different than racism. I don’t THINK the Captain was racist. But he had a very bad case of white privilege. Southwest Airlines emboldened that privilege by white-washing (see what I did there?) his behavior.
White privilege is the inherent suspicion that people of color – and predominately men of color – are doing something wrong. Big black men and big brown men are presumed guilty. All the time.
At my first jury trial, the young white prosecutor came into the courtroom where I was in my suit and practicing my cross-examination. She asked, very politely, “Excuse me sir, are you waiting for your attorney?”
It’s similar to when the pundits and armchair analysts during the George Zimmerman trial assumed that Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager he killed, HAD to be doing something wrong when he walked to the store. There are countless other examples.
The captain may have heard just me – that may be true. Nonetheless, it seems that in the pursuit of finding a resolution, he should have asked a question or two instead of simply cutting me off and threatening to throw me off the plane.
He had me by the balls: I couldn’t do anything or I would have been thrown off the plane or provoked into physical conflict – in the same way cops provoke men of color by staring us down and asking if we have a problem and other rhetorical questions intended only to provoke.
A huge Native guy in camouflage was arguing with a clean-cut white couple (and a white captain). Three guesses who started that one.
The white couple didn’t have to think about any of that. They didn’t have to think about appearing TOO big or TOO brown or TOO Native or anything other than simply enjoying their flight.
Look, I’m not special. This shit happens every day. Most of us are bullied into not saying anything, like I was by the captain.
“Is there a problem?” he wanted to know. But answer the question honestly, and you won’t make your flight or you might be detained. That’s privilege.
Unfortunately, my example is an EXTREMELY mild version of that privilege; I’m quite lucky that all I had to do was swallow my pride. It doesn’t even compare to other times where brown men and women are “presumed guilty,” which leads to brothers and sisters and mothers and aunts beat down, pepper sprayed and thrown in jail for choosing to answer that question honestly instead of swallowing their tongue.
I know of stories where cops literally got into men’s face – cheek to cheek, daring them to fight – trying to con them into responding.
We know EXACTLY what would happen if that big man of color gave the response that he wanted.
I couldn’t tell the captain the truth when he asked me what tens of thousands of police officers, Bureau of Indian Affairs agents, slave overseers and teachers have asked helpless and muted people of color, “Is there a problem?”
Hell, yes, there’s a problem.
This story was originally published at Indian Country Media Network on Jan. 27, 2014.
Gyasi Ross (@bigindiangyasi) is a member of the Blackfeet Nation and the Suquamish Nation. He lives on the Port Madison Indian Reservation, home of the Suquamish Nation near Seattle. Both are his Homelands and he loves being in his Homelands. He is a father to an amazing and rotten little boy, an author who writes for online and print publications and also who writes books and sometimes bad comedy. He is also a lawyer and a filmmaker. Most of all, he is a storyteller and comes from a long line of storytellers. His website: http://www.gyasi-ross.com.
The Seattle Story Project: First-person reflections published at KUOW.org. These are essays, stories told on stage, photos and zines. To submit a story – or note one you’ve seen that deserves more notice – contact Isolde Raftery at email@example.com or 206-616-2035.
Teen Girls’ Slam Poetry On ‘The Queen Latifah Show’ Is The Powerful Thing You Need To Hear Today — VIDEO
Belissa Escobedo, Rhiannon McGavin, an
Belissa Escobedo, Rhiannon McGavin, and Zariya Allen recited a jaw-dropping poem called “Somewhere in America” on the since-canceled The Queen Latifah Show. The young women, part of the LA-based nonprofit Get Lit, called to attention the information passed along unintentionally in this country’s classrooms. Spoiler alert: it gets pretty real.
The trio of teenage girls start the poem ominously: “The greatest lessons you will ever teach us, you won’t even remember.” From there, they jump into fairly controversial, dark topics like rape, race, gun control, socioeconomics, and censorship. Emotions rage so hard in the three-and-a-half-minute piece, occasionally you can spot a small vocal crack in the performance, but that just lends more validation to the truth they kept spouting. ”Somewhere in America,” ushers in the hard-to-hear stuff, ”Women are killed for rejecting dates, but God forbid I bring my girlfriend to prom.” Another: “The preppy kids go thrifting because they think it sounds fun. But we go ‘cause that’s all we’ve got money for.”
The episode, also guest featuring feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem, was meant to highlight female empowerment. However, the young voices seemed to lend strength and raise serious questions across the board, regardless of gender identity. Get Lit says they hope to “change the world, one word at a time.” We believe, given this performance, that’s entirely possible.
