Oscars 2015: What the Hell Happened to ‘Selma?’
Every year, everyone on Earth seems to be pissed that their favorite movie didn’t get an Oscar nomination for one thing or another. Well, the nominations are in, and here at CraveOnline, we’re upset that Jake Gyllenhaal got snubbed for his masterful performance in Nightcrawler, and that Amy Adams was completely ignored for amazing wallflower work in Big Eyes. But nothing – and I mean nothing – compares to our outrage that the Academy ignored Ava DuVernay’s Selma almost completely.
I say “almost,” because Selma did walk away with two nominations, for Best Picture and Best Original Song. It may seem strange to say that a Best Picture nominee was robbed by the Oscars, but the fact that the Academy only saw fit to nominate the film in two categories has an uncomfortable air of tokenism. How, one might ask, could a film be potentially worthy of getting declared the Best Picture of the Year but not be worthy of consideration for any of its filmmakers? Was there no room for the film’s exceptional cast in the four acting categories, which are now comprised of entirely of white actors?
Sure enough, Selma is one of the best movies of 2014. More than that, it is absolutely amazing to us that we even thought there were two better films (for the record, they were Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Dance of Reality and the Best Picture nominee Whiplash). Selma is just that good. It earned standing ovations, tears and shattered nerves at various screenings. It’s a harrowing and all too timely dramatization of the Civil Rights marches in Selma, AL and the many individuals who rallied to change America for the better. On the surface it may look like a biopic about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – who is played with incredible charisma and depth by David Oyelowo – but its real power lies in its dedication to empowering every single person involved, demonstrating that the “great man” philosophy of history that so many Hollywood biopics espouse is pure treacle, and that everyone has a part to play in making a difference.
Selma is a movie we need, composed exquisitely from top to bottom. So what the hell happened?
The problem appears to have been twofold.
Very few serious Oscar contenders arrive without at least a little bit of controversy, some of it damaging, some of it superficial. Two years ago, Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliant Zero Dark Thirty was accused of justifying torture in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden (even though it didn’t), which took its toll and transformed the film from a frontrunner into an also ran. In contrast, the historical inaccuracies catalogued for Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, a biopic about mentally ill Nobel Laureate John Nash, did little or nothing to prevent the film from winning four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, in 2001.
The Selma controversy began last month when Mark K. Updegrove, the director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, and Joseph A. Califano Jr., President Johnson’s assistant for domestic affairs from 1965-1969, accused Ava DuVernay’s film of a serious inaccuracy. One of the central conflicts in DuVernay’s film is between Dr. King and President Johnson, who disagree over the importance of the Voting Rights Act, which would prevent African-Americans voters from being discriminated against in the electoral process. President Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson) argues that he has to champion many issues and can’t focus on the Voting Rights Act in 1965, leading Dr. King to hold the Civil Rights marches in Selma, AL to make headlines and turn his issue into the nation’s top priority.
Both Updegrove and Califano argue, correctly, that President Johnson and Dr. King were actually in agreement on the issue, and that Johnson was an integral part of planning the scheme in the first place. Updegrove wrote an editorial at Politico Magazine on December 22, 2014 and Califano followed suit a few days later at The Washington Post, calling attention to the inaccuracy and expressing varying degrees of outrage.
Updegrove accuses the film of “[bastardizing] one of the most hallowed chapters in the Civil Rights Movement” (although he does allow that films “based on” historical events are usually subject to inaccuracies), and Califano goes even further, accusing the filmmakers of feeling “immune from any responsibility to the dead” and suggesting that Selma “should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.”
Both of these men were well within their rights to correct the historical inaccuracies in Selma, but not because the filmmakers were wrong to make certain alterations to the true story. No audience member should get all of their history from fictionalized motion pictures, but too often that seems to be what happens anyway. Many people still seem to think Antonio Salieri hated Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and had something to do with his death after Milos Forman’s Oscar-winner Amadeus turned their relationship into a Machiavellian conspiracy, but that was entirely a fabrication. It is the responsibility of historians to speak up and keep the truth alive when Hollywood gets something, just about anything, wrong, even the service of great drama.
