You’ve had a rough week. Since the 2015 Oscar nominations were announced, you’ve been accused of racism, sexism, and even Lego-ism. It’s enough to make you throw your nine-iron into a sand trap and listen to some Jimmy Buffet to calm down, isn’t it? Sorry, I know not all of you are old, white men. Only 76% of you are men, and only 94% of you are white. And on average you’re 63 years old. But to assume you all listen to Jimmy Buffett was mean. I’m sure some of you listen to Coldplay.
On paper Selma ticks off all the boxes on the Oscar-bait Bingo Card. It’s historically significant, features a Great Man righting Great Wrongs, and is full of British actors affecting American accents. There’s even an explosion. But Selma is not a spectacle, and the Academy loves spectacle. It loves sweeping sentimentality and chewed scenery, but above all, it loves triumph.
And Selma is not a triumphant movie.
Most of you are old enough to have firsthand memories of hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr deliver his iconic ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. Perhaps you remember seeing footage of Civil Rights activists getting sprayed by fire hoses or being beaten with billy clubs in places like Selma, or Mobile or Birmingham. Witnessing these dramatic highs and lows at such an impressionable age may or may not have influenced how you make and watch movies. But it certainly seems to have influenced the way you judge them.
To be fair, the bone I have to pick is with specific branches of the Academy – namely the Actor’s branch and the Director’s branch. The entire Academy only votes after all the nominations are made by the specific branches. That vital distinction is missing in a lot of Oscar coverage. The Academy as a whole actually nominated Selma, and its Best Picture nomination is indeed a huge honour, but in this case it feels like a consolation prize. To nominate Selma and overlook the the two people who are overwhelmingly responsible for its distinction as a great film borders on the absurd. But I think I know how this happened. You didn’t snub Selma director Ava DuVernay and its star David Oyelowo because you’re racist or sexist. You snubbed them because you’re restraint-ist.
In 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his supporters planned a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in order to secure equal voting rights for African Americans in the South. Selma chronicles the public and private struggles that Dr. King had with President Johnson, Alabama Governor George Wallace, his wife Coretta Scott King, and other leaders and members of the Civil Rights movement leading up to this historic march.
If you were expecting Selma to be a biopic you must have been confused. We never see MLK as a child, or witness that pivotal moment that defined his life’s work. There is no clever framing device that drives the narrative from flashback to present time. There are no flashbacks. The film deals with a specific and strategic battleground in the Civil Rights struggle, and with MLK’s relationships within that timeline. There is a lot more talking than marching in Selma, but those conversations are fraught with tension. The one device DuVernay employs to great effect are the FBI communiques that tap across the screen like teletype. It’s a reminder that despite the spirit of cooperation that President Johnson publicly extended to MLK, he continued, albeit begrudgingly, to allow Hoover and his men to spy on and attempt to smear the Reverend Doctor’s name and undermine his efforts.
Were you disappointed that in their portrayal of MLK, DuVernay and Oyelowo chose not to indulge in hero worship? Or were you hoping that a portrayal of MLK would expose greater flaws and a more profound sense of his humanity? Oyelowo plays a man who is constantly on the brink of failure – in his movement and in his marriage – who must remain calm and composed, not because he wants to, but because he knows it is what’s required of him. This strain is especially palpable in the scenes between him and his wife Coretta (played with painful dignity by Carmen Ejogo). MLK’s transgressions are only hinted at, yet DuVernay’s framing of the shots of husband and wife allow the spaces between them to tell us all we need to know. Oyelowo’s performance of a man who can’t show the incredible pressure he's under is riveting. It’s exactly the type of complex and nuanced performance that you should reward, but never do.
It must have been frustrating to expect a capital ‘I’ important film and then realize that it bears none of the hallmarks you typically celebrate. Selma is decidedly matter-of-fact and yet it bursts with emotion. When confronted with scenes of shocking brutality, DuVernay knows exactly when to turn the camera away. She understands the power of moderation and the balance between show and tell. When the heroes claim their prize there is no exultation, no glorious swell of music, no single tear slowly tracing down a humble, black face. Because there is no victory in finally getting something you were owed all along.
I know others will continue to chide you for your lack of diversity this year, and for choosing to recognize films and performances that predominantly represent the white, male experience. But your inability to see beyond convention is just as disheartening.
Selma is triumphant only in its restraint. Unfortunately that’s not the kind of triumph the Academy rewards.