Selma’s Snubs Are the Oscars’ Shame

Oscar nominations are always released to disappointments, because disappointment is inevitable where there is hope and expectation and limited resources.

Sometimes the disappointment is personal; sometimes critical. But every once in a while, the Academy will release a list that goes beyond disappointing into territory that is altogether baffling. Like this year.

I love the Oscars. They are like my Superbowl, Christmas and birthday all wrapped into one sparkling and overlong event. But after the significant snubs this year brings, I’m not sure how much joy I can muster for the upcoming ceremony.

Selma was one of, if not the, best films I’ve seen all year. It was a gorgeous movie from start to end, an important movie, beautifully acted by David Oyelowo in the role of Martin Luther King Jr., and directed to near perfection by Ava DuVernay.

Yet when the nominations rolled around this morning, Oyelowo and DuVernay were nowhere to be seen. It wasn’t just them—not a single person of color was nominated for an acting award this year, making this the whitest group of contenders since 1998. But the issue of Oyelowo and DuVernay feels like a particularly shocking oversight.

It’s not just that Selma was a great movie; it’s that Oyelowo became Martin Luther King Jr. His performance was transcendent, and not only physically—although he did put on weight, shave his hairline, and adopt King’s careful manner of speech. Oyelowo wore King’s anguish and elation with equal bearing, and DuVernay is the one who coached him there. Selma has received universal acclaim from film critics, nearly all of whom cite both DuVernay and Oyelowo as the two most important drivers of the film’s success. Why can’t the Academy see that?

Some are pointing out historical issues, saying the movie depicts President Lyndon Johnson as being less supporting to Dr. King’s cause than he actually was. That criticism might hold water if other heavily nominated films like The Theory of Everything and Imitation Game didn’t play so fast and loose with the facts themselves.

In an interview with The Daily Beast in October, Oyelowo talked about the history of movies about black people at the Oscars. “There’s a patronizing attitude of, ‘Oh, these people have struggled and we really must celebrate when they show us their struggle,’ as opposed to letting us be heroes.”

Selma did get a Best Picture nod from the Academy, and well it should have. And to some, that may seem like recognition enough. But the Academy doesn’t stop at Best Picture, and African-American actors and actresses have frequently been passed over when it comes to the acting and directing categories (Denzel Washington in Malcolm X; Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery, and Oprah Winfrey in The Color Purple). If the Oscars were a one-shot event where Best Picture was the only award given, this year’s list would stoke very little controversy. But the fact is that the other awards matter, both inherently, as recognition of the outstanding work done by individual contributors, and professionally, as a means of opening up future roles and films to the person receiving the award. The Academy may not exactly reflect public opinion in handing out awards, but the fact that it has gone so far off base this year suggests either a sloppiness or an ignorance that does not bode well for its future.

1939 is sometimes referred to as “the golden year of film.” The list of films that came out that year is astounding: The Wizard of Oz; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Stagecoach; Beau Geste (the Gary Cooper version); and Gone With the Wind. But perhaps the most surprising success story to come out of 1939 is the woman who won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Hattie McDaniel played Mammy in Gone With the Wind, and she was the first African-American person to be nominated for an Academy Award. Her acceptance speech is a thing of beauty: “I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel.”

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McDaniel was introduced by the actress Fay Bainter, who extolled the virtue of “an America that almost alone in the world today recognizes and pays tribute to those who give of their best, regardless of creed, race or color.”

That was 1939. This is 2015. 76 years have elapsed, but we seem, somehow, to have gone backward in time.

It’s hard to imagine an explanation for Selma’s snub other than, as culture critic David Edelstein wrote at Vulture, “the Academy collectively thought it had discharged its duty to the African-American experience with 12 Years a Slave.” Oyelowo’s performance was magnificent, and Selma deserves to be remembered far beyond its lack of recognition at this year’s Academy Awards. But the Awards are so often the thing that cement public recognition.

Selma is many things: a powerful film, a strong film, a film that raises deeply important questions about race relations and politics in a country that prizes itself on democracy. It deserves more than a Best Picture nomination—it is a film that gave us nuance, and we owe the film a careful look in return.

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