How ‘Selma’ Got Screwed

At 8:30 this morning, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the 2015 Oscar nominations, and most of them were fairly predictable: Boyhood, Birdman, and Grand Budapest led the way; Julianne Moore, Eddie Redmayne, Patricia Arquette, and J.K. Simmons, all good nods, etc. But one title appeared early — nominated for Best Song — and then was conspicuous, in category after category, for its absence: Selma. Bypassed for Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Score, and (most noticeably) Best Actor and Best Director, by the time Ava DuVernay’s masterpiece was finally mentioned a second time, in the last announced category (Best Picture, which somehow felt like a consolation prize), the morning had become a repeat of the entire awards season — where the year’s best movie was being shut out at every opportunity.

Sure, the Oscars ignore great movies all the time — but usually offbeat pictures, genre films that aren’t perceived as “serious,” comedies seen as even less so, foreign films and documentaries that can’t penetrate their weirdly insular nominating branches. But Selma felt different. In the many conversations this critic had in the weeks following my first, emotionally devastating viewing of Selma, one thought that never crossed my mind was, “Well, it’s a great movie, but it’s not the kind of movie that wins awards.”

To the contrary, this is exactly the type of movie that wins awards. It is based on a true story. It tackles, with richness and complexity, an iconic historical figure. It is both intimate and epic, dramatizing a moment in our history with an eye on both the micro and the macro. It draws the line from the past to the present, without hammering its audience over the head about it. And it is beautifully acted and magnificently crafted.

So how did it all go wrong? How did this tremendous film, which has earned some of the year’s best reviews and moved audiences to tears, make such a tiny impression in this year’s Oscar nominations — as many nods as Guardians of the Galaxy, if you’re keeping track, and fewer than far lesser films like Unbroken, Into the Woods, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, and Interstellar? Three reasons.

David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo in "Selma"

1. It’s all in the timing.

At risk of wandering into the weeds, indulge me in a quick bit of history: from 1943 until 2003, the Academy Awards were awarded in March, or even, as recently as 1988, April. Then, in 2004, they were switched to February, collapsing the awards season. But increasingly, said season didn’t lose the month of March or April — it lost the month of December. And thus, the Academy Awards, as well as the countless critics’ awards, guild awards, and miscellaneous awards that lead up to them, are not recognizing the best films of the previous year; they’re recognizing the best films of the first 11(ish) months of the previous year.

And as a part of that December-and-January crush, said organizations and critics’ groups have turned into the most obnoxious Internet commenters, climbing over each other to holler “FIRST” and plant their flag in the season. Example: the group that now fires the starter pistol for awards season, the New York Film Critics Circle, handed out their awards in January (sometimes February) from 1937 to 2009. That year, they moved their ceremony — first to mid-December, then to early December three years ago. This year, they gave their awards on December 1st.

Ponder that. I can tell you that I work as a film critic, and due to the sheer number of hours in the day/week/month, I don’t get to see all of the important films in a given year within that year, much less chopping off the last month of it. But for the NYFCC, and the tumult of groups that follow suit, to shut off the valve on December 1st and say, “Nope, that’s it, that’s all the good movies there are!” is fucking ridiculous.

Now, what does this have to do with Selma? Well, you see, Selma had the misfortune of being a movie that actually wasn’t ready to be seen — in the guilds’ and groups’ preferred format, at least — in time for their preposterously gun-jumping awards. Director Ava DuVernay told me the film wasn’t initially intended for release this fall; Paramount proposed its Christmas date in mid-June, three weeks into shooting, after getting a look at the impressive dailies. In most circumstances, the window between a film’s shoot and its arrival in theaters is something like a year. But DuVernay met Paramount’s challenge, recognizing the urgency of getting a movie into theaters that is so very much of its moment, and rushed the picture through post-production.

As a result, its initial guild and critics’ screenings didn’t even show the final, locked film (the version I saw on Thanksgiving weekend was missing the end credit roll). And, most importantly, it wasn’t ready to be pressed onto “screeners,” the vitally important DVDs and Blu-rays sent to members of those organizations to allow for convenient home viewing. According to Variety, DuVernay locked Selma on November 26; it usually takes six weeks to master, press, and deliver discs for voters. Paramount, the film’s distributor, paid extra for expedited service, and had to pick and choose which organizations to send them to, as several deadlines had already passed by the time those screeners went out on December 18 (by which time many potential voters were presumably gone for the holidays).

So several guilds and critics’ organizations had already finished nominating or even voting by the time the screeners were ready, and though private screenings were available to members in larger cities, the expectation these days is that the movie comes to them, not the other way around. Most importantly, in missing those December awards, Selma was unable to ride the kind of “momentum” tide that’s such a giant component in awards season. Instead of talking about the movie, awards-watchers were talking about its absence… and this other thing too.

