With the rise of digital technology, there has been a nostalgic backlash from celluloid purists, who argue that in the process of the cinema’s shift between mediums formal possibilities are passing away along with some intangible aura. In attempts to resurrect film, directors like Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan have created screening events that act like memento moris for the dying medium, which unfortunately, has fueled a blind hipster movement, an attachment to celluloid for its “cool” and “retro” qualities. Just like the shift from silents to talkies, and black and white to color, something will be lost during the change, but what’s most important is that more liberty is gained, more ways of telling stories and exploring the cinema’s aesthetic potential. To celebrate the rise of digital technology, The Young Folks will be posting a weekly column where one of our writer’s will dissect a recent film’s innovative use of the new format, hopefully making a digital future seem less bleak than many thought.
When Barack Obama became president, many thought America had become post-racial. But, soon after, unrest spread across the country following the murder of Oscar Grant, the lack of justice for Trayvon Martin and many instances of police brutality against black males. This racially tense political climate, in which we clearly still live, has birthed a plethora of films that tackle race through history, allegory or by directly interacting with contemporary events. Ava Duvernay’s Selma, which is about the march Martin Luther King Jr. led for voting rights during 1965 in Alabama, is as much about history as it is about today’s politics. Fundamental to the way Duvernay draws a parallel between the historical events being depicted and the racially-motivated violence of today is by juxtaposing the way images were distributed in the ’60s and the ubiquitous presence of digital ones today.
Near the beginning of the film, Dr. King discusses with the other organizers that fundamental to their movement is the presence of cameras, something that’s not all that different for the Black Lives Matter movement in 2016. Digital cameras are so accessible and quickly available that many instances of police brutality against people of color have been captured and spread online. Duvernay is conscious of the political similarities and formal differences between the images from the civil rights movement and the horrifyingly recent ones that we are able to look up at any moment on our computers, tablets or cell phones. In the following stills, which are all taken from one sequence in the film, look at how Duvernay is drawing a parallel between the police violence against blacks in the ’60s and what is happening now, simply through the use of choppy and immediate digital images.
As Duvernay cuts between shots of people watching the events on black and white televisions, a journalist is transcribing a story over the phone. The scene is borderline self-reflexive; Duvernay is showing how the events were recorded and presented, but most importantly she is using digital visuals to relate it back to the images that are now so fundamentally engraved in our consciousness. This point is perhaps most clearly in this following image:
In this single shot, we see the tensions from the civil war still impacting our contemporary race relations. The composition and content – an authority figure with a whip is chasing a black man running in the background – evokes in a single frame, slavery, the horror of Bloody Sunday and through the use of a gritty digital image, the police brutality of today.
Without the prominence of digital technology, we would not possess the same awareness. By harnessing the power of these images to outrage, Duvernay uses the digital format to link our contemporary racial struggle to the way people saw the events leading up to Dr. King’s march back in 1965. It’s an ingenious thematic technique, and one that wouldn’t be possible without digital technology.