Protest in Art on the Art of Protest

Protest in Art on the Art of Protest

There is one scene in Congressman John Lewis’s March trilogy of graphic novels that encapsulates in just a few panels the heights of which he and his team (coauthor Andrew Aydin, and letterer and illustrator Nate Powell) are capable. It’s at the beginning of Book 3, the scene set with a pair of short heels clicking down a church hallway, marked by a tiny “clik clik clik” across the page’s panels. The woman who belongs to the heels busts into a bathroom, marked by a bigger “BOOM” within the panel’s frames. The girls are framed in black as they are caught in the act of skipping Sunday school and told to hurry along. The woman clik clik cliks away to her Sunday school class, where she opens the door with a “creaak”. She reports to the mother of one of the girls in a whisper over the teacher reading Jesus’s admonition to love one’s enemies. And then another “BOOM”, this one enormous, breaks through frames and word bubbles, even disrupting the art at the end of the page.

March’s creators are doing nothing new by breaking the medium’s conventions to make an emotional impact, nor are they innovating in the format with their use of onomatopoeia and font size to transport the reader to the story’s setting. But rare is the marriage of all of a page’s elements so devastating. The depicted1963 bombing of a Birmingham church is infamous in civil rights history, and I knew what was coming as I read it. Yet when I reached the sequence’s end, at the image of a child’s shoe in the hand of an adult, I was in tears.

This one scene in March is heart-wrenching and masterful, but March is brilliant through and through and not just in its set pieces. Those set pieces provide the emotional structure of the series, but it’s the smaller scenes that solidify the series’ themes. The trilogy is an easy read, but it is not simply a chronicle of all the civil rights movement’s big moments. Rather, Lewis and his team spend much of this memoir detailing the many strategies and disagreements of the movement’s organizers. The line that Lewis and Aydin draw from the decisions he and his compatriots made to the decisions lawmakers made are a powerful argument that protest works.

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There are similar scenes of strategizing in Selma, Ava DuVernay’s 2014 movie about the march from Selma, Alabama, to the state’s capitol, Montgomery. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) chose Selma specifically because their very presence there was likely to incite police brutality. We watch this play out on screen multiple times: black people lining up outside a courthouse to vote getting pushed to the ground, black people marching across a public bridge being chased like animals by cops on horseback while tear gas rains down, white people getting beaten to a pulp for associating with the black protesters, black people getting shot by cops without provocation.

Dr. King and his compatriots spend time in Selma discussing how best to implement their plan, and we see plenty of conflict between them regarding the timing of the protests, who should even be allowed to participate, and even what exactly to protest first. The protests’ leaders spend an entire scene arguing what injustice is most urgent to address, and none of them agree. After all, should they start by protesting the courts refusing to register black people to vote unless they can name all of Alabama’s county judges, the voucher system that requires prospective voters to find someone already registered to vouch for them, or the businesses that will fire or not hire black people who are bold enough to register?

We have a lot of movies about fighting racism written from a white perspective, designed in full to encourage empathy and action in white people. These movies are noble in intent if usually misguided in their execution, downplaying the role of black people in their own emancipation. Selma is that rare movie that is told by black people and is about black people working for black people. The making of Selma was not burdened by anybody’s white guilt, and therefore is far more clear-eyed about where the injustices are.

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Selma is also historical. Much was made of DuVernay’s incomplete portrayal of President Johnson. But little was made of the movie’s re-creation of the band of people around Dr. King or of DuVernay’s painstaking attention to the details of the protests and the resulting brutality. These things happened, and we’ve never seen the like of them onscreen before. Selma is a powerful argument that protest is a moral necessity.

March and Selma together present a picture of a black culture that figured out how to fight injustice on its own. This was in direct opposition to a white world that pretends to be for justice but is too often a willing accomplice in injustice’s crimes. The graphic novel and the movie are companions. They complement each other in their historical details and in how effective they are in arousing righteous anger and heartbreak.

The movie 13th deserves recognition beside those two. DuVernay’s new Netflix documentary is different in form and function from March and Selma, but it is their cousin in theme. 13th draws a line through history from slavery to today’s mass incarceration, finding guilty the phrase written into the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted…” The documentary makes a compelling argument, using historical archive footage and a bipartisan conglomeration of talking heads, that the prison system functions as today’s slavery, imprisoning black people at a far greater rate than other races to the profit of politicians, lobbyists, and businessmen alike.

