Tessa Thompson portraying Diane Nash in Selma. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
With Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on the horizon, I dutifully re-watched Ava Duvernay’s powerful and accomplished movie, Selma. The story chronicles King’s struggle to secure unencumbered black suffrage in Selma, Alabama, which led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This time I watched with a particular question in mind: how are the women portrayed? This question is urgent because it is increasingly clear that black women are America’s invisible population. Black women leaders are not honored anywhere near commensurate with their deep historical contributions to the struggle for racial—and, more broadly, democratic—justice. Neither are deaths of black women at the hands of the police and private citizens properly attended to and commemorated.
Consider how the women in Selma are portrayed, not for the sake of criticizing the movie but to understand how it reflects an overwhelming and commonplace bias in how black women leaders are treated. Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson), a key figure in integrating Southern lunch counters and co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, delivers only a handful of lines. In one crucial scene, a strategy meeting, she shifts her gaze among the various male verbal combatants in the...