2. The “accuracy” question.

We’ve discussed this ginned-up, nonsensical controversy more than once, so let’s not rehash those arguments again. But what is worth noting is that, credible or not, the controversy worked; legitimate news organizations, on television and online, reported it with a straight face, as though questioning the total accuracy of historical films weren’t the most tired move in the Oscar campaign playbook. They got used, and as a result, most of the mainstream conversation about Selma was about whether or not it was fair to poor old defenseless LBJ. Like Zero Dark Thirty at this point in the game, the objections of pundits who know jack shit about cinema or art managed to drown out any discussion of the actual quality of the movie.

But we should also ask why Selma’s “controversy” stuck, while American Sniper and The Imitation Game — which have also been accused of playing fast and loose with historical fact — came away scot-free, Oscar-wise. Should they have been “punished” for their liberties? Certainly not. But it’s worth noting that those two films have been accused of lionizing an American solider and simplifying a British scientist, while Selma is accused (inaccurately) of vilifying a beloved white president. And to that end:

David Oyelowo and Ava DuVernay on the set of "Selma"

3. Selma is a movie by, and about, black people.

Had she received the Academy Award nomination for Best Director that she so richly deserved, Ava DuVernay would have been the first woman of color to receive that honor in the 87-year history of the Oscars. I’m gonna go ahead and do a paragraph break here so we can mull that over, just for a minute or two.

Everybody back? OK, great. Now, had she nabbed that nomination, she also would’ve been only the fourth black person nominated for Best Director, ever, following John Singleton in 1992, Lee Daniels in 2010, and Steve McQueen last year. No winners yet in that category. Yeah, we should probably think on that for a second too.

OK. Now. Why does this matter, ultimately? As Mark Harris eloquently writes over at Grantland:

When a predominantly white, predominantly old, predominantly male voting body seems to turn its back on a movie — one made by a woman of color about black people as agents of American history that has raised the hackles of a number of splenetic older white men with powerful platforms — it is not unreasonable to ask questions about whether a particular kind of soft racism is in play. I think it would be a big mistake to dismiss that out of hand, just as it would be a mistake to say that gender had absolutely nothing to do with the almost-all-male directors’ branch omitting DuVernay, who is in no way a member of their club. If you don’t believe that more often than not, people tend to vote for people who look like them, consider that, as I write this, 20 white actors and actresses are wondering whether it’s too early in the day for a little champagne.

Selma is a rare case of people of color using the megaphone of a major studio release to tell their story — more often than not, the Academy is willing to applaud stories of black struggle, but y’know, when they’re told by white people, preferably through the lens of an honorable white protagonist. (See Glory, Cry Freedom, Driving Miss Daisy, Mississippi Burning, The Blind Side, The Help, many more.)

Still image from "Selma"

And maybe it’s presumptuous, or unfair, to suggest that at least a portion of the Academy’s nominating body looked at Selma, saw that 12 Years a Slave won last year, and decided they were good on African-American narratives for a while. But note that this is an organization that is 93 percent white and 76 percent male, with an average age of 63. Harris is right: DuVernay is not “a member of their club,” and neither is her MLK, David Oyelowo. Then again, they might wanna consider Groucho Marx’s position about the kind of clubs you’d want to belong to.

At the end of the day, as so many naysayers have exasperatedly insisted today, do the Oscars really “matter”? No, inasmuch as Selma is a great movie, will remain a great movie, will live on in conversations about film and America and social justice far longer than just about anything it was or wasn’t nominated against, and comparing great movies is for suckers anyway.

But yes, sometimes they do matter, when a film is telling the kind of story, and employing the kind of talent, that we need more of in mainstream cinema. Academy Awards — and make no mistake, Selma may have a shot at Best Song but will certainly not win Best Picture, unless its many puzzling exclusions make it some sort of default underdog favorite, like Argo two years back — are a language that even the most casual filmgoer speaks, a seal of approval that translates to a discernible boost in box office. And there, the math is pretty simple: when a movie makes money, they make more movies like it. When a director’s movies make money, she gets to make more of them. And when a film by a black woman is a critical and commercial success, the rarity of black women directing movies looks appropriately ridiculous.

The number of black stories being told, and black directors telling them, is disgustingly low. Actors of color are cast only in roles where their race is the point of their character; the default position for cinematic protagonists remains white, and usually male. The field of directing, in both film and television, is disturbingly cognate. Should Selma have met with greater Oscar success merely because it bucks those trends? Of course not. But that’s not what happened here. A legitimately great movie has been largely ignored, quietly removed from proper consideration among the year’s finest films by an infuriating mixture of industry politics, mudslinging, homogeneity, and bullshit.