When the Academy Award nominations came out on Jan. 22, what was most surprising was that “Selma,” the historical drama charting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s protest marches in 1965 Alabama, only nabbed nominations for best original song and best picture. None of the film’s creative team was nominated in other categories.
Many expected the film’s director, Ava DuVernay, to receive a nomination, especially when her inclusion would have made history: She would have become the first black woman to be nominated for a directing Oscar.
And David Oyelowo, who played King, was expected to be nominated for best actor, but he wasn’t (Bradley Cooper probably took his slot with “American Sniper”). But this year’s best actor category was a decidedly overcrowded one, with many excellent performances vying for nominations.
Regardless, supporters of “Selma” were outraged and immediately cried racism, spawning the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.
But many insiders are saying that it’s impossible for the Academy as a whole to be racist. Many point to the fact that just last year, “12 Years A Slave” won best picture and Steve McQueen was the first African American to win best director.
Also, the craft and acting awards are nominated by those disciplines (actors vote on actors, directors on directors and so forth). But everybody votes on best picture, so many are saying that “Selma’s” best picture nomination represents the Academy’s mindset as a whole.
But, still, this year’s crop of major Oscar nominees is the whitest in almost two decades, with no person of color receiving an acting nomination.
So what happened?
First, “Selma” wasn’t mentioned in any of the precursor awards leading up to the Oscars, and many say that recognition there could have boosted the film’s overall Oscar chances.
But “Selma’s” backing studio, Paramount, didn’t send screeners to the guilds. Variety reports that Paramount reps said the decision was based on time constraints. In fact, DuVernay is said to have been editing the film right up until the very last minute. And “Selma’s” late release made it impossible to send screeners in time, Paramount says.
It’s hard to tell if early guild nominations would have helped “Selma’s” creative team. Traditionally, though, award nominations from the Screen Actors, Producers and Directors guilds have been heavy indicators of Oscar nominees and eventual winners. “Selma” wasn’t on any of their lists.
DuVernay’s omission, though, could also have been because of the way President Lyndon B. Johnson was portrayed in the film, which has received criticism.
In December, the Washington Post published an op-ed piece by Joseph A. Califano Jr., who was President Lyndon Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969.
Califano criticized “Selma” for “taking dramatic, trumped-up license with a true story that didn’t need any embellishment to work as a big-screen historical drama.”
Califano offered examples such as his reports to the White House and said “all this material was publicly available to the producers, the writer of the screenplay and the director of this film. Why didn’t they use it? Did they feel no obligation to check the facts?”
DuVernay responded via Twitter (@AVAETC) on Dec. 28: “Bottom line is folks should interrogate history. Don’t take my word for it or LBJ rep’s word for it. Let it come alive for yourself.”
Regardless, Califano concluded by saying that “the movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.”
Did this influence Academy branch voters? It’s hard to say.
But the faces of all the major nominees are there. Do they just all happen to be white? Or is it intentional? One would hope not.
It’s ironic this year, though, because for the first time the Academy has an African American woman – Cheryl Boone Isaacs – as its president. Isaacs even announced the nominations live with actor Chris Pine.
New York magazine’s Vulture blog asked Isaacs if the Academy has a problem with recognizing diversity. She replied, “Not at all.”
And when asked if she had expected more nominations for “Selma,” she said, “Well, it’s a terrific motion picture, and that we can never and should not take away from it. ... There are a lot of terrific motion pictures, it’s a very competitive time, and there’s a lot of great work that has been done.”
All this controversy has certainly put “Selma” at the forefront of a lot of Academy voters’ minds. Will they try to right a wrong?
In that sense, “Selma’s” chances at Oscar gold – which would normally seem slim with any other film that only got two nominations – are now very real, indeed.