Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day and given the context, it is an interesting moment to ask whether it really matters that the motion picture academy failed to nominate the black director and the black lead actor of “Selma,” the King biopic, for Oscars.
After all, it lands fairly low on the list of indignities visited on African-Americans: No unarmed people died, no innocent citizens were patted down or jailed.
But yes, it still matters. The news continues to be full of all manner of pathology and victimization involving black Americans, and when a moment comes to celebrate both a historical giant and a pure creative achievement, it merits significant and broad recognition.
Many would say that it should suffice that “12 Years a Slave,” a film by a black director about black history, won best picture last year, and “Selma” was nominated this year, and that any grievance is a conjured one. I disagree.
I covered the Oscars on the Carpetbagger blog for The New York Times for four years, so I am a bit of an Academy Awards fanboy, but I think that nominations matter. They convey recognition at the highest level of a craft that is seen by millions, even if they are coated in Hollywood glitter. When Lupita Nyong’o received a nomination last year for best actress in a supporting role, it was heartening to see her win and know that children of all kinds would notice that it was not just gossamer white women who walked the red carpet and were celebrated for their artistry.
The nominations of the director this time around, and a British actor, David Oyelowo, playing a heroic black figure in the American narrative — not the victim of white oppression, but a corrective to it — would have had particular resonance at this moment. This year is the 50th anniversary of both the Selma marches and the Voting Rights Act. And after months full of tragic news from Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island and all over America, race remains a persistent and complex issue that still has the capacity to divide. A movie creates common ground in the theater, a shared experience that reminds us all of the sacrifice it took to get here.
As someone who once spent a great deal of time reporting on the ins and outs of the Oscars, I know that the snub is not some overt racial conspiracy at work. Among other problems, Paramount thought that “Interstellar” would be its big Oscar horse for the year and jumped on “Selma” as the better bet only when awards season heated up. The movie was completed near the end of the year, and the screeners came late and somewhat sporadically. Perhaps that partly explains why “Selma,” which was second to “Boyhood” in critical acclaim as measured by Metacritic, received just two nominations, for best picture and best song.
“The Academy’s vote for ‘12 Years’ was like pulling teeth,” said Sasha Stone, a longtime Oscar observer who runs the blog AwardsDaily. “To this day, I don’t think many members even saw it and now that it won, the academy has snapped back, like a rubber band, to what they know, to films that are made in their own image.”
That may be partly why “Selma” received very little attention from the various Hollywood guilds — directors, producers and actors — as they handed out kudos, and why it received only two Oscar nominations. By contrast, “American Sniper,” a portrait of American greatness directed by Clint Eastwood that drew mixed reviews, received six.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs is the president of the academy and as a black woman in the film industry, is acutely aware of the issue at hand. She points out that the individual branches are the ones that nominate in the various categories and that the academy as a whole expressed itself in nominating “Selma.”
“ ‘Selma’ is an exceptional film, which is why I believe that the academy nominated it for best picture,” she said by phone on Sunday, adding, “We are committed to do our part to ensure diversity in the industry. We are making great strides, and I personally wish it was moving quicker, but I think the commitment is there and we will continue to make progress.”
“Selma” may not have been the belle of the awards season, but it was certainly a target. Before the movie’s release, Lyndon B. Johnson loyalistsbegan taking shots at its accuracy. Did “Selma” cut some corners and perhaps tilt characters to suit the needs of the story? Why yes — just like almost every other Hollywood biopic and historical film that has been made. This is not a movie that endangers L.B.J.’s legacy, it cements King’s at a near perfect moment in history and should be celebrated as such.
The current president is apparently more interested in the achievements of the film than its approach to the specifics of history. On Friday, President Obama hosted a screening with Ms. DuVernay and Mr. Oyelowo, along with Oprah Winfrey, one of its producers, the day after Oscar nominations were announced. The screening had been scheduled for some time and was meant to kick off a weekend of celebrations anticipating the federal holiday, so the timing was coincidental, but nonetheless freighted with symbolism. (The director, the stars and Ms. Winfrey were also set to march in Selma on Sunday as part of a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration there.)
The Oscars are so precious precisely because they are so finite. Making a really good movie in today’s environment is almost a magic act, yet there are so few Oscars to go around. And when people say it is an honor just to be nominated, they really mean it, because there is significant economic and professional benefit in a nomination, along with the artistic validation. Recognition is important in part because in this instance the film celebrates someone who was not in service to others — a maid, a slave, a driver or a butler — but one of the most important American leaders to have ever lived, a man who changed history.
The public, at least the ones who live on Twitter, certainly think so.
The Oakland Tribune went there and then some on Friday, topping its article about the awards with the headline, “And the Oscar for the best Caucasian goes to …”
While the snubs may sting and point toward a broader blindness, it’s still more important in the long run that a young female black director received the backing of a Hollywood studio and made an important film. Long after the last blubbering actor has been played off the stage while thanking his or her makeup assistant at the Oscars, we will still have “Selma.”