Yes, 'Selma' Is Up for Best Picture—but Here's Why That's Not Enough

David Oyelowo's best actor snub reflects the trend that people of color in subservient roles tend to find favor with the Academy.

Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Feb 20, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Britni Danielle is a regular contributor to TakePart. She writes on a variety of subjects for Clutch, Ebony, Jet, and others.

When the list of Academy Award nominees was announced in January, movie fans quickly noticed something missing from the lineup: people of color. Much of the criticism about the lack of diversity in the latest crop of nominations has centered on the film Selma. Actor David Oyelowo, who portrayed Martin Luther King Jr., and the film’s director, Ava DuVernay, were left out of contention. While the film was nominated for best picture and best original song, Oyelowo’s commanding performance going unrecognized has left many people scratching their heads.

But for savvy followers of the Academy Awards, the omission shouldn’t have been such a surprise.

“Generally speaking, we as black people have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings or being in the center of our own narrative, driving it forward,” Oyelowo said earlier this month at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

As examples, he cited Denzel Washington’s 1993 Oscar snub for his powerful portrayal of the title character in Malcolm X (Washington won the best actor award in 2001 for playing a crooked cop in Training Day) and the Academy awarding Sidney Poitier the 1963 best actor Oscar for playing a handyman in Lilies of the Field (his legendary turn as a police detective in 1967 for the film In the Heat of the Night was ignored).

“We have been slaves, we have been domestic servants, we have been criminals. We’ve been all those things,” Oyelowo said. “But we’ve been leaders, we’ve been kings, we’ve been those who change the world. And those films, where that is the case, are so hard to get made.”

It’s not just African Americans who have been ignored by the Academy. The following list shows the lack of diverse representation among winners in the 87-year history of the Academy Awards:

Best Director

  • Female: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker, 2010
  • Black: None
  • Asian: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain, 2005; Life of Pi, 2012
  • Hispanic: Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity, 2013

Best Actor

  • Black: Sidney Poitier, Lilies of the Field, 1963; Denzel Washington, Training Day, 2001; Jamie Foxx, Ray, 2004; Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland, 2006
  • Asian: Yul Brynner, The King and I, 1956; Ben Kingsley, Gandhi, 1982
  • Hispanic: José Ferrer, Cyrano de Bergerac, 1950

Best Actress

  • Black: Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball, 2001
  • Asian: None
  • Hispanic: None

Supporting Actor/Actress

  • Black: Hattie McDaniel, Gone With the Wind, 1939; Louis Gossett Jr., An Officer and a Gentleman, 1982; Denzel Washington, Glory, 1989; Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost, 1990; Cuba Gooding Jr., Jerry Maguire, 1996; Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby, 2004; Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls, 2006; Mo’Nique, Precious, 2009; Octavia Spencer, The Help, 2011; Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave, 2014
  • Asian: Miyoshi Umeki, Sayonara, 1957; Haing S. Ngor, The Killing Fields, 1984
  • Hispanic: Anthony Quinn, Viva Zapata!, 1952, Lust for Life, 1956; Rita Moreno, West Side Story, 1961; Mercedes Ruehl, The Fisher King, 1991; Benicio del Toro, Traffic, 2000; Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men, 2007; Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, 2009

While those diverse Oscar winners weren’t all playing slaves or criminals, a large portion of them didn’t exactly portray triumphant heroes either. According to veteran film and TV critic Rebecca Theodore-Vachon, Academy voters feel more comfortable with films that are “filtered through a white lens.”

The Hollywood Reporter interviewed an anonymous Oscar voter who felt that the cast of Selma wearing ‘I Can't Breathe’ T-shirts was stirring up trouble. A movie like The Help by comparison is very safe—and the Academy loved that movie,” Theodore-Vachon says, noting that that flick racked up nominations for best picture, best actress, and two for best supporting actress.

Selma had power and agency, and The Help was a feel-good movie that made white people feel good about themselves. Movies like The Blind Side and Driving Miss Daisy are in the same vein. Blackness has to be filtered through a white lens” and absolutely has to have a well-meaning white savior to win, she says.

Many critics have blamed the “whiteness” of this year’s contenders on the composition of the Academy. A 2012 survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times found that 94 percent of Oscar voters are white; 77 percent are male. Theodore-Vachon believes that because the Academy is so white and male, it’s obsolete.

“I don’t think the Oscars should matter [anymore],” she says. “If you look at the list of best picture winners in the past decade, how many of them are really that memorable? As a film writer, I've had to adjust my mentality to not judge if a movie is ‘Oscar worthy’ but if it’s a good movie, period.”

While Selma may not have been honored because Oyelowo’s performance didn’t fit one of Tinseltown’s stereotypical tropes, Theodore-Vachon believes there may also be another factor in the snub: The Academy usually only recognizes flicks that have a full-blown Oscar campaign behind them.

“Let’s be real, the Academy doesn’t really reward the ‘best and the brightest.’ Oscar races are very political and studios with deep pockets and influence end up winning,” she says.

Campaigning for an Oscar is an expensive affair. On average, studios spend around $10 million to drum up votes for best picture–nominated films, and many spend millions more lobbying for nominations in the first place. Theodore-Vachon says Paramount, Selma’s studio, mishandled the movie’s Oscar campaign.

“Paramount focused their awards campaign solely on the Oscars, and screeners were not sent out to SAG members or members of the Directors Guild of America in time,” she says. “Nominations from both could have given the Selma campaign more momentum.” According to Theodore-Vachon, Paramount hoped Selma’s good reviews and buzz would be enough to impress Academy voters.

However, the lack of campaigning for Selma doesn’t seem to be what DuVernay believes caused the lack of nominations. As she told reporters earlier this month, “there was no precedent for a black woman director to be nominated, so it wasn’t going to change with me.” But she was surprised and “hurt” that Oyelowo was overlooked.

As the late David Carr wrote about Selma in The New York Times in January, “Recognition is important in part because in this instance the film celebrates someone who was not in service to others—a maid, a slave, a driver, or a butler—but one of the most important American leaders to have ever lived, a man who changed history.”

Oyelowo certainly seems to be out to catalyze change in Hollywood. He has described DuVernay and himself as “cinemactivists” who strive to tell great stories. Their creative partnership—their third collaboration will be an upcoming murder mystery set during Hurricane Katrina—seems indicative of what will push Hollywood forward. (Full disclosure: The film division of TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, produced DuVernay's 2012 film Middle of Nowhere and is producing her upcoming Hurricane Katrina project.)

“The decision makers and gatekeepers are mostly white males, so until we see more diversity behind the camera, things will remain the same,” says Theodore-Vachon. “Change begins with us.”