It was the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard who postulated that the essence of postmodernism is “incredulity toward metanarratives.”
A metanarrative is a big overarching myth (lie) that justifies the ways of power to man (and woman). One metanarrative is that the Europeans who journeyed to the Western Hemisphere were up to good rather than no-good. Another metanarrative is that hopeful bit of liberal thought that says “the arc of the universe bends toward justice.” Another metanarrative is that the US has a constitutional government that has some flaws but will—given time and patience—eventually work out for everyone. Yes, the music swells at a happy ending . . .
Sure, postmodernism itself is a metanarrative; and it has led to some atrocities of prose, but thinkers such as Leotard have given us a way of looking at the Big Lies that drive power structures. An old African proverb says it better than 99% of postmodernist writing: “Until lions have historians, tales of the hunt will glorify the hunter.”
Director Ava DuVernay (Paul Webb shares the writing credit) has some incredulity going on, and her film blows apart several sacred metanarratives. One metanarrative is that the “good” federal government swept in and curtailed the power of “bad” state government. Another is that white liberals played a starring role in the struggle. Another is that black men led the struggle. Finally, the lions have a historian.
Art doesn’t pretend to be “true,” if by “truth” we mean following the scripts written to build a metanarrative. DuVernay has created a truer true.
I grew up in the South (poor and white) not too far from Selma. I remember those days. The terrorists were the locals. The heroes were not (as much) those who swept in on jets in front of cameras but the ones who acted for justice knowing full well that the Klan knew where they lived–and believe me, it gets very dark in the rural South. That’s the story Ava DeVernay tells. It’s not an easy story to tell in the face of metanarraatives and in the face of a very real titan such as Martin Luther King, Jr.
But it’s how justice gets done in the real world.