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The line DuVernay draws is unambiguously straight. She squarely places the blame on rich white people who want to stay rich and get richer. I can understand the skepticism I occasionally hear in the face of overwhelming evidence that racism still exists, because nice white people often aren’t around overt racism in their daily lives and feel threatened and blamed when macro views like 13th’s find that white people are often the villains. But we have too many examples throughout history that powerful people do anything to keep their power. Is it really that hard to believe that governments and institutions would embrace racist policies to achieve this?

There’s a scene in 13th that unapologetically places President Donald Trump in this context. Over a montage of racist acts by Trump supporters against protesters and similar images from America’s Jim Crow past (including beatings, lynchings, and verbal abuse), DuVernay plays many of Trump’s statements against other races. The effect is eerie, finding the connection between the language the president uses and racist violence. It isn’t a big jump to make, and it is a heartbreaking that we still need the act of protesting.

Selma, March, and 13th aren’t telling us anything new, though a lot of what I learned from them was new to me. If we were once convinced that we lived in a “post-race” world, these three works of art are a harsh reminder that the “post-race” world never existed. When I hear people decry protesters or question the legitimacy of protests, I want to grab them and shake them and show them one of these pieces of culture. We need March to remember that protest is effective. We need Selma to remember that protest is a deeply moral act. And we need 13th to remember that protest is still necessary after all.

Catching Up in 25 Words and No Less

There’s a glut of movies, albums, and comic books that I wanted to write about over last few months but didn’t have the chance, since I was graduating from graduate school, looking for a job, and getting married in a very short span.  My wife (!) and I got back from our honeymoon last Tuesday, and since then we’ve been trying to settle into our new apartment just a few hundred yards north of OU’s campus.  This has consisted of making trips to return gifts, throwing away countless boxes and reams of wrapping paper, and constantly adjusting the settings on our boxy window air conditioners.  Yes, this is our first apartment.  I’m loving it.

After all that, I have a little time to look back on the year and give you a glimpse at my thoughts on some of the albums I’ve bought and movies I’ve seen in theatres.  I also thought I’d add in a few segments on comic books I’ve recently read, since that’s really all I’ve been reading for the past couple of months.  I’ll stick to more obscure titles you’re less likely to have heard of, so basically no superheroes (though I have read some great superhero books lately as well- Mark Waid’s Daredevil, Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye, Scott Snyder’s Batman, Brian Azzarello’s Wonder Woman).  I’ll write about all that life change stuff here in a few days.  For now, allow me to share a few words about pop culture, because it’s been too long.  I guess the normal thing to do would be to go with a “25 words or less” theme, but I think it’ll be more fun to have to write 25 words exactly for every item.  But fun is relative, so we’ll see.

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American Kid, Patty Griffin: Griffin has long been one of my favorites.  With this, she refines as well as expands both her Americana sound and her deeply felt stories.

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Bright Sunny South, Sam Amidon: A spare album of mainly traditionals (but also including covers of Mariah Carey and Tim McGraw songs) that morphs songs into beautiful, melancholy folk beauty.

mattmaysCoyote, Matt Mays: An inventive and classic-sounding rock album that pulses with a yearning for freedom.  This would demand radio play if rock radio weren’t dead and gone.

fataleFatale: I never knew I had been longing for a horror noir comic book series until I picked up this deliciously grimy book by Ed Brubaker.

jakebuggJake Bugg, Jake Bugg: As if the Dylan comparisons (which he wears well, btw) weren’t ridiculous enough praise, try this little tidbit: the man was only born in 1994.

lockeandkeyLocke & Key: Written by Stephen King’s progeny, Joe Hill, this genre-defying book is my favorite ongoing series, and I don’t even think I’ve reached the story’s climax yet.

manofsteelMan of Steel: Upon seeing it, I thought this Superman reboot was a good action movie.  Looking back, the less I like it; it’s really just good action.

monstersuniversity1Monsters University: A clever and heartwarming prequel to a classic Pixar hit with insight into what makes friendships tick. Better than Cars 2, not Toy Story 3.

nowyouseemeNow You See Me: They’re calling it a surprise hit; I was certainly surprised by how much I liked this magicians’ Robin-Hood-by-way-of-Vegas pop mystery even though it aims low. (Yes, I’m counting that hyphenated monster as one word. No, I don’t care.)

startrekintodarkness1Star Trek into Darkness: A science fiction, popcorn movie masterpiece. Director Abrams didn’t reinvent the wheel, but he reached higher in theme and action; he and his cast succeeded.

theunwritten The Unwritten: An endlessly inventive take by Mike Carey on a Harry-Potter-like character come to life (or something like that…) that overflows with its love for literature.

wlakW.L.A.K., W.L.A.K.: Christian rap keeps getting better and better, and W.L.A.K. has perennial featured artists like Swoope and Christon Gray rivaling the titans from start to finish.

