So sure, it’s routine to balk at and be outraged by AMPAS’s nominations and eventual awardees. But the strategic snubbing of Selma in acting and directorial categories seems too pointed to not put the syllabus building aside to think about. There is much irony in the film getting two nods, for the Best Picture and Best Song categories. We know it will win for the latter; of course, Common and John Legend will win Best Song for “Glory,” because lets face it, them negroes sure can make music! But it has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the former. Have you seen the line-up? What chance does a film like Selma have in a field that is as obsessed with whiteness and manliness as this one is? Then again when is it not obsessed with these things? The irony here is in the fact that though there is much honor in being nominated, the distribution of the nominations reflects the Academy’s tokenism in its purest form. The two things the film was nominated for, moreover, amplifies my unease at the snubbing of DuVernay herself. DuVernay was passed over for the Best Director field, because again looking at that list, it is clear little missy, that it’s the mens who does the directing. Moreover, the absence of nominations for acting, directing, or writing makes it clear that Selma is only on the Best Picture list as a token nod, the obligatory recognition of this years Civil Rights film. It’s too bad the inferior Dear White People isn’t a historical film, and so couldn’t play this role, because Selma is too brilliant a film to be so obviously tokenized and set aside.
Before I tell you why I think Selma is brilliant in a field that includes films like The Help, The Butler, Twelve Years A Slave, and Django Unchained, let me lay out a quick history of how the Academy rewards black creators. If you haven’t seen Selma yet, this rundown will give you a reason to stick with me for a little bit longer before I start dropping the spoilers. Don’t worry, I’ll warn you when they’re coming so you can stop reading and go watch the movie. Mek sure you come back afta though. But back to the history. The first Academy Awards Ceremony was in 1929 and honored films made in 1927 and 1928. In 1938 Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar for her supporting role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. Mammy. Now, don’t get me wrong, this distinction in its moment was nothing to scoff at, and in no way should the recognition of McDaniels’ work be under-played. But it nonetheless cast and set a mold for how the Academy would reward the work of African Americans in the film industry for decades to come.
Since then, Sydney Poitier has won Best Male Actor in a leading role (1958) for Lilies of the Field, in which he plays a magical negro; Denzel Washington for Training Day (1999), in which he plays a thug; Jamie Fox for Ray (2004), in which he plays a musician; and Forrest Whitaker (2006) for playing a violent megalomaniacal African dictator in The Last King of Scotland (2007). Are you beginning to see what I mean about the mold here? One would think there is more variety in the kinds of characters played by black men in the field of best actor nominees – and there is, Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela or Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina – but perhaps these did not play close enough to the stereotypical molds to actually seal the deal.
Moreover, that very first win by Hattie McDaniel establishes the field of Best Supporting Actress as the one where performers of color are acknowledged. Whoopi Goldberg won for Ghost in 2000. She plays a black woman pretending to be magical but who turns out to actually be magical when it means helping the dead white guy and his grieving partner find, well, whatever they need to find. Jennifer Hudson overshadowed Beyonce as the real star of Dreamgirls (2006) by winning for her supporting role as a damn good singer. And then Mo’Nique won for her role as a horrifically abusive mother in Precious (2009); Octavia Spenser won for her role as a maid in The Help (2011); and Lupita Nyong’o for her role as slave who gets the crap beaten out of her in 12 Years a Slave (2013). My point in laying out this trajectory is to show the narrow ways race continues to be configured not only in the roles people of color play in films, but also in the Academy’s capacity to recognize and reward actual achievement in acting and filmmaking.
And now we move to Selma which gets everything about its portrayal of MLK, the Civil Rights Movement, and black filmmaking right in ways its heavily rewarded predecessors like The Help or 12 Years A Slave get wrong. This is the point where you should stop reading if you haven’t watched the movie yet, because I am about to ruin some of the things I think would make the movie most powerful for you. You gone? Good. Now just those of us who have seen it. DuVernay’s talent as a director comes through in a single early scene – the 1963 bombing of the Alabama church that killed four young black girls and marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. In the movie, the scene is shot in a circular stairway. When you see the children, mostly girls descending the stairs, if you know your civil rights history – and who doesn’t – you know what’s about to happen. The scene feels long, in a way that delays what the viewers know is coming and thus heightens its tension. When the lone boy in the line of children steps out of the stairwell and goes another way, we know for sure what’s coming. The blast happens as one of the girls remains on screen, talking about how Coretta Scott-King does her hair. We think she’s going to follow her friends off camera, but DuVernay has the genius to let her remain in the scene as the explosion happens. By that point, though I knew it was coming, the artfully structured scene had manufactured enough tension, making me wait for it, that even though I knew it was coming, I still gasped audibly and instantly burst into tears at the horror. I teared up as I wrote this. I teared up as I edited this. One powerful scene. Even if she did not win, DuVernay deserved to have been nominated in the director’s category for this one scene alone.
