Films, Reviews

#OscarsSoWhite: Selma and 12 Years a Slave

The 87th Academy Awards: the Oscars that spawned the hashtag #oscarssowhite. The tag took Twitter by storm after it was revealed that 100% of acting nominees this year are white, for only the second time in twenty years. The lack of diversity wasn’t limited to the acting categories either: the Telegraph has shared statistics that reveal that a shocking 9 out of 127 persons nominated this year are not white, and only 25 women have been nominated across the board. Without the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories, there would be 15.

There has been uproar about many of this year’s snubs: The Lego Movie, which many expected to win Best Animated Feature, didn’t even get a nomination, whilst Gilliam Flynn missed out on a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, for adapting her best-selling book Gone Girl. But the most controversial omissions were that of David Oyelowo and Ava DuVernay for Selma, the civil rights film tracking the 1964 peace march from Selma to Montgomery led by Martin Luther King. Oyelowo seemed guaranteed a nod for Best Actor for his astonishing portrayal of the iconic man, and DuVernay was all set to make history as the first black woman to ever be nominated for Best Director. The film has garnered a Best Picture nomination, but this seems little more than a cursory nod to Martin Luther King’s legend. Aside from that and a nomination for Best Original Song, the film was ignored by the Academy. But are these snubs and statistics really telling us anything we don’t already know?

The Academy don’t have the best record for diversity, or for taking chances on fresh ideas (a conservatism that many cite as the reason for The Lego Movie’s snub), preferring instead to stick to nominating the same actors and same stories again and again: Bradley Cooper is nominated for the third consecutive year for American Sniper, a film that many have accused of being racist and glorifying a murderer, whilst Meryl Streep is enjoying her 19th Oscar nomination for musical, Into the Woods. Storywise, all of the Best Picture nominations this year (excepting Selma) revolve around white men, and many of them buy into the tortured genius storyline we’ve seen several times before (The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Whiplash).

Many have looked to the make-up of the Academy (which is as lacking in diversity as the films it’s nominated) to explain this: 94% of Academy voters are white, 77% are male and the average age of an Oscar voter is 62. Looking at these statistics, the inbalance of race and gender in films this year (and years previously) starts to make sense.

But wait, the Academy can’t be racist! What about all the love for 12 Years a Slave last year? This is the argument taken up by many on the opposing side of those who have accused the Academy of racism. Last year, Steve McQueen’s biopic about Solomon Northup, a free black man tricked into slavery, was nominated for 9 awards, and walked away with 3 including Best Picture. Perhaps then, racial prejudice has nothing to do with Selma’s lack of nominations. Maybe 12 Years a Slave is just a better film?

In my view, it’s true. 12 Years a Slave is powerful, raw, uncompromising and a true masterpiece in filmmaking. Every line, every character grips you and doesn’t let you go. Chiwetel Ejifor’s performance is a masterclass in acting: giving a fully rounded character who we can believe in.

Perhaps 12 Years a Slave is the superior film. But that doesn’t mean that Selma isn’t a good film, or that it is unworthy of the Academy’s attention. It may not quite achieve the raw power of Steve McQueen’s tale of slavery, but it still has powerful moments (the confrontation in front of the voting office is exquisite) and David Oyelowo commands your attention as Martin Luther King: electrifying, captivating; he is what brings the film to life, and his exclusion from the Best Actor category is an error. There are plenty of things to recommend both films, but the sad truth that is emerging is that in the Oscars, for black cinema, there can be only one.

Though this year has been targeted as Oscars most racist year, the very same could be said of last year’s Oscars too. They may have been congratulated for showing a shred of diversity last year, but the there-can-be-only-one rule has never been more apparent. Some hailed 2013 the year of black cinema, with a number of films released including black characters, and the Oscars were expected to be awash with black-centric stories, with The Butler, Fruitvale Station, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and 12 Years a Slave all expecting to be nominated. However, 12 Years a Slave was the only one to get recognition. A clue to Selma’s snub may in fact be seen in the snub of Fruitvale Station last year, a film following  events leading up to the death of Oscar Grant, who was killed by police in 2009. The film brought issues surrounding race-related violence to the spotlight and Selma does the same.

12 Years a Slave is a film about slavery, something that we can at least convince ourselves is a long ago part of history (although evidence shows this to be far from true). Selma on the other hand, shines the spotlight on issues that affect us now, issues that many would prefer to ignore.

It is a film over which the shadow of Ferguson looms; anyone with the slightest knowledge of Michael Brown, and the many other black men murdered by police, will not be able to watch Selma without their names swirling round in their brains. In the film, Martin Luther King refers to ‘thousands of racially-motivated murders’. He is talking about 1964, but he could just as easily be talking about 2015. The film recognises its connection to Ferguson, and embraces it, even naming it in the song ‘Glory’ at the end of the film. But whilst Selma is ready to acknowledge the horrible, important and for many, uncomfortable truth about the current state of racism, the Academy, apparently, is not.


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