Selma – an American problem, an American film, an American audience. (Film Review)


Selma is a specific film made for a specific audience at a specific time. It is a well made film, that includes competent performances, a high level of technical acumen and is directed by one of Americas most interesting directors. Its purpose is two-fold; to highlight a specific problem to the American people that recent events in that country reveal is still an issue today, and to provide a historical document told from a marginalized black perspective. It is the latter that has evoked the criticism of Lyndon Johnson fans, for it paints the President as a political animal, overworked and struggling to juggle important human rights as if they were bullet points on his agenda – which essentially to a top level politician, they are. American’s shouldn’t fear this representation, but I am not an American, and therefore I can’t really understand why they do.


Given all of the above, my primary question about Selma is why it sought distribution outside of the United States. Selma is a historical drama – it isn’t even an examination of Dr King as a person (even though it clumsily attempts to go there at times). It is a film depicting a uniquely American problem that is solved in a uniquely American way that reveals the solution as only a step in the process, not a resolution of a psychological problem that has become systemic. Non American’s simply do not need to see Selma outside of its value as a certain kind of historical document. It differs from films like The Imitation Game, which largely seeks to rectify a misunderstanding that the US came in and saved everyone in WW2, in that it has no relationship to anything outside of the US, nor does it tap into a universal (as, for example one could argue 12 Years a Slave did) as it is purely a political process film. Selma differs from a film like Mr. Turner, which uses technical brilliance to examine the relationship between artist and observer, in that Selma does use some interesting technical issues to contribute to the emotional weight of its historical context.  However Selma isn’t a film about racism, it is a film about how psychological problems like racism can be fought within the boundaries of its own system. This has almost no value outside of the system that contains this very specific problem and is the key to its solution. As Lyndon Johnson says in the final, famous speech that closes the film, these problems are not black problems, they are American problems.

Australian’s were presented with a film this year that addresses the systemic problems unique to Australia for our own black population, and that film was Charlie’s Country. In almost every way, Charlie’s Country is a superior film, particularly in its clear depiction of systemic abuse and the affect that has on the recipient of that abuse. The Australian aboriginal problem that is an Australian problem, is beautifully depicted through a superior script by Gulpilil and DeHeer, and revealed in a far superior performance by David Gulpilil. Charlie’s Country represents Australia’s problem. It is completely different to America’s in all but one respect – that is the poor treatment of those whose otherness occurs because of the colour of their skin.


The problem with Australian’s seeing a film like Selma, is that it tricks the Australian psyche into imagining it is dealing with a race issue by engaging with and discussing the film. In Australia, Selma is not a film about race relations, it is not a film about racism, it is not a film about systemic abuse, because the way those things are depicted in Selma, simply couldn’t, and don’t, happen in Australia. In fact, they have the opposite problem of a startling clarity to our cultural psyche. We don’t see ourselves in the white abusers, rather as a culture we naturally side with the liberals when it comes to the unique problem of slavery. We haven’t had a slavery issue in Australia – therefore our problems with our blacks doesn’t have the same etymology. It is all too easy for an Australian to look at the American blacks, and imagine, “well if OUR blacks had that level of dignity and ability to work hard, we simply wouldn’t have the problems we have with them in this country.”

Which I would argue, is the damage a film like Selma creates in this country. It is counter intuitive. While it might teach Americans about their systemic abuse of its black nationals, it alleviates our consciousness over our treatment of our own black nationals. Selma depicts a uniquely American problem that does not translate across the oceans. It is pure vanity that brings it to our shores and in light of the far superior Charlie’s Country, at the very least, it should be seen side by side with that great Australian film. Slema has no merit outside of America, except as a passing interest to the anthropological historian who specalises in American politics, and I would suggest that audience is fairly small in this country.

When we flock to the cinema to watch Selma, and didn’t bother to see the far superior in every way, Charlie’s Country we are indulging in, not alleviating the systemic racism of this country through the worst kind of cultural transference. I strongly suggest we don’t give it our Australian dollars. Go to the video store instead that night, and hire Charlie’s Country.