Looks like it wasn’t the screeners. Conventional wisdom as to why Selma was shut out of the SAG, PGA, DGA, and BAFTA awards held that Paramount failed to send advanced screeners to guild members before voting began. Coupled with a late December release, pundits argued Selma just didn’t have time to build much buzz before guild nominations were announced. Some predicted the film would fare much better at the Academy Awards, whose members did receive their screeners in time. Yet Thursday’s Oscar nominations saw a virtual Selma shut-out (on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday no less). The film was nominated only for Best Song and Best Picture, although with no other major nominations it has little chance of winning the latter category. The film received no technical awards, no Best Actor nod for its stunning lead David Oyelowo, and no Best Director nomination for Ava DuVernay, who would have been the first black woman ever nominated for the Best Director Oscar.
It would have been understandable had Selma not won every major award this year. It’s inconceivable it wasn’t nominated for them.
Selma was one of the best films of the year. It currently holds a 99 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an A+ CinemaScore. Even the reviews that weren’t glowing—like our own—found plenty to like about DuVernay’s biopic. So why is the film having such a terrible awards season? Part of the blame may lie with Paramount’s mishandling of the film’s awards season campaign. There’s also the fact that several historians launched a fairly vicious smear campaign against the film’s “historically inaccurate” portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson. (The Imitation Game was also accused of historical inaccuracies but complaints against it were less vitriolic and less long lasting.) The more cynical among us might also note that Selma is helmed by a black woman and explores American history through the lens of black characters. Historically, that’s not the kind of film the 94 percent white, 77 percent male Academy is interested in.
It’s impossible to know which factors weighed most heavily in Selma’s inelegant limp towards the Oscars. Yet the result is that no actors of color were nominated for any Oscar acting awards and this year’s pool of Best Director nominees is exclusively male. In the larger context of Hollywood inequality, that sends a message that even when a woman of color makes one of the best films of the year, she won’t necessarily be acknowledged for it.
Although men and women graduate from film school at roughly the same rate, women made up merely 6 percent of all directors in 2013’s top 250 films. (To understand how that happens, read Erica Rose’s discussion of the unspoken gendered biases of film school and Lexi Alexander’s blistering Hollywood take down.) One of the subtle ways Hollywood stymies diversity is by refusing to celebrate it at awards shows. Over the past 87 years the Academy has given out over 400 Best Director nominations. Only four have gone to women and all of those women have been white. (Only three black men have been nominated for Best Director and none of them won.) Kathryn Bigelow remains the only woman in history to ever win a Best Director Oscar.
That means women interested in becoming film directors have literally one Oscar-winning female director to emulate. Women of color have none. The Academy had a chance to change that this year and they didn’t. Instead they nominated five men whose films range from innovative (Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel) to pedestrian (Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher and Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game).
When you’re already represented, it’s easy to assume representation is irrelevant. But I can tell you—as can anyone who isn’t represented—that it matters in a very concrete way. Just imagine if the roles were reversed and the ratio of nominees was 400 women to four men. Wouldn’t that feel like a huge roadblock to success? Of course female directors can and do admire the work of male directors, but from a psychological perspective, it’s immensely disheartening to see no one like you succeed. DuVernay’s snub isn’t an interesting footnote in Oscar history; it’s a slap in the face to aspiring filmmakers who aren’t white and male.
So what can we do now? Those angry at Selma’s awards season snubs can play an active part in shaping the film’s legacy. After all, the lasting power of awards season comes not from the accolades themselves, but from the discussion surrounding them. And that discussion should be about DuVernay’s remarkable achievement as much as it is about Hollywood’s failure to recognize it.
In a liberal (and uncredited) rewrite, DuVernay refocused Paul Webb’s original script away from the relationship between King and Johnson in order to focus on the black people—and specifically the black women—who shaped the Civil Rights movement. Hers is the rare film about race that doesn’t feature a white savior character and the rare male-driven biopic that passes the Bechdel test. Coretta Scott King appeared in a single phone call in the film’s original script; in DuVernay’s final film she’s a vital, active presence wonderfully played by Carmen Ejogo.
Furthermore, DuVernay stages violence so that her audience is unable to distance themselves from it. In her film, the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson isn’t just a crime, it’s a visceral, emotional betrayal committed by a racist system. DuVernay creates a historical drama with none of the usual museum sheen. And with the help of cinematographer Bradford Young, her film captures black skin tones with the kind of lush detail not usually seen in mainstream media.
While The Imitation Game and The Theory Of Everything struggle to find the balance between their subjects’ personal and professional lives, DuVernay effortlessly captures King as both a leader and a man. (And Oyelowo proves equally adept at playing both sides of the character.) The King of Selma is seen not only giving speeches and leading marches, but also taking out the trash, fighting with his wife, and occasionally cracking under the pressure of leading a movement. By focusing on King as a shrewd, flawed political strategist and not just a non-violent preacher, DuVernay recontextualizes a too-often sanitized figure. In doing so, she gives crucial historical context to the contemporary “Black Lives Matter” movement. Like all great art, her film feels relevant to the real world.
Yes we should get angry about Selma’s awards season snubs. Yes we should question why Selma is called out for historical inaccuracies when other historical dramas aren’t. Yes we should call these snubs racist and sexist, even though others will offer less controversial assessments. But along the way, we shouldn’t forget that Selma is also a great piece of cinema. And that legacy can last well after this embarrassing chapter of Oscar history fades.