Why the ‘Selma’ Snub Matters

Because of its unjustified snubbing, Selma and the artists involve now face an uphill battle in the movie industry they never should have to face.

Over the last few days, ever since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominations for the 2014/15 Oscars, there’s been a groundswell of criticism over what many in the press are calling “the whitest” pool of candidates since the mid ’90s. The lack of diversity, especially in the main categories (Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor and Actress, Director, and Screenwriting) has the La-Z-Boy pundits up in arms, with the lack of respect for Paramount’s Civil Rights epic, Selma, front and center.

Many across Messageboard Nation believed that, despite the numerous snubs from the other guilds (DGA, SAG, PGA), director Ava DuVernay, actor David Oyelowo, and other members of the cast and crew would wind up with Oscar nods. Instead, when the final names were announced, Selma had to settle for two acknowledgements only: Best Picture and Best Song. With the race card ready at their disposal, social media exploded with all manner of accusations and speculations.

For some, this turn of events was nothing more than verification of Hollywood’s inherent racism and overall lack of diversity. Try as it might, Tinseltown can’t easily erase that stain. After all, this is the same industry that for nearly three-quarters of a century looked the other way when it came to damaging and demeaning depictions of people of color, a business that required a similar amount of time to even recognize minority actors and actresses, let alone crew members. While it’s struggled to separate itself from its past, the art form still feels like a white person’s world, no matter how realistic that view may be.

It’s particularly tough in DuVernay’s case, since many were hoping she could break through and become not only one of the rare female Best Director nominees, but the first African American female Best Director nominee ever. They (rightly) saw her work in Selma as worthy of the nod, and are now reacting strongly to the fact that, once again, she did not make the celebrated shortlist — she missed the DGA as well. While there are voices proclaiming that she’s not one of the five best filmmakers of 2014, it’s a specious argument at best. Nothing she did or did not do in telling the tale of Dr. Martin Luther King and the infamous March was any worse or better than what Clint Eastwood did with American Sniper or Morten Tyldum did with The Imitation Game, and yet both of them received recognition.

Some cite the recent uproar over the treatment of former president Lyndon B. Johnson in the film as the reason for the snub; former staffers and scholars have argued that Selma does the former President and his role in the Civil Rights Movement a grand disservice. Others are arguing that Paramount dropped the ball when it came to campaigning and/or promoting the film. Indeed, the studio’s decision to open the film on December 25, and to limit screeners to certain groups (a few critics groups had the film shown to them, but most didn’t) could very well be the reason behind the snub. After all, we live in a home theater/streaming society; even guild voters like their annual influx of award season swag and DVDs.

Lack of access could be a reason for the lack of Oscar nominations. So could a mischaracterization of a famous historical figure’s role in the depicted events. There could also be a myriad of other reasons why Selma was mostly shut out, and yet it’s interesting to see how little is being made of the fact that certain other significant performances by actors of color were not nominated either — to wit, Chadwich Boseman’s career-defining turn as James Brown in Get on Up and Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s work in both Belle and Beyond the Lights. Granted, the former had quite a fight on his hands to overcome the collection of givens on display come AMPAS announcements (Keaton, Cumberbatch, and Redmayne are stiff competition) but he was just as good, or better, than others in said category.

Of course, all the handwringing over the lack of a nomination (and the rationale for it) misses the whole point here. What’s most important about the lack of nominations for Ava DuVernay, David Oyelowo, and the rest of Selma in general, is that it no longer affords the film and its makers a legacy. Don’t understand what that means or the logic involved? Okay – quick: name the other films nominated along with Titanic when it won. How about those surrounding 12 Years a Slave? You see, the winner automatically earns an element of timelessness. The nominees don’t, unless they are individual.

Now, if DuVernay had earned a nomination and lost, she would at least be remembered as the first female African American director to earn such an honor; if she had won, even more so. But now, without either a DGA or AMPAS acknowledgement, she’s just one of dozens of directors who made a movie in 2014 — nothing more, nothing less. And that reputation will follow her. Had she received a nomination, she would be known as a member of an elite group, and when referred to, she would forever be known as “Oscar nominated director”. Instead, when she goes into her next pitch meeting, when she heads out to get financing for her next project, she won’t have that badge of honor, and she should.

It’s the same with Selma in general. Hollywood makes movies for two clear reasons – rest-of-the-year profiteering and end-of-the-season splash. No matter what they say in public, in private they love being the studio that spent money to make the most recent prestige picture; it’s why they fund all those terrible popcorn tentpoles. One Transformers can lead to several Selmas. However, if the response is a resounding rejection, or at best, minor movie lip service, a company like Paramount will think twice before okaying a film like this. The nominations confirm their decision, and the lack of same demands their reconsideration.

This is not just about Hollywood’s horrible track record when it comes to race or a single studio dropping the ball when it comes to proper promotion. No, the Selma snubs mean that one of the most important pictures to come out in the last few years will be known as nothing more than an also-ran, made by someone ostensibly not as talented as Richard Linklater or Bennett Miller, and starring someone who plays second fiddle to a bunch of Brits and the guy who was Batman once upon a time. It also means that the next time something like this comes along, the studios may think twice before green-lighting it. Sure, if Selma is a massive box office hit or ends up winning Best Picture, that may change things. But for now, sans Oscar nods, it’s just another movie.