Escobedo, McGavin, and Allen have performed their poem in front of thousands of people, including a coveted opening slot for a sold-out John Legend concert at the Hollywood Bowl last fall. They cite real-life, personal experiences and Jay Z’s social commentary as inspiration for the piece. “I think poetry is the best way to express emotions…” McGavin says, “It’s an amazing way to help people, especially teens.” Hear hear.
Image: The Queen Latifah Show
US police are allowed to confiscate property without having to secure a conviction or obtain a warrant. It also helps finance police departments across the country. And there’s even a certain wish list. Cash and expensive cars are the most wanted, when officers pull drivers over for sometimes minor violations. Flat screen TVs are also popular. And, if you are unlucky enough, you could even lose your house to the cops.
Thanks to Max Parthas of “Abolisitionist Radio” for sharing this. He commented, ” We tried to tell you these “cops” are robbing people blind. Entire counties budgets are funded by search and seizures. SWAT teams in Mass. have even become 501c3 non profit corporations. On New Abolitionists Radio we’ve reported extensively on police in FLA who are getting nearly 200 thousand dollar a year salaries boosted up by search and seizure acquisitions. Where do you think the money to buy all these new military toys comes from?”
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
I want to respond to a question that was posed: where we go from here when far too many Black people are in the theological and Christological grip of white right wing Christians. Chip Berlet, author and political, analyst calls this group the theocrats. He tells us, “Theocrats support a form of government where the actions of leaders are seen as sanctioned by God-where the leaders claim that they are carrying out God’s will.” This is a very dangerous claim that gives divine meaning and sanction to their actions no matter how racist, sexist, militaristic or homophobic. Moreover, this brand of Christofacism is designed to shut down critique by creating one legitimate Christian voice. Without a doubt for theocrats, the legitimate Christian voice is white, and more than likely a heterosexual male.
Berlet goes on to tell us that theocrats promote a brand of Christianity that proclaims, “People are basically sinful and must be restrained by harsh punitive laws. Social problems are caused by satanic conspiracies aided and abetted by liberals, homosexuals, feminists and secular humanists. These forces must be exposed and neutralized. “They see themselves in a holy war against the forces of evil and conspirators who are determined to destroy the divine destiny of the white American Empire. However, they do not see all white men as standard bearers for the Empire. Nor do they mean people of color when they use the term American Empire.
As we move forward in this reflection, it is critical that we make a distinction between Empire Christianity and Liberation Christianity. Empire Christianity beats in the veins and hearts of theocrats and their Reconstructionist allies. It is essential to realize that conservatism stands in direct opposition to the mission of Jesus which is a radical call to “turn the society upside down” and create a just society.
Liberation Christianity begins with the assertion that God is on the side of the oppressed rather than the side of the Empire. This is the good news of the radical Jew Jesus who challenged the Roman Empire. Jesus made clear the radical nature of his mission: (1) to bring sight to the blind, i.e. to bring a new consciousness that freed his community and others from the false consciousness of identifying with the goals of the Roman Empire; (2) to feed the hungry, i.e. a systemic redistribution of resources that is not charity, but systemic economic justice; and (3) to set the prisoners free, i.e., a recognition that the Empire uses law and order as tools of oppression and domination.
This message of liberation galvanized the Southern Freedom Movement in the United States, South African liberation movement, and liberation movements around the world. It is a dynamic message that changes the status quo and rearranges our relationship with God and others. It is a justice message of non violence. It is a message that reminds us that we are not entrapped by history. We have the collective power to free ourselves from the bonds of a tyrannical state. It reminds us that we have the power to make a new history and a new world. The view of our collective power challenges the notion that history begins and ends with the Empire.
For the Tea Party members and their allies God is the keeper of the status quo. Theirs is a cynical status quo view of God that allows them to be “on the wrong side of history and issues” without taking moral responsibility for their actions. Their God talk also obscures the nature of their radical wrongs by hiding behind liberation and freedom sounding language that they stole from the Southern Freedom Movement and other popular struggles for justice.
The Empire religion espoused by the Tea Party and their white Christian conservative allies and their misled colored allies is headed by a white supremacist patriarchal upper class God who stood on the side of enslavement and the genocide of native peoples throughout the globe, including North and South America. Their God issued a direct order to destroy the Iraqi people and their culture. In their eyes, Iraq is a pagan Babylonian culture that worships a false God. They root their religion in an over and against paradigm that tears down the world and relationships, gobble up resources and relationship. Although they claim to stand for law and order, they operate from a theology of chaos where God summons them that to tears down the world rather than build it up.
