Historical dramas often stick to a tried-and-true formula: Important figures face struggles, then they triumph, becoming the great people we know today. We can usually count on a scene from their conflicted childhood, scenes showing their romantic troubles, any issues with drugs or alcohol, and how they persevered through it all to deliver whatever divine message or artistic gift they possessed.
Ava DuVernay’s new Martin Luther King Jr. biopic, Selma, avoids this formula—much to its benefit.
The tenderness of black women growing in self-love and self-possession is rare in modern cinema. If we are young, we are exploited (see: Precious) if we are grown and in love, black female characters are consumed with body-racking pain (see: For Colored Girls, Monster's Ball, Beloved). Caricatures of us usually dim our personal transformation from one moment to the next. On screen, the fullness of black womanhood has been flattened to a one-dimensional trope – she is rarely funny without bitterness, or lonely and sad without letting her emotions bleed into histrionics or melodrama.