But there are other worthwhile and beautifully done things about Selma’s composition that we can attribute to DuVernay’s directorial skill: the inclusion of the text from FBI surveillance of King and other members of the SCLC that offers an alternate narrative structure for the film, for instance, or its insistence that the decision to demonstrate for a Civil Rights cause is also a decision to allow one’s body to be harmed in a process aimed at revealing pernicious cruelty. In one scene an argument between SNCC and SCLC members makes the point that previous demonstrations in Albany were unsuccessful because the sheriff there was not willing to go to the abusive lengths of violence against black bodies that would have provided the spectacle that the movement needed. When Common said “Selma is now” in his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes this past Sunday, this sentiment relates directly to the ways the spectacle of bodies demonstrating against institutionalized injustice remains poignant today, because of the ongoing specter of police brutality. There may no longer be baseball bats wound with barbed wire, but there are guns and tear gas and riot gear. Selma is as emotionally affecting as it is because its scenes are heavily saturated with images that are familiar to us not as scenes from history, but as reflections of the devaluation of black lives that we have been watching in real time since the first weekend of August, 2014. The resonances of Ferguson in the scene in which the police and state troopers await the marchers at the other side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge are disturbing in their familiarity. DuVernay deserved that Best Director nomination for her film’s capacity to show clearly the material ways the past continues to dwell with us tangibly, in our civil institutions like the police.
(I don’t have time to talk here about the fact that Chris Rock was also passed over for his work directing Top Five—a movie that will be the subject of a future homily—but this article also makes that point.)
But perhaps the most poignant thing, for me at least, that Selma gets correct is the disruption of the narratives of martyrdom that in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement circulate around larger than life dead men like King and Malcom X. The problem with this kind of martyrdom is not that it becomes an individual iconicity for an entire movement, but rather that the focus on individual men in life and in sacrificial death distracts from the actual work that goes into changing laws. What is at stake in political movements isn’t some feel-good warm and fuzzy we shall overcome upliftment, but rather changes in the de jure and de facto structures that legitimize racial discrimination and disenfranchisement. This is why Lincoln is brilliant. It focuses on the political maneuvers that must take place to disassemble such structures. Thus, another important scene in Selma is where the members of the SCLC debate what changes in actual practices are most necessary to enable African Americans to exercise the right to vote already established by law. It is a scene that is brilliant not only in terms of its representation of what material changes in a Civil Rights movement means, but also in showing who else was a part of the conversation: Ralph Abernathy and Bayard Young, among others. These names are hardly as recognizable as MLK’s, but nonetheless belong to men who carried on the struggle for Civil Rights and the dismantling of institutionalized racism long beyond King’s death and the turbulence of the 1960s. (The film does include Dear White People’s Tessa Thompson in a small role as activist Diane Nash; its gender politics are another, perhaps historically accurate, issue.)
Selma also disrupts the narrative of martyrdom so engrained in our stories of the Civil Rights movement by providing a new frame for thinking about martyrdom. Thus, by ending prior to King’s death, Selma highlights and names others, regular citizens if you will, who died for the cause: Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young black man who was shot by a police officer in front of his mother and grandfather for daring to march in protest; Rev. James Reeb, a white Unitarian Minister who was among the clergy who answered King’s call to join the march to Montgomery, and died from head trauma after he was severely beaten by a group of white men in Selma; Viola Luizzo, a white Unitarian Civil Rights activist who joined and helped with logistics for the marches to Montgomery and was murdered by the KKK on her way back home to Michigan.
In any case, all of this is to say that there is no self-satisfying we shall overcome endurance in Selma. Instead, there is a clear sense the King, though charismatic, was a flawed man, who struggled with the great responsibilities he took on, or had heaped upon him, like any human would. David Oyelowo deserves to be at least nominated for so fully inhabiting this role, one that lays bare the extent to which we have turned King into an I have a dream avatar and not much else. It is a performance on par with Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal of Lincoln. Both actors have a powerful grasp of the kind of method acting in which the actor gets lost in the character. Oyelowo is King on screen as Lewis is Lincoln. That he was not recognized for his performance while Bradley Cooper was speaks volumes about what the Academy will reward, and from whom. Nonetheless, the desire to be rewarded by an institution whose aesthetic politics are often bankrupt is in some ways a devaluation of the brilliance that is DuVernay’s Selma; in many ways it’s a mark of that brilliance that Oscar couldn’t understand what it was doing. Set aside the white noise about its treatment of LBJ. Go see it and make it a success in ways that actually count. DuVernay’s career and the careers of others like her could depend on it.