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'Selma's' Star and Director Weren't Snubbed -- They Were Ignored

By Sarah Carlson, TK, and Genevieve Burgess | Think Pieces | January 15, 2015 |

By Sarah Carlson, TK, and Genevieve Burgess | Think Pieces | January 15, 2015 |

Awards matter.

You’ll hear opinions the contrary, especially now during Hollywood’s main movie awards season. And most claims made are true: No, whether or not an artist or work of art is nominated for or wins an award does not necessarily mean that the artist or art is not worth of awards. The lack of a nomination - or snub - doesn’t take away from an artist’s work or accomplishments. But a snub can, however, hinder that artist’s opportunities for making art and limit the audience for the art.

Selma received an Academy Award nomination today for Best Picture, but its star David Oyelowo and director Ava DuVernay were shut out of the Best Actor and Best Director categories. One could argue this was only fair, considering how the game goes; only so many people can be nominated a year, and (typically) only one for each category will win. But a “them’s the breaks” attitude feels too complacent here - too cynical. Diversity is a problem in mainstream American pop culture, and so is the biggest awards show not recognizing this.

selma-ava-duvernay-david-oyelowo_small.jpgThe Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose voters are responsible for Oscar nominations and wins, is apparently trying to up the diversity of its membership. Still, in 2012 according to an L.A. Times survey in 2012, the academy was 93 percent white and 76 percent male, with a median age of 63. Maybe that helps explain the little love for Selma: They didn’t see themselves on the screen while watching it, or at least not a version of themselves that was favorable or comfortable. It’s easier to go with the clear Oscar-bait films lead by white men - much safer. It’s easier to go with White Saviors, like Sandra Bullock in the terrible The Blind Side, or with films about slavery, like 12 Years a Slave. Because hey! Slavery in America is over, so nothing to feel too guilty about. Black people marching in the streets? Well that’s … reality. That’s awkward.

Oyelowo would have joined a far-too-small list of black actors and actresses nominated for Oscars; DuVernay would have been the first black woman to be nominated for Best Director, not to mention only the fifth woman to ever be nominated in the category. (Only one woman, Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker, has won for directing.) Saying they deserve recognition doesn’t undermine their talent or make the cause into an affirmative-action one. It is saying that they — and their work — should be celebrated not only because it is great, but because they need the celebration more than others.

Scott Mendelson summed it up well on Forbes:

“White male filmmakers have the luxury of being mediocre, and would-be Oscar bait films about interesting white males have the luxury of shrugging off the failures accrued during Oscar season and coasting merely on the perception of prestige whether the films are worthy or not. Damien Chazelle and Dan Gilroy will get huge career boosts merely because Whiplash and Nightcrawler were two of the best movies of the year, and Oscar validation would merely have been a cherry on top. Ms. DuVernay, more than her peers, arguably needed that Oscar validation as a bargaining chip.”

Or as our own TK said, “For a white director, an Oscar snub for a good film is a stumbling block. For a black, female director, a snub for a GREAT film is a potential career-killer.”

TK, Genevieve Burgess, and I attempted to distill our anger over the Selma slights. It didn’t help, but here’s our conversation:

SC: [The Oscars are often] about who runs the best campaign. And there’s an aggravating push against Selma thanks to “accuracy” claims.

TK: Those “accuracy” claims fing infuriate me. Every single biopic ever has the writer or director taking liberty. Now all of a sudden it’s an issue? Is LBJ’s legacy going to be so irreparably tarnished? Not to mention that that’s only one part of a larger, utterly amazing movie.

SC: This is a good piece on that, Kurt.

TK: “So, let’s also take a moment to soak in the irony of the fact that DuVernay specifically could not use any of King’s actual speeches in her film; those rights apparently have been licensed to DreamWorks and Steven Spielberg. In other words, she had to take historical liberties just to be able to make Selma in the first place. It’s a classic damned-if-you-do-d-if-you-don’t situation. “

Holy shit. I did NOT realize that.

GB: The Selma thing just seems to me to be the clearest example of how awards season tends to be driven by cranky old white guys. LBJ, an old white dude, wasn’t portrayed sufficiently heroically so of course the entire movie gets snubbed. Makes sense.

SC: Also, this tweet by the author (Bilge Ebiri, at Vulture) of that Selma piece is EVERYTHING:


TK: Sorry, I’m still stuck on the piece Sarah posted. Can we just pause for a minute to recognize how utterly fucked up the MLK’s speeches are LICENSED? And that as a result, someone making a movie about them was denied permission to use them? THAT IS BANANAS.

All of a sudden I kind of hate Spielberg.

