Selma, the controversy, and the importance of timing

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selma tieSince the Academy Award nominations were announced Thursday morning, the biggest story has been the lack of nominations for “Selma.” Yes, it got a Best Picture nod. But aside from that, “Selma” was nominated only for Best Original Song (“Glory,” the Golden Globe-winning tune by John Legend and Common), and was shut out completely in the acting, writing and directing categories.

In the first 24 hours of thinkpieces, this underwhelming showing- though I suppose there were about 500 movies released last year that would kill for a “snub” that includes Best Picture and Best Song nominations- has been mostly attributed to three factors: The loud campaign by some historians and Johnson Administration veterans who took issue with the film’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson, mismanagement of the Oscar campaign by Paramount, which supposedly failed to send screeners out in a timely fashion to Guild and Academy members, and good old-fashioned racial prejudice by the aging academy electorate.

All of these factors may very well have had some part to play in the lack of more nods for “Selma.” But I believe they’re only true to limited degrees, and there’s one more big factor at play: The film was released, and shown to voters, way too late. I believe the biggest reason “Selma” wasn’t more properly recognized is that not enough people saw it.

Yes, part of that is the screener issue. But “Selma” never played any of the major film festivals. The majority of critics groups voted at a time when they hadn’t seen “Selma” but had seen most of its rivals. The critics group that I’m a part of did not receive “Selma” screeners at all, and the first press screening in my city didn’t take place until after the first of the year. The film didn’t open outside of New York and Los Angeles until last Friday, and I didn’t see it until last weekend. I did not put “Selma” on my top ten list or vote for it for critics awards, simply because I hadn’t seen it in time. Had I seen it sooner, I certainly would have done both.

I’m not one to get upset and raise a big stink about the lack of a free DVD (or screening invitation) showing up at my doorstep. I have no sympathy for anyone who makes voting decisions based on vindictiveness over whether or not they had to leave their house to see a movie. But the fact was, it’s hard to vote for something if you simply haven’t had an opportunity to see it prior to your voting deadline.

I don’t know why “Selma” wasn’t released in October or November or even early-to-mid-December. If the answer to that question is, “it wasn’t done yet,” I understand. If they wanted to build up an Martin Luther King Day wide release, that makes sense too.  But the advance word of mouth on “Selma” was practically rapturous, and I feel like it’s Oscar chances would have been significantly improved had more people seen it sooner.

The LBJ stuff probably played some part, sure. I’ve got a feeling a lot of the older academy voters read the Robert Caro books and feel like they know LBJ’s history backwards and forwards, and especially objected to the notion that “Selma” got that history wrong. Although really, truth issues are a problem in the Oscars every year, and indeed, every major based-in-a-true-story contender this year,  including “Foxcatcher,” “The Imitation Game,” and “American Sniper”- had even more significant factual issues than did “Selma.”

Then there’s the racial issue. And this is thorny stuff, I realize. So I’ll lay it right out there: I’m a white dude in my 30s. I realize I’m far from the world’s most qualified arbiter on what is or is not racist. Also, for what it’s worth, I loved “Selma,” was profoundly moved by it, and I’m on record as stating that the two most egregious non-nominations of the entire Oscar season are the lack of a directing or writing nod for Ava DuVernay and Paul Webb.

All that said, I don’t buy the notion that lingering racial prejudice is the primary reason for the lack of more nominations for “Selma.” Nor, for the lack of nominees of color in the acting categories, which may be a simple statistical quirk: There were no black acting nominees this year, but there were several last year, and the year before that, and it wouldn’t be shocking if there were more next year as well.

I keep reading that the median Oscar voter is a 63-year-old white male, and the implication is that 63-year-old white males either are either openly racist, or aren’t comfortable with black movies, and that’s why not enough of them voted for “Selma.” Hollywood could use more diversity, absolutely. Did some non-zero amount of those voters base their decision on conscious or unconscious prejudice? I don’t doubt it.

But did enough of them do that for it to make a difference? That I doubt, for a few reasons.

One, “12 Years a Slave,” a movie much more difficult, searing and harder to watch than “Selma,” managed to win the Best Picture Oscar last year, and 2013 was a year with much stronger competition than 2014.

Secondly, median 63-year-old white males who work in the motion picture industry aren’t the equivalent of, say, median 63-year-old white males who vote in midterm elections. And 63-year-olds in 2015 aren’t 63-year-olds from 1980. Baby boomers in Hollywood, even if they’re not all that lefty, are the kinds of people who idealize and valorize the ’60s, and a positive view of the civil rights movement is a big part of that. Did some of those people reject “Selma” because they read the Robert Caro books and got upset about the LBJ stuff? I don’t doubt it. 

“Selma” is a film that depicts and extolls the accomplishments of the mid-1960s, something which I can imagine a lot of those people hold in high esteem.  I wouldn’t expect most white baby boomers to have any attachment to, say, a biopic of Tupac. But of Dr. King? You’re not sticking your neck out, in 2015, when you praise Martin Luther King.

There’s a pretty large berth of older white people who, say, don’t get what the whole Ferguson thing is about. But even that guy that probably doesn’t have negative feelings towards MLK, at least not to the point where he’s going to base his Oscar vote on it. When white people in 2015 espouse racial prejudice, resentment towards Martin Luther King doesn’t tend to have anything to do with it.

Praising King at this point isn’t even controversial- to the point where the same political conservatives who detested King during his time have taken to claiming, falsely, he was actually a Republican.In 2015, nostalgia for Dr. King and the civil rights movement is one of the easiest, least controversial things one can possibly be liberal about.

The other problem I have with this controversy is that it treats Academy Awards as the be-all and end-all of what movies are, and that if “Selma” only got two nominations that it’s somehow something to be ashamed of, and tainting of the film’s legacy. It isn’t, at all. “Selma”‘s legacy, Oscars notwithstanding, is secure. It’s probably going to be shown in schools for years to come, which is more than I can say for “Birdman.”

And finally, even if it wasn’t well-timed for Oscar purposes, “Selma” was well-timed, in the sense that it was released while Ferguson and Eric Garner were on everyone’s minds.

In the long run, I have a feeling “Selma” will end up a much more significant and well-remembered work than any of its competitors, regardless of whichever Oscars it does or doesn’t get nominated for or win.


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  • Lordyuyu

    wow nice article. good points