Like their forefathers, right wing and conservative militaristic, white supremacist, and homophobic Christians believe that God is on their side and gives them the theological authority to build an oppressive white supremacist patriarchal world. They misuse scripture to justify this, and they hide their intentions behind self-centered and pious God talk that under girds and propels exclusion and domination whether it is about the inferiority of women, black people or lesbians and gays.
Nor is their Jesus the Jesus who wept over the oppression and suffering of his people. Nor is there Jesus the Jesus who came from a colonized community where the Roman Empire used violent measures to stifle unrest and resistance. Or the Jesus who was executed by the Roman Empire for proclaiming that God and not the Empire owns the world or the people in it. This Jesus who acted in history for those people whom the Empire minimized moved generations of enslaved Black people to assert, in the face of an Empire that said they were property without any civil or spiritual rights, “I have a right to the tree of life.”
What Black Christian conservatives must understand is that the God of the Empire can never be our God. Nor can their Jesus be our Jesus. Nor can their Empire Theology or Christology be ours. The Empire Jesus is their emissary and the messenger of war and oppression. For them, Jesus is not as the Black old folk understood, a poor little shepherd boy, outcast and belonging to a people whose backs were “up against the wall.”
The next step is to unveil the lies of White Christian Conservatives so that Black folk understand that these lesbian and gay hating folk come out the same tradition of the people who broke and battered Emmett Till’s fourteen-year-old body and threw it into the Tallahatchie River. Their teachings birthed and fermented the hatred that poisoned the minds and spirits of the killers of Samuel Younge and Jonathan Daniels. Their God can never be our God. Nor can their theology or Christology be ours. They are inheritors of a Biblical tradition that believed that Black oppression was ordained by God because of a curse where God proclaims, “Canaan shall be the lowest of slaves to his brothers.”
We must unveil their hypocrisy and slight of theological hands by remembering that these right wing conservatives barred Martin Luther King, Jr. and other southern freedom workers from the doors of white churches even as they proclaimed their connection with God. They stand today in the doorways of Christian academies and universities like Bob Jones University. In these spaces Christian conservatives still see Blacks as inferior and the bearers of a theological taint that places us on the lowest rung of humanity.
Our job is to have these conversations that help Black Christian conservatives remember so that we as a community do not fall prey to demagoguery. For those of us who remember, we are called upon to stir within Black Christian conservatives the reminder we serve a God that brought us out of the tyranny of enslavement and southern apartheid. This same God enabled Black southern sharecroppers and their allies during the Southern Freedom Movement to bring down southern apartheid, one of the most powerful governments in history, without firing a shot.
There is a great spiritual and social danger of not remembering this God and what God has been with us and for us. When we forget we allow other people to reconstruct God in their own image and to make us believe that their God of hate and injustice is our God. When we bow down to their God, we bow down at the altar of the Empire and men who believe that they are God and the overseers of creation.
Finally, it is important to remember that our ancestors, these magnificent and ordinary people had a vision of God that broke with the enslavers’ view of God. Their view of God moved them to a theology of agape that enabled them to say in the midst of enslavement: “I love everybody, I love everybody, and you can’t make me hate you in my heart; you can’t make me hate you in my heart.”
© All rights reserved. The SpiritHouseProject
The Right-Wing Terror Plot You Didn’t Hear About This Week
That narrative doesn’t fit very well with a terror case brought this week by the FBI against three Georgia men, all members of a right-wing militia that plotted to attack police and others. Yesterday, Terry Peace, Brian Cannon and Cory Williamson pleaded not guilty to a charge of domestic terrorism, as well as charges of conspiring to defraud the government. Northwest Georgia News explains: 
Peace, Cannon and Williamson — all members of a militia in Georgia — participated in online chat discussions between Jan. 23 and Feb. 15, 2014, that were monitored by the FBI.
During the conversations online, they discussed using guerilla war tactics and planned to launch attacks against a metro Atlanta police station and several government agencies in February 2014.
The three men attempted to “recruit other individuals to join them and to carry out similar operations in those individuals’ home states.”
Peace allegedly told other militia members to choose targets including “road blocks, TSA checkpoints, sheriffs/police conducting operations outside the Constitution” as well as to participate in the “removal of government people who support extra-Constitutional activities.”
In other words, the men plotted to launch large-scale explosive attacks against local government and police that, if successfully carried out, would have been the largest terror attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11.
Only two news outlets, the Rome News-Tribune and Northwest Georgia News, have reported the charges.