The Explicit Gospel by Matt Chandler

Reading The Explicit Gospel I learned and relearned a lot about the good news that is God’s Gospel.  I’m grateful to Chandler for pointing me to what the Gospel says about me as an individual, but also to what it says about the whole world- rocks and animals and the weather and people, all of it.  I need to be reminded of what Jesus did for me specifically, because that moves me to repentance; but it’s not about me, really.  I need to be reminded  that it’s about God’s glory, because that moves me to action.  My life then becomes about telling others about what God has done.

So why don’t I do this?  So often man’s approval is more important to me than God’s grace.  I fail to understand that success isn’t in how anyone responds to me or what I tell them; success is found in obedience.  Sometimes my failure is as simple as forgetting that my role as a disciple of Christ is to bring reconciliation to the world around me.  That’s why God reconciled me to Him, not just to save me in His grace, but to tell others of his reconciliation.

I did obey when I was in SE Asia last year.  In The Explicit Gospel Chandler says there are two responses to the Gospel: acceptance or rejection.  However, there seem to be intermediary responses, responses that occur on the way to acceptance or rejection: curiosity and disinterest.  When I was in SE Asia, I never saw acceptance, but I saw a lot of disinterest.  It was the best whenever we would see curiosity, though they were few and far between.  The only people I remember vividly were two brothers we talked to on our last day going out to villages.  They asked us questions about the story we told them and showed genuine interest.  Success in SE Asia was still obedience, but it was refreshing for people to be stirred by the good news we had spent all our time sharing.  Some people flat our laughed at us- a man, coming back to life?  They scoffed at us; some people were even angry at us.  This was no surprise; Jesus Himself said it would be like that in the parable of the seed sower.

But there are Christians in that SE Asian country; people have accepted the Gospel.  They face nearly daily persecution, something we don’t really face here in America*.  Less persecution should equal a more explicit gospel in my life; everything I do should reflect the reconciliation God has allowed for my soul.  Every decision should be based on that good news, both its effect on me and the need I have to share it.

Thank you, Matt Chandler, for reminding me of this.

*Though I’m convinced that being a Christian here will become significantly harder before my generation goes home.

The Hobbit

This book was a treat for me to read.  My mom gave it to me a long time ago, but it honestly always seemed sort of boring to me when I would try to read it, so I never got outside Bilbo’s house in the first chapter.  Strangely, I later devoured the much heavier and drier Lord of the Rings trilogy, loving every page.  What with The Hobbit movie being released later this year, it seemed high time to give the book another try.

The book chronicles the journey of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit enlisted by Gandalf the wizard to assist thirteen dwarfs on their quest to recover stolen treasure from the dragon Smaug.  For those of you living under rocks (or hills, as the case may be) the past century, hobbits are creatures half the size of a man with the features of both men and elves (pointy ears), and some features all their own (large, tough, hairy feet).  Hobbits are not prone to adventures, but Gandalf manages to convince Bilbo to leave his home with strange dwarfs and encounter all kinds of entertaining characters along the way.

At this point, no one should doubt Tolkien’s gift for crafting a story.  His trilogy is a classic epic, setting the golden standard for fantasy books.  But he wrote The Hobbit first, establishing his personable style that appeals more to children in this prequel than in the daunting trilogy.  Tolkien is the king of creating real characters out of archetypes.  His heroes hardly seem like heroes- Bilbo just wants to go home the whole time, and the dwarfs are mostly just greedy for the gold. But Tolkien lets their better natures rise up to create unity where there was discord.  He is particularly adroit at creating distinctions between the dwarfs.  Bombur is the gluttonous, lazy one; Balin is the kindhearted, sincere one; Thorin is the gruff leader.

I have to wonder what prompted Tolkien to write Lord of the Rings after this book.  There was obviously more story to be told, but Tolkien wrote his stories with themes in mind, so what themes had he left unexplored?  I see Lord of the Rings as a quest to overcome true evil, a depiction of the war between good and evil.  The Hobbit more quietly addresses the quest to rise above our broken natures.  The heroes in Lord of the Rings are more expected- even Frodo is more pure of heart than Bilbo and his clinging to creature comforts.  The Hobbit gives us ordinary heroes who decide to rise into the extraordinary.