I saw Selma last night, and have been reflecting on an early scene, in which a white clerk refuses to allow a black woman to register to vote. (As an aside: Oprah plays the woman, and it’s always hard for me to suspend my disbelief when she’s on the screen, even though I think she’s a very fine actress. I kept thinking: doesn’t that fool know he’s fucking with Oprah?)
That early scene encapsulates the personal nature of the power differential that plays out throughout the movie, on both a large and small scale. The woman is entitled to vote, the man keeps coming up with reasons why she can’t, and the system is corrupt and protects him and he wins.
In that scene, the white male clerk seemingly is strong, and the black woman is seemingly weak. But that analysis only applies in that very moment: in reality, the woman is stronger, because she is entitled to what she seeks. It’s self-evident that she is equal, and endowed with unalienable rights, including to have a voice in her government. Simply speaking, she is right.
And the clerk, and the white police officers who murder, and the guy who wraps a club with barbed wire to beat black citizens, they are weak because they are afraid. It is self-evident that they are not entitled to attack others, not entitled to ignore the rules of the land or of basic humanity. Simply speaking, they are wrong.
That’s the zoomed out view, but up close and in the moment, absolutes of right and wrong don’t matter that much. Selma does a good job of showing how dangerous a weak man can be, which seems to be a theme of current events lately.
Just choose your favorite injustice, and I guarantee you will find at its heart a weak man (and it is most often, still, a man) who blames his failings on others, who does not take responsibility for managing his fears, who acts aggressively when someone has the temerity to point out that the world does not exist solely for his own pleasure and comfort. Who feels humiliated – as if he is asked to bow – when asked to follow a simple agreement, a contract, as it were, that protects the rights of another. (No, you may not live in a system that gives you more privileges than another. No, you may not live in a world where the laws bend to your will. No, you are not entitled to more than your share.)
A weak man experiences the rights of another as an erosion of his own rights. He experiences reminders of the consequences of his own bad actions as an intolerable personal threat.
Such a weak man is dangerous because he will do anything in that moment to defend what he knows, on some deep and probably unconscious level, that he’s not entitled to have.
And perhaps the system is corrupt, and perhaps he will win a battle or two or more. But he won’t win the war. Because he is afraid. Because he is wrong. And because he is weak.