We Shall Overcome: Ava DuVernay on Making ‘Selma’
The groundbreaking director talks about downplaying LBJ, honoring MLK’s legacy and why you should always have Oprah on your film sets
| January 5, 2015
As a filmmaker, you put the film out there, and you just want it to be okay,” says director Ava DuVernay. “You don’t want to let people down; you don’t want to embarrass yourself.” She’s done much better than that with Selma, a dramatization of the 1965 protests in Alabama led by Martin Luther King, Jr.; the movie, considered to be a leading Oscar contender, has already received four Golden Globe nominations. Peter Travers said in his rave review in Rolling Stone that DuVernay “blows the dust off history to find its beating heart.”
DuVernay, 42 years old, grew up in Compton, but spent summers in Alabama. A film publicist before she shifted careers to directing, she had actually signed up to do publicity for an earlier version of Selma. The screenplay had bounced around for over five years, attached to directors such as Lee Daniels. “It was looked at as an unmakeable movie,” says executive producer Paul Garnes. But British actor David Oyelowo — who had appeared in DuVernay’s Sundance award-winner Middle of Nowhere — very much wanted to play King, and unbeknownst to DuVernay, was lobbying for her with an international team of producers. Despite a resumé that was limited to two microbudget features, a half-dozen documentaries, and an episode of Scandal, she got the job, and a $20 million budget.
Our conversation with DuVernay in a vegan Mexican restaurant in Hollywood happened three days before Joseph A. Califano, Jr., a former Lyndon B. Johnson aide, wrote a Washington Post op-ed complaining not only that Selma gave Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson) short shrift, but that the president had come up with the idea for the protests himself. As it happens, earlier versions of the script focused on the relationship between King and the commander-in-chief, and how their joint efforts led to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. She discussed why she had chosen to place less emphasis on Johnson, her casting philosophy and why it helps to have Oprah on your film set.
Let’s talk about reducing LBJ’s role in the events you depict in the film.
Every filmmaker imbues a movie with their own point of view. The script was the LBJ/King thing, but originally, it was much more slanted to Johnson. I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma. You have to bring in some context for what it was like to live in the racial terrorism that was going on in the deep south at that time. The four little girls have to be there, and then you have to bring in the women. So I started adding women.
This is a dramatization of the events. But what’s important for me as a student of this time in history is to not deify what the president did. Johnson has been hailed as a hero of that time, and he was, but we’re talking about a reluctant hero. He was cajoled and pushed, he was protective of a legacy — he was not doing things out of the goodness of his heart. Does it make it any worse or any better? I don’t think so. History is history and he did do it eventually. But there was some process to it that was important to show.
Many presidents couldn’t have done it.
Absolutely. Or wouldn’t have even if they could.
I thought Tim Roth’s performance as George Wallace was very nuanced, when it would have been easy to play him as Snidely Whiplash.
I wanted to try to make everyone as human as possible. That trap that I see so many non-black filmmakers do with black characters, where everything is surface and stereotypical…I didn’t want to be the black filmmaker that does that with the white characters. Tim has talked about every actor has to love the character that they’re playing in some way, and in the time that we’re talking about, there’s not a lot to love in Wallace if you believe in justice and dignity. But he found a videotape or an article of his son talking about him, and so he was able to tap into the father doing what he thought was right.
I WASN’T INTERESTED IN MAKING A WHITE-SAVIOR MOVIE; I WAS INTERESTED IN MAKING A MOVIE CENTERED ON THE PEOPLE OF SELMA.
Whether it was Roth or Tom Wilkinson — or Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Root and Alessandro Nivola — all these characters represented a real diversity of thought about this issue from the white perspective, from the dominant culture. I wanted to create an array of folks who all thought about it in a different way because white thought wasn’t a monolith at that time, just as black thought wasn’t a monolith.
What was your philosophy when you were casting?
To work with people who fascinate me. Oprah being in the cast allowed me to have flexibility because she is such a big name. Her fame and her power created space for me to be able to hire Stephan James, a 19-year-old from Canada, for John Lewis instead of the hot young guy who was just in The Fast and the Furious,or whatever. I was able to pick and choose cool people.
What was it like having Oprah on the set?
Her first day of shooting was the day that Maya Angelou died. I had just driven up to the set in Marietta when I got a call on my cell phone from Andrew Young, the real Andrew Young: “Sister Maya has passed on.” And all I could think of was Oprah was on her way to the set. I immediately called her and said don’t come, we’ll do it another day. Tight schedule, a 32-day shoot, not a lot of room to move things around — but we’ll figure it out. She said, “No, I can do this, it’s okay.” She had the same trailer as everyone else. I spoke with her briefly, and I should’ve stayed, but I had to go out back to the set: I had 200 extras out there. So I called Tyler Perry, he sneaked onto the set, they had their moment, and she came out ready to go. I’m grateful to him; most people see us as very different filmmakers, but in that moment we were united around Oprah.