GB: Two of King’s sons are currently suing his daughter for the right to sell his Nobel Peace Prize, so I’m not exactly shocked that his speeches were licensed to the highest bidder. I am a little surprised that Steven Spielberg hasn’t moved to make a movie about King and a surprisingly persistent white journalist who follows him through the fight for Civil Rights.

SC: Right, and that’s what hurts: It took *this* long for a movie about King to be made, and it’s getting flack from old white dudes.

GB: You’d think Spielberg would have granted permission in exchange for an Exec. Producer credit and the chance to be fawned over come awards season if he’s not actually interested in making a movie.

SC: Awards matter. Critics who are blasé about awards annoy me. Of course a nomination or award doesn’t change or dictate the merit or quality of art. But that doesn’t mean recognition isn’t important, even if it’s from a flawed system. DuVernay being snubbed doesn’t take away her achievements. But it does take away the chance for recognition in a predominantly male and white industry, the kind of recognition that would always be linked with her name and film.

TK: I confess to being one of those blasé critics, Sarah. I haven’t watched any awards ceremony other than the Grammys (and then only to mock) in probably 15 years.

Nominations and awards don’t take away from merit or quality, but it does take away from recognition. And recognition is what leads to popularity, and popularity is what leads to money. And money means you get to make more movies. Hollywood is littered with amazing movies by amazing writer/directors who were ignored, and who went on to just kind of fade away because they never got the shot they deserved.

This is also why the preponderance of white people getting nominations infuriates me, because it WILL perpetuate the cycle. Those actors and directors will get more work, and Ava DuVernay is going to continue to fight and claw her way into making movies on her terms. Selma is so amazing because, well, it’s amazing. But also because of in the face of all this bullshit, a nearly unheard of director made an amazing, deeply personal movie on her terms, without having to bend to the will of producers.

So if anything, awards as they exist right now matter not because of the recognition its winners get, but because of the struggles they cause for those who are ignored. I’ve used the word “snub” before, but it’s too mild a term. David Oyewolo didn’t get snubbed. He got ignored. And I get annoyed at those who complain about people like me — people who get upset over those who are ignored by the Oscars in favor of their populist bullshit. That ignorance will ultimately hurt the careers of those amazing and talented people, and just make the struggle that women and people of color face all the more difficult.

And that’s why awards are bullshit. Yet here I am, once again, talking about them incessantly.

I fucking hate Hollywood.

SC: Right, exactly. I should have said meaningless, not blasé. I’m talking about the ones who are surely on Twitter right now being snarky and flippant at those showing genuine emotion about a film they love not getting the recognition they feel it deserves.

GB: I also think there’s something to be said about what it says to casual consumers of movies. It’s all well and good to say “awards don’t matter” in circles where everyone is reasonably well-educated about movies and routinely hears about films that aren’t widely recognized (which we mostly have at Pajiba). But when you’re talking about the other 90% of the population who aren’t as invested in films, then yes the Oscars ARE an indication of quality to those people. Or at least winning an Oscar is more likely to get a film, actor, or director’s name in front of those people and lead to greater popularity and financial success. Obviously that’s a far more ephemeral equation and doesn’t always work (Do I think that Brokeback would have been popular across America if it won Best Picture that year? No, I do not.), but it’s something to consider.

TK: That’s a terrific point, Genny. For the casual consumer, awards are a validation of a movie. That’s why everyone always rushes to see all the nominations before the ceremony is broadcast. Which means those movies that got ignored are going to continue to be ignored, and in 5 years everyone will remember Bradley Cooper in American Sniper instead of Oyelowo.

SC: Ah, Brokeback. *sniff*

TK: My sister just posted this from one of her friends’ pages and it pretty much sums up my feelings perfectly:

“Selma is the Magical Negro of the Oscar Nominations — a Best Movie that just manifested out of the ether with (apparently) no director, screenwriter, cinematographer or actors. “

That comment from my sister’s friend makes a salient point, though, and is perfectly demonstrable of how token-y that nomination is (even though it’s incredibly well-deserved). Every other BP nom has another nomination somewhere, yet Selma somehow managed to create an Oscar-worthy picture without anything else about it being deserving?

I understand someone getting a best actor/actress nomination without the film being nominated — best performances CAN happen in a vacuum of sorts. But the converse is insanity. This ties in with my Ethan Hawke issue. I don’t think Hawke was nominated for Supporting Actor because his performance was so amazing, but rather because it was a performance in Boyhood. But Boyhood was already getting recognition elsewhere — Director, Supporting Actress, Screenplay. What was the point of Hawke’s nomination?

Yet in Selma, where Oyelowo’s performance was legitimately Oscar-worthy and the direction is innovative and gorgeous, it gets wholly ignored.

It’s another perfect example of how bonkers that system is.