Selma, Black Actors and Oscar

Throwing some thoughts into the mix….

There’s always some kind of “scandal” surrounding the Oscar nominations, and the key word is “snub.” If you were magnificent in a film but people in Hollywood don’t like you, they say you’re snubbed. Or if you got a lot of press but didn’t get nominated, you’re snubbed, which is a way of creating conflict and generating more press.

This year, Jennifer Aniston supposedly was snubbed because she wasn’t nominated for Cake. Same with Angelina Jolie for directing Unbroken. And there’s the biggest, most genuine, shock of all for those on the inside, and that’s the absence of The Lego Movie in the animation category, one it was supposed to win.

But in a year where wrists got sore from pulling out the race card on every other event, Selma is the big Oscar snub story of the moment. It was indeed nominated for Best Picture and was nominated and will win Best Song for “Glory.” It will likely earn a standing ovation from the crowd come Oscar night when it’s performed (as this is how Hollywood will “make up” for the supposed snub when they overpraise the performance of this good piece of music.) But it wasn’t nominated for Best Actor, a true oversight, and it wasn’t nominated for Best Director.

There is of course the issue of racism in the film industry, which is mostly white and male. To think that no one in the general liberal camp of Hollywood is not racist is absurd, of course. But it’s just as absurd to say that because there are many white males voting, that that would be the key reason not to nominate Ava DuVernay, a black female, as director.

First of all, take a look at who also didn’t get nominated: Clint Eastwood, for a film that gathered six nominations including Best Picture, American Sniper. Was he not nominated because he’s considered something of a conservative? That wouldn’t be a good reason not to nominate anyone, especially when he’s given us some of the best work he’s done in a decade here. Then there is David Fincher, who did one of the finest directorial jobs of the year with Gone Girl, which only got one little acting nomination. It was brilliantly directed, and went from something of a front-runner to an also-ran in just a few months. And there is Christopher Nolan, whom many thought was a shoo-in with Interstellar. DuVernay is in good company.

From where this author sits, her work in Selma simply didn’t deserve the nomination. While we enjoy historical moments as much as the next person, to nominate someone just because it would be the first black female nominated as director shouldn’t be enough to garner the nod. It’s not an opportunity missed unless she deserved it. To some, she did. To me and to others, she didn’t.

For those following such things, you already know that the timing of the film’s release was a problem, coming so late in the year. There was also an apparent problem with the screeners, the DVD versions of films put out to voters to encourage them to see the considered films in their busy schedules. I’m sure a few heads are rolling over at Paramount, and perhaps they should. Not getting enough screeners out is a serious goof-up, and those screaming racism need to back away, take a cleansing breath and consider the big picture this year behind the lack of nominations, including bad timing and marketing missteps.

The lack of Oscars for black actors, screenwriters, and directors is a reflection of the lack of blacks in the mainstream industry, both now and historically. Today’s filmmaking community, with the exception of some individuals, doesn’t consider itself racist at all, of course. The power players have always been about money, anyway, and if there were money to be made with black participants, it probably wouldn’t matter. Being historically white and male, it’s not surprising that voters might tend to lean toward what they are familiar with and comfortable with, but that idea extends far beyond race to the subject of indie films and the fine foreign products that make their way onto American screens. Voters vote what they resonate with.

Let’s take a quick look at the Oscars and black actors:

Hattie McDaniel gets the first nomination for a black performer as Best Supporting Actress for Gone with the Wind (1939). She wins it. Nine years later, Ethel Waters wins the same category nomination for Pinky. She doesn’t win.

Dorothy Dandridge gets the first Best Actor/Actress nomination in 1954 for Carmen Jones. She loses to Grace Kelly, who should have lost to Judy Garland.

It’s not until 1963 that Sidney Poitier wins for Best Actor for Lilies of the Field. Was he really better than Albert Finney in Tom Jones? Or Paul Newman in Hud? It was probably the fact that he was beloved and black that he won the award (or can’t I say that?)

Several other black performers were nominated between 1963 and today, including Denzel Washington for Glory and Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost (a rare and happy occasion for a comic performance).

Then we come to 2001, when the Best Actor and Actress Awards were won by Denzel Washington and Halle Berry, both of whom won, I believe, because they were black and Hollywood decided that this was going to be the year to do that. Washington’s performance for Training Day was a surprise nomination to me, and I took it as a sign of affection for Washington as a respected person in Hollywood that he would be nominated. But I didn’t think he was deserving of a nomination, much less the award. It wasn’t the strongest year, to be honest, and there is still the idea that if Russell Crowe hadn’t had a phone-throwing problem, he would have won his second consecutive Oscar for A Beautiful Mind. But Washington, IMHO, was nominated because he is respected and loved, and won because this was the year to honor black performers. (It may well have been a make-up for his loss for Malcolm X as well. It’s another bad habit of Hollywood to take care of what they think was an oversight by creating new ones.)

Halle Berry is a wildly variable actress, who can be fine in one film and awful in the next. She was fine and dramatic and edgy in Monster’s Ball in an Oscar-bait performance, and hit her artistic peak with this film. She may well have deserved the award. But Hollywood nearly put its shoulder out of joint that year in congratulating itself for honoring black performers that year. No trace of racism there, unless it’s a problem to give an award because someone is black, which may well have been the case here with Washington.

Since then, we’ve had Jamie Foxx for Ray, Morgan Freeman for Million Dollar Baby, Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland, Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls, and Mo’Nique for Precious. Last year we had Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o nominated for 12 Years a Slave, and the latter won. Barkhad Abdi was also nominated for Captain Phillips, but lost to Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club. There are varied, but generally good, reasons that black actors didn’t win when they were nominated. Mostly it was because it was felt that others did a better job.

Was The Color Purple robbed because it was nominated for 11 awards and won none? Was that racism, or could it be because in each category, someone was better? The Turning Point, a film on the rarefied world of ballet and catfights, was in the same situation. Was that anti-classical dance, or were there just better choices in all the categories?

This year had plenty of surprises, not only in the snub category. Marion Cotillard, one of the greatest film actresses alive today, was honored for her work in Two Days, One Night, possibly knocking out Aniston and Oscar favorite Amy Adams, who’d just won the Best Actress Award at the Golden Globes for Big Eyes. I saw Big Eyes and not the others, but from what I’ve read, it seems a good set of choices.

The only real “snub” for Selma was the omission of David Oyelolo as Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s a wonderful performance. But it’s also part of a film that many didn’t see in time. It’s also low-key and weighed down rather than intense, and lacks the big furniture-chewing moments that tend to draw nominations. That’s not necessarily right or smart, but it’s a fact, and it has nothing to do with the color of the actor.

Yes, Hollywood voters are generally white and male. But to define that entire demographic as racist is racist. The lack of nominations of black actors in general (and I use the term to refer to both genders) is part of film’s history in America. Last year’s winner for Best Picture was 12 Years a Slave, which was the best picture of the year. Last year, three out of 20 acting nominations were by black actors. This year, the 20 acting nominations didn’t include a black performer. Next year will be different again. Perhaps someday the entire conversation will be about the work, and not about the color of the folks working.

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About Mark DuPré

Full-time (associate) pastor at a Christian church. Part-time film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Husband for 40 years to the lovely and talented Diane. Father to three children and father-in-law to three more amazing people. I preach, teach, counsel, write and plan in my real job. I teach a subject I love at RIT in my "other job," which is a lot of fun most of the time.... I play piano for our local college choir, and sing and play at church occasionally. I also have a film-related website at www.film-prof.com.
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