Right now, the popular culture is ablaze over “Selma.” Ava DuVernay’s chronicle of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Alabama protests has stoked a vigorous debate. It’s a debate worth addressing, since it raises important questions about what it means to be a moviemaker (and a moviegoer) in an age of (thank God) increasing diversity.
The debate is centered around the fact that, despite “Selma’s” great critical and popular acclaim, the film received a mere two nominations: one for Best Song, Oscar and one for Best Picture.
For many pop culture commentators, this snub is less than innocent. It reveals the Academy as a subtly discriminatory institution, as a Good-Ol’-Boys-club dressing up their abiding racism in a shoddy-tuxedo disguise.
Writing for the AV Club, Caroline Siede called “Selma’s” tiny Oscar tally a “a slap in the face to aspiring filmmakers who aren’t white and male.” Reverend Al Sharpton went a step further, accusing the Academy of a deliberate “racial shutout” and insisting that people of good conscience should organize “action around the Academy Awards.”
Admittedly, the Academy is whiter than your average scene from “Leave It To Beaver.” 94% white, to be exact. But when I think about this incident as clearly as I can, I find it hard to believe that the Academy engaged in a deliberate “racial shutout.” They did, after all, nominate the movie for the highest-ranked, most-desired award in all of filmdom.
But isn’t it stupid to admit “Selma” into the Best Picture category without acknowledging any of the individual people of color in front of and behind the camera who made it Best Picture worthy? Yes, Dear Reader, it is mighty stupid. “Selma” didn’t just descend upon us “deus ex machina” style.
Yet these oversights, while non-sensical, are not uniquely discriminatory. In fact, in Academy-Land, they’re distressingly common. A few years ago, “Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close” was also nominated for Best Picture and virtually nothing else. In 1991, Barbra Streisand’s “The Prince of Tides” was apparently directed by an invisible metaphysical force instead of, well, Barbra Streisand. And this very year, “Boyhood” was nominated for Best Picture even as the actor playing the titular boy was completely shut out of the acting categories””just like “Selma’s” David Oyelowo was.
Shorter version: Academy not racist. Academy stupid.
I feel as though I have another question to answer: Why waste paper space defending a decidedly well-off institution like the Academy? Is it because I care about the reputation of the wealthy over the representation of minorities?
Look. I’m a bisexual Jew who grew up in the Bible Belt. I’m writing this article BECAUSE I care about the fight for greater diversity, especially within my beloved film industry. Consequently, I don’t want us to waste our time, energy, and resources fighting the Academy, which isn’t so much shoving back progress as it is spitting in the face of common sense.
What’s more, the Oscars, for all their kitschy suspense and valuable promotion of art-house cinema, just aren’t all that significant in the long run. This is the group that forgot to give “Citizen Kane” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” the Best Picture trophies. Why risk “outrage fatigue” by protesting the likes of them?
In short, we should care about pay inequality. We should care about blantant on-screen stereotyping. We should care about Hollywood’s tendency to ignore important subjects, as well as its propensity for turning bodies into objects. We should not care that a movie got two Big, Silly Award Nods instead of four.
“Selma” is well-crafted and important. But in the end, it’s better to advocate for the film itself instead of organizing against an organization that, for reasons unknown to both you and me, overlooked it. There’s no point in crying “racist!” when we aren’t even sure that the beast of bigotry has reared its ugly head.
Like “Selma’s” own protagonist, we all should fight for what’s right. But like Martin Luther King Jr., we must choose our battles wisely.