November 20, 2009 / Filmwell
Moving past the “inspiration” film to the unsanitized story.
January 8, 2015
There is a series of shots in Selma that called to mind a passage from Perez’s The Material Ghost. In this section, Perez is talking about the shot reverse shot convention.
“The shot/reverse shot does not give us a bystander’s view: it has us stand in turn where each character stands.That people engaged in conversation will face each other, that they will speak and listen in turn, does not adequately account for a device that puts us not in the ideal but the unreal position of switching back and forth between one point of view and its opposite. That we should accept that unreal position – and accept it we do, with remarkable readiness – is the convention. Usually we are only asked to stand approximately, but sometimes we are asked to stand exactly where each character stands, so that we look into the other character’s eyes.”
This is an excellent starting point for conversation about the second march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The film’s account of the first voting rights march on March 7 is marked by the terror of the day. This march, led by King two days later, proceeds much differently. It begins with a straight on shot of protesters marching across bridge in slow motion. As the camera cuts forward to a straight on shot of the head of the march, the shot tightens to a full face shot of King.
What follows is a series of three edits: A cut to a very broad, establishing shot as the protesters stop on the bridge. A cut to the camera panning back down to show us a point of view from behind the blue helmets of police on the other side of the bridge. Then back to the tight shot of King.
Then something interesting happens, in another series of three edits. This is where Perez’s description of the shot reverse shot becomes important. We are now in the position of King looking into the distance, at the end of the bridge, where the police block both lanes. We hold that perspective for a few beats (though the camera does a slow zoom in a touch of melodrama, as if the scene requires more). Then a profile shot of the sheriff. Then a full face shot of King. Then a cut back to the march as the central action of the scene ensues.
The police withdraw. King decides to turn the protest around, suspicious of the turn of events. But all this framing is a master class in the way shot/reverse shots enable the viewer to identify with the different characters in a scene.
A shot reverse shot structure puts the viewer in a location that doesn’t literally exist, because spatially it is right around the eye-line of a character in a scene. But this creative fiction is powerful, because it allows us to enter into a character’s perspective, to see what they are seeing, and in many cases – watch someone’s reaction to whatever it is they are doing or saying. In this case, the shot reverse shot structure of this scene in Selma culminates in the long shot of King looking down the bridge to the line of police officers at the other end. We see them in the distance. Their faces are obscured to us; an impassive thick blue line.
It is a terrifying moment. We feel the weight of King’s trepidation.
“A police officer interrogating a suspect, a reporter conducting an interview, will often be shown in profile while the suspect or person interviewed is shown full-face, for the profile will seem like an arrow, an appropriate representation of the one putting the questions, aimed at the target of the full face, an appropriate representation of the one facing the questions.”
The shot reverse shot structure is not just a dramatic device, it is also narrative device. A quick review again of the last set of edits: King’s perspective of the line of police in the distance, cut to profile of the sheriff in a medium shot, cut back to a full-face shot of King.
This is precisely the narrative structure Perez has described. The profile of the Sheriff is grim and hawkish. He is presented to us like Bosch’s Pilate, or one of the demons in Grunewald’s Temptation of St. Anthony (bottom right corner). In this series of edits, King is the one “facing the questions.”
But he receives them, and turns the crowd in non-violence back to town.
“That identification is a matter of degree is nowhere more evident than in the shot/reverse shot. We couldn’t switch back and forth between two characters, we couldn’t accept the convention asking us to switch, if our identification were all with one character and not at all with the other, if we didn’t to some degree identify with both of them.”
The shot reverse shot structure is not just a dramatic or narrative device, it is also a rhetorical device. This kind of editing allows us to alternate between the experiences of two characters in a scene. We are led to identify with them, to try their psychology on for size. But as Perez points out, the convention gets complicated in a hurry as it doesn’t allow us to identify with only one character in a scene. When done well, it forces us to consider multiple perspectives at the same time.
It can, as is the case in Selma, lead us to identify more with one character than another. This is where the shot reverse shot can become a matter of rhetoric. And it is clear here that the film is interested in King, in that it allows us to see what he saw. The beauty of Selma is that it finally makes King accessible. The art of the film, in humanizing King, lowers the defenses of anyone that fails to take our civil rights crisis seriously. But it also does not allow the white viewer to not identify to some degree with the edits on the other side of the bridge.
There across the bridge is a thick blue line, rendered impersonal by distance. That is, until the film cuts directly to the profile of the sheriff and we recognize what has transpired in Selma, which doesn’t initially require a complex ideological description or ornate political backstory. It just takes a simple shot reverse shot to show it. What happened was people hating people and fighting for the preservation of an entire structure of laws, courts, and cultural practices intended to legitimize that hatred.
James Cone talks in different terms about this edit from King’s eye line, to the sheriff, and back to the full face shot of King in his book Black Theology and Black Power. He says:
“…all white men are responsible for white oppression. It is much too easy to say, ‘Racism is not my fault,’ or ‘I am not responsible for the country’s inhumanity to the black man.’ The American white man has always had an easy conscience. But insofar as white do-gooders tolerate and sponsor racism in their education institutions, their political, economic, and social structures, their churches, and in every other aspect of American life, they are directly responsible for racism. ‘It is a cold, hard fact that the many flagrant forms of racial injustice North and South could not exist without their [whites] acquiescence,’ and for that they are responsible…
[Quoting Karl Jaspers] There exists among men, because they are men, a solidarity through which each shares responsibility for every injustice and every wrong committed in the world, and especially for crimes that are committed in his presence or of which he cannot be ignorant. If I do not do whatever I can to prevent them, I am an accomplice in them. If I have not risked my life in order to prevent the murder of other men, if I have stood silent, I feel guilty in a sense that cannot in any adequate fashion be understood juridically, or politically, or morally…”