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By I. Augustus Durham | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)


Thursday, January 22, 2015.


Full disclosure: by the time this is disseminated publicly, I will have seen Selma. My viewing of it will be the extent of my day-on activities during my day-off. Nevertheless, I count it apropos that I will see the film on the third Monday in January that the government has sanctioned for the commemoration of MLK. But at the same time, this national moment of memoriam, at least for those associated with the film and not, may in fact go against the dreamer and be the shadowy specter of a nightmare.


That may seem like an overly sensitive or misplaced sentiment but let’s face it: the day the Academy Awards nominations were announced was not a good day for MLK. On the heels of his birthday, both literal and federal, MLK found out, regardless of his national whitewashing, how black he is—with all of the universal acclaim that Selma has garnered, even unto being rated 99% on Rotten Tomatoes, for whatever that might mean, it only received two Oscar nominations: one in a major category, Best Picture, and the other a minor one, Best Original Song. And if MLK, the one of “us” with a holiday signaling his national success, receives that kind of hearing in the entertainment industry, even after his continued misreading, then these possible biopics cannot hope for much better because he is, after all, the “most safe” magic trick.


Even though the beloved Sesame Street character Oscar the Grouch and the Academy Awards hold no semblance of kinship, this year’s nominations, along the lines of race and gender, may in fact signify some level of familiality, even if it is based on nomenclatural irony. To have Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first black president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, intuit that “only directors can suggest best director nominees and only actors can nominate actors”, but not see the glaring problem in that practice lays bare why no one would ever choose to align with #IAmAva: in the company of her peers--let’s say at The Golden Globes for example--because Ava is the missing signifier even though her comrades are stans for free speech. That is to say: interpellation is the notion that “the law” constitutes subjectivity by hailing—calling bodies out—insofar as when said bodies turn around, a kind of call and response, ostensibly exemplifying some level of guilt, they essentially become some-body. (That sounds a lot like MLK’s speech “Where Do We Go From Here?”)


However, I believe Todd McGowan, in his book Enjoying What We Don’t Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis, takes this notion a step further when he proposes, “The missing signifier does not reside elsewhere, on a separate plane, but rather operates within the signifying structure. Even the most banal moments of everyday life center around the missing signifier, which animates them with whatever vitality they possess. Every aspect of the signifying structure takes the missing signifier as its point of departure because this gap marks the point at which the structure opens itself to the new and different. . . . Because the missing signifier is present as an absence, it exerts a constant pressure. . . . By doing so, we would see that the missing signifier, despite appearances, does not concern those who are properly represented. It concerns the system of signification itself, the law itself” (276-7). Hopefully, this quote charts what I think Duvernay means to Hollywood and the ‘hood, and for that matter, confirms the meaning of the magic Negro who is MLK.


Duvernay, as a creative object, is not palatable for Hollywood precisely because she, both as the feminine and the raced, has always been the present absence. And so even though the law called Oscar interpellated on Lupita, Octavia, Mo’Nique, Jennifer, Halle, Whoopi and Hattie—and their stepping onstage could be read as their acknowledgment of guilt. i.e., that Hollywood has never included them and somehow made it their fault, hence why when they won and accepted the award, the law, in masquerade as AMPAS members, often gave them a standing O—these women maintained the category that the law insists upon from the absent: continual modes of historicized performance that take on a double consciousness, running the gamut of such buzzwords as “sassy” and “deep” to “reductive” and “stereotypical”, because such acting instantiates the law itself, and why it relegates certain bodies to the proverbial balcony. (Note: even among that extremely short black-list, only one of those women was not awarded in the space of supporting!)


That is what the law has always thought of “them”, and “us”. Therefore, when the historically liminal figure, or better still the balcony dweller, dares to stake a space among the filmmasters, excuse me filmmakers, in the front row, center, who have always been “properly represented”—the same masters, excuse me makers, who have often, especially this year, been the signposts of misrepresentation of the protagonists in their very own biopics—we realize how Duvernay exerts pressure on the (law)Man that is Hollywood to put its money where its mouth is in the dream sequence (someone once said something about the American Negro receiving a bad check marked “insufficient funds”!), or, in the nightmare, to stick its award where the sun don’t shine (that may be Spike’s dream?!).


Furthermore, when the person aiming to get better vision lines near the stage tells the whole world that she is not invested in whiteness (read: maleness and whiteness), then not only do we comprehend why the properly represented can the film and its performances, surmising that the Black Woman Behind the Camera may be coming for one of the seats embossed with their last names, but we also implicitly, or explicitly, discern that she is playing the dozens, conjuring, that Selma is her filmic rendering, quite literally, of black messiah: directing an unapologetically black film, she becomes like Nina Simone during the live recording of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”—the film is not addressed primarily to “white” people; though it does not put them down in any way, it simply ignores them! (The scare quotes are mine!) The unprecedented gall of a film to permit (pre)pubescent thinkers, who may not get nuanced history lessons in public and private education, to see it for free illumines where investments lie on either side of the film reel.


#IAmAva because telling the truth is revolutionary, regardless of whether I win a prize. 

#IAmAva because not all speech is created equal or free, even when a founding document says so of men (operative word!) and/or their utterances.

#IAmAva because sometimes the most beautiful creation is pieced together in the wake of experiencing, or being treated as, rubbish.


And speaking of “rubbish”, perhaps it is more than comical, albeit tragicomedic, that the reality of Oscar the Grouch, and Oscar the Trophy last week, is that his vantage point for those he interacts with is always and ever from the trash: he is probably so grouchy because when people attempt to get near him, especially those he ain’t ever loved, an overwhelming sense, both awkward and bodily, emerges that he is probably stinking up the place.




I. Augustus Durham is a third-year doctoral candidate in English at Duke University. His work focuses on blackness, melancholy and genius.


Oscar, the Grouch; or, Why #IAmAva

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