Gene Seymour: At #OscarsSoWhite, many complain the 'Selma' Oscar snub is about race
He says consider difference between Oscar support for "12 years a Slave" and "Selma"
Seymour: One is about blacks as victims; one is about strong blacks as agents of their own salvation
Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.
A best picture nomination is not exactly nothing. Many would argue that it’s just about everything.
Yet there was brush-fire-level rage on and off the Internet – see #OscarsSoWhite – following Thursday morning’s announcement of this year’s Academy Award nominations over the fact that “Selma,” the critically acclaimed drama about Martin Luther King Jr.’s epochal campaign for voting rights in the South, received only two Oscar nods, one of them for best picture. (The other was for best song: “Glory,” the Golden Globe-winning anthem co-written by Common and John Legend, which one can safely label the prohibitive early favorite its category.)
Much of the anger was tilted, especially, toward the omission of the film’s director, Ava DuVernay, whose nomination would have broken fresh ground as the first African American woman to compete for the best director Oscar.
David Oyelowo’s performance as King was likewise snubbed for a best actor slot while neither Paul Webb’s original screenplay nor Bradford Young’s cinematography, both deemed worthy competitors by movie critics, received the Academy’s acknowledgment in both their respective categories.
“Selma’s” partisans cried racism at the Academy voters, even though a few of these critics pointed out that this was the pretty much the same Academy that a year ago conferred the best picture, best adapted screenplay and best supporting actress Oscars to “12 Years a Slave.”
I was prepared to offer that perspective, too – until I noticed a distressing dichotomy looming on this branch.
A depiction of African Americans in shameful, soul-depleting captivity is one thing; African Americans organized in open rebellion against their oppressors is very much another.
Movie history has many films with black slaves and black victims. It’s much harder to think of a Hollywood movie in which African Americans are depicted as the active agents of their own salvation. “Selma” is one of those movies. And its relative dearth of worthy nominations is viewed, fairly or not, as a collective snub of not just a movie, but of African Americans’ vision of their own empowerment.
It may have been bad timing, as the movie’s nationwide release only took place last weekend. And many blamed Joseph A. Califano Jr.’s opinion piece in The Washington Post, which excoriated “Selma’s” depiction of his former boss, Lyndon B. Johnson, as an impediment in King’s campaign. That some journalists brought up Califano’s grievances in other articles about the film may have contributed to some restraint, at least, in the campaign for greater Oscar support by Paramount, Selma’s distributor.
But one wonders about this: We are in a time when the voting rights legislation passed 50 years ago with the active support of both King and LBJ is under siege both in the courts and in some states. Why are people less focused on this clear and present danger and more caught up in questions of historical veracity of a Hollywood movie?
Well … we’re still weeks away from the final vote. And however the chatter has leaned on “Selma,” those who support the movie should be grateful that there is chatter at all carrying the movie to the finish line.
With Hollywood, one never knows. That best picture nomination could very well become a best picture win.