How did your old job as a publicist prepare you to do this?
To make a film?
As opposed to eating guacamole, yes.
[Laughs] Just being able to talk to people. I used to coordinate and develop and execute really big campaigns for studios with a lot of moving parts. But the main thing is just articulating what’s in your head, which we overestimate that people can do — how do you get that out in a way that’s clear and un-muddled with the intention of producing a result?
What was the hardest scene to shoot, emotionally?
When Jimmy Lee Jackson was murdered in the cafe. At that time there was no Mike Brown murder, there was no Eric Garner murder — but there were so many others that are just ambient. It’s part of the atmosphere as a black person growing up in this country: You know that’s it’s happening somewhere on that very day. And a month later Mike Brown was killed. [Cinematographer] Bradford Young, [editor] Spencer Averick, and I, we designed that scene in a really specific way. It was really important that we have all that stuff worked out in advance because I knew it was going to be a rough, emotional day. This wasn’t a day for improvisation.
King’s tactics imply that his supporters are going to have to get hurt: Nonviolence doesn’t work unless the other side overreacts.
Being passive doesn’t mean sitting there and getting hit for the sake of getting hit. And it wasn’t all faith-based, either. There were some very practical reasons why it was used. You talk to most people about King now and they only know “I Have a Dream,” and that he believed in peace and then he died. Really? That’swhat he’s been reduced to? And we’ve allowed it to happen. And if there is anything that Selma does, it reinvigorates the narrative around him to be more full-bodied and more truthful about what his tactics were.
Are you religious yourself?
No, not religious. But I love God.
Can you talk about the aesthetics of violence of Selma? When the church blows up and kills those four little girls, it’s harrowing, but it’s also filmed in a beautiful way. How do those two things work together?
I don’t know if my intention was to make it beautiful. How do you film four little girls being blown apart? There’s a way to do it with a certain reverence and respect for who they were. That’s why it was important for me that you hear their voices before it happens.
There’s a sinking feeling in that scene — I counted five little girls, so I was hoping maybe it wasn’t going to happen.
There were five girls and one lived. And I put in a boy, to misdirect you on purpose. The violence throughout the film follows the same pattern. I resisted the idea of just it being a physical blow. That spectacle has been done: All we do in this industry is blow people up. But how does the hit feel and what does the face do after? What happens to that broken body and what happens to the people that have to tend to that broken body? It’s important to have the morgue scene after Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death, to show the mother and slow down on her face, to slow down the girls, to slow down Annie Lee Cooper when the men put their hands on her and take her down. It was about having a reverence for that was the idea behind it instead of, say, making it beautiful. You’re saying: This is worth taking a closer look at. Everybody stop and pay your respects to this.
Can you pinpoint a moment of joy that happened while you were making this movie?
So many things come to mind, but there was a day that we were filming in Richie Jean Jackson’s house, doing that scene when they all walk into the kitchen. We’re at this house in Atlanta, we had shut down the street. That was the day that Tim Roth and Giovanni Ribisi were coming for their hair and makeup tests. They have to come to see me, ’cause I can’t get away. So they come to the set, and I thought, “Look at all my guys, they’re all together — the White House guys, Wallace, the black guys.” Those characters never cross, right? The chance to see them all together was so fun. Then a black SUV starts coming up the street, going around cones. Our assistant directors and our production assistants are running down, saying, don’t go, they’re shooting. The door opens and out comes Oprah. She’s not supposed to be there; we thought she wasn’t even in the state that day! She starts walking towards me and I just run up to her and give her a big old hug. It was like a house party in the street.
How was it having people like the actual Andrew Young on the set?
So cool. And it easily could not have been if they were grouchy curmudgeons. But there’s still a spark about them. These are our greatest minds, our greatest radicals. Time has not done them in. If you look John Lewis in the eye and he’s talkin’ to you about something, you’re like “Uh huh, let’s go do it!” When I sat down with them, I was really clear that we weren’t asking for anybody’s permission.
But this [film] is not called “King”; this is Selma. This was as much the story about the band of brothers and sisters that were around him as it was King’s story. There haven’t been great pains taken to show that he was a leader among leaders — all of them could’ve probably done it. Why him? He could talk the best. He was an orator who was able to synthesize all these ideas in a way that spoke to the masses and also that spoke to people in power. But they were there and they were the masterminds behind it. I tried to show the strategy, the tactics, the arguments. That’s how history is made, not by consensus, but by people freakin’ battling it out, right? That’s how change happens.