But that doesn’t mean Hollywood is wrong to make changes to the history, particularly in the pursuit of capturing the spirit of reality in a fictional medium. Ignoring the arguably troubling idea that Selma might have been entirely brought down for not giving the most powerful white man in the world enough credit for the Civil Rights Movement, and which might have diminished the film’s valid themes of grassroots politicking, President Johnson was also the subject of a screenwriting process popularly known as “dovetailing,” in which multiple real-life (or even fictional) characters are combined for dramatic effect. For example, the multiple love interests of Andy Kaufman were combined into one for the purposes of the biopic Man on the Moon, simply because introducing them all would have robbed his relationship with each of them of the proper dramatic weight.
In the case of Selma, the President of the United States – the representative of the United States to the entire world – was dovetailed neatly with the entire American government which was not entirely unified in favor of the Civil Rights Movement in 1965. As depicted in the film, his internal conflict is symbolic of the conflict within the entire government, and his decision to throw his support behind the Voting Rights Act (powerfully dramatized in a meeting with George Wallace, played by Tim Roth) represents decision to pass the act itself by the entire government, including the many representatives who were not depicted in the film due to its already sprawling cast and the confines of its running time.
This controversy may very well have affected the support Selma should have had from the Acadmey of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, who typically embrace powerful dramas about social change, but it should not have. Calling attention to the facts of history is of immense value, but so is Selma, which despite this inaccuracy uses its dramatizations to capture the inherent drama of a historical moment in an immediate and personal fashion, and does so with exceptional skill, illustrating just how relevant the events were to present day Americans.
But the controversy, however valid it may be, is not the only problem that Selma faced this awards season. The simple fact may be that not enough people saw it.
After an early screening of Selma at the American Film Institute Festival (AFI Fest), the buzz couldn’t be better. Some critics were already hailing it as “one of the best American films of the year.” But afterwards, screenings were scarce. Many critics groups, whose yearly awards help raise awareness of Oscar-worthy films for the Academy (in addition to being valuable judgments in and of themselves), were unable to see the film in time to vote in late November/early December.
Those few critics who did get to see it early had their reviews embargoed until close to the film’s release date, preventing them from publicly spreading the word. And screener DVDs, already received by only select groups, were even scarcer. I know at least one major critic who says they only received one yesterday, far too late for viewing it and writing about it to make any difference in the awards season.
None of which would matter, of course, if the film were bad. But of all the Best Picture nominees this year, Selma actually now has the highest approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an incredible 99% of critics supporting it, at least to one degree or another. Reaching a wider audience even earlier could only have helped the film’s chances at growing support within the Academy.
I know far too little about the behind the scenes rationale for Selma‘s Oscar campaign, and I won’t make any right or wrong judgments about the way it was managed. Perhaps the intent was to sneak Selma in at the last minute to soak up all the attention, an approach which has worked for Best Picture winners in the past, like Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. But whatever plan was in place, it doesn’t seem to have panned out well for Selma and the many filmmakers behind it who were worthy of greater recognition.
So What Happens to ‘Selma’ Now?
What happens now is we keep talking about it. It is technically possible that the incredible snub for Selma raises awareness of just how great Ava DuVernay’s motion picture really is, and manages to actually win Best Picture anyway. But no film has ever won Best Picture with only two nominations to its credit before (although Grand Hotel did win with only one nomination, for Best Picture obviously, way back in 1932). It probably isn’t too prudent to hold out hope, although keeping our fingers crossed couldn’t hurt either.
But it’s important to remember that although Oscar wins certainly help a film reach a wider audience, many of the best films ever made weren’t didn’t win Best Picture. Citizen Kane didn’t win, and neither did Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Sunset Boulevard, 12 Angry Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, Dr. Strangelove, The Graduate, Chinatown, All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver, Star Wars or Goodfellas. And that’s just a short list of classic films that were actually nominated.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: time is the only film critic that matters. If a film lasts in the public consciousness, that’s worth more than all the Oscars in the world. It is the responsibility of film lovers and film critics to keep the conversation about truly great films alive long after the awards seasons are over, and if the film is good enough, it’s not a chore. The great films that influence our ways of thinking, or personal experiences and the way we look at the art form endure because remembering them is instinctual. And a film like Selma seems likely to pass the test of time with flying colors.
But seriously, screw you, Academy. What the hell happened?