Do you remember all of the Oscar nonsense this year? When a bunch of white filmmakers said something to the tune of “race shouldn’t be a factor and it should be based on quality”. Well, that whole image of the best films/actors/directors/etc being rewarded goes up in flames when you consider Selma. When discussing the recent Black Lives Matter protests, actor David Oyelowo spoke out about the way the Oscars turned their backs on Ava DuVernay’s film. For anyone that missed it, Selma came out around the time that Eric Garner was murdered. When the cast wore “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts to the premier, the Academy didn’t like it one bit. They went so far as to say to the studio and producers ‘We are not going to vote for that film because we do not think it is their place to be doing that.’ So, Selma, a film that had received critical acclaim, was shunned for speaking out against police brutality. A film about the civil rights movement, one of the defining political movements in American history, was criticised for being too political. The Academy spat out its dummy and ignored the story of Black people standing up for their rights. And people wonder why #Oscarssowhite trended all over social media?
It’s infuriating watching a film like Selma and knowing the reason that it never got the recognition it deserved. In the end, the film only got nominated for two awards. The first was Best Picture and the second for Best Original Song. Of those, it only won Best Original Song. Did it deserve more? Certainly. In a year when Eddie Redmayne won Best Actor, we have to ask where was David Oyelowo’s nomination? Where was the nomination for Ava DuVernay? Why did Birdman, a good film in its own right, win the Best Picture prize instead? Obviously, we don’t know how different the results would have been without the protest but we might have seen more nominations.
Selma has been criticised for its historical inaccuracies in the same way that people are now banging on about the historical inaccuracies in Hamilton. Frankly, it’s ridiculous. The film never pretends to be a documentary but an artistic rendering of historical events. It is, like every other film, telling a story. It just so happens that it is a story based on real-life events. It might take some liberties with facts to favour the narrative but what historical drama doesn’t? Why would we hold this film to a higher standard than others? Because it is recent history? Doubtful when you have other modern history stories that cover up facts in favour of the story. How many Vietnam War films are completely accurate? Do we care? No, because it is considered patriotism in America.
Is this just another example of systemic racism? How else would you describe the absurd criticism of a Black story? Ava DuVernay wanted to focus her film on the struggle that Black people faced in getting the right to vote. She wanted to show what that meant to people. So what is President Johnson wasn’t quite accurate? As a whole, this film was a great representation of what happened in Selma in 1965. The salient points are there and it accurately brings the march to life for a new generation of viewers. We don’t let historical fidgie-widgieness get in the way of our enjoyment of other films, so why should Selma be any different?
Letting these matters get in the way of this film would be to do it a disservice. After all, it is a well-crafted and well-acted film. It takes an important event in American history and presents Martin Luther King’s personal struggle to show us that society isn’t much improved 50 odd years later. It’s even more prescient in the current climate as we see scenes like this all over the news. 2020 has been full of images of Black people protesting through the streets as white supremacists stand guard holding guns and confederate flags. Yeah, maybe the President wasn’t quite as unhelpful and pig-headed as he is shown in the film. But, maybe, it was meant to be an indication of how stubborn and unhelpful politicians have been in this fight. How legislation that helps Black people is still such a struggle to get passed.
By far, the greatest thing to come out of this film is David Oyelowo. His portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. is careful, considered, and realistic. He brings the power and passion to the figure who meant so much to so many people. Yet, the film doesn’t present him as a saint. It shows us that, in fact, he was just a man. He was flawed and made mistakes just like everybody else. It doesn’t need to make into an infallible mythical being to show how important he is. He showed that in his actions and the way he inspired people to follow his example. It’s a shame that DuVernay’s film was snubbed by the Oscars in 2015. This is an important film and one that should be viewed now more than ever.
Although, like the man at the story’s centre, it’s not a perfect film. It is tender and dramatic but it might sometimes lay things on a bit too thick. Maybe it isn’t always as clear with who it is trying to criticise and who it is trying to protect. I’m not trying to drag it down but it does feel as though there has been a lot of thought into how the story has been framed. Still, it’s a film that inspires and shows us why we need to continue fighting. The fact that these scenes are still so relevant is worrying and upsetting. We need films like this and filmmakers like DuVernay in the future. That’s the only way we’ll be able to learn from our past.