Why Selma needs no Oscars


Oprah Winfrey in SelmaIt seems silly to get cross about Selma being 'snubbed' by members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. For one thing, the Oscar is a mostly-tin trophy that a bunch of privileged entertainers ritually give each other, so no sensible person should care.

Selma garnered critical acclaim after all, and despite no nominations for director Ava DuVernay and lead actor David Oyelowo, it wasn't entirely ignored. However, given the artistic and technical elements that make a film, it is rather odd that it would be considered good enough to vie for Best Picture without any other nomination to justify inclusion apart from Best Original Song.

The film, which is based on the 1965 Martin Luther King-led voters rights marches from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama, is objectively excellent. DuVernay's narrative sensibility is evident throughout, in the composition and pace of a scene, the grit and tone of dialogue, the choice of music. The most seasoned actor would have been intimidated by the monumental role of Dr Martin Luther King Jr but Oyelowo inhabits King, as a friend of mine put it.

It is impossible to stifle the resonance that the film holds for black Americans in the tumult following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. In fact DuVernay and some of the cast appeared at a protest in New York when a grand jury declined to charge the police officer involved in Garner's death. In other words, Selma speaks for itself not just as a well-made cinematic oeuvre but as a well-timed polemical piece. It needs no Oscars.

This doesn't mean that it hasn't been cheated. This year, not a single acting nominee among 20 is black or even not-white. The last time this happened was in 1998, almost two decades ago. Only three black directors have ever been nominated in the 86-year history of the Oscars, all male. It only makes sense in the context of Academy membership: it is nearly 94 per cent Caucasian and 77 per cent male. Blacks comprise only two per cent. As DuVernay herself said last December, 'It's math'. She saw it coming.

Yet the adverse reception is apparently not about race but whether the most powerful white man in her film was fairly portrayed. The discourse that Selma might have ignited regarding racialised policing and the tactics of protest was doused by claims that her characterisation of President Lyndon B. Johnson is inaccurate. She refused, quite rightly, to concede the charge. This was not received well.

One Academy voter said, '(The filmmakers) misrepresented history with the way LBJ was presented. They had an obligation to present it correctly and they didn't.' Another member was irritated by the juxtaposition of the film against present grievances: 'It's almost like because she is African-American, we should have made her one of the nominees. I think that's racist.'

One of the producers of Django Unchained (who is black) wondered if voters have 'racial fatigue' after their wild support for 12 Years a Slave last year.

Such sentiments, as well as the composition of the Academy, make it difficult to see the Oscar snub in a neutral light. They raise disturbing questions about the stories that black filmmakers are allowed to tell and how they are to tell them.

The notion that there is an 'obligation' to present LBJ 'correctly' would be comical if it hadn't cost DuVernay and Oyelowo the formal recognition that they deserve. To whom is this obligation owed anyway? Who exactly gets to decide what is 'correct' and by what measure? What does accuracy even mean for feature films that run for a couple of hours?

More pertinently, why should a film that centralises the struggle for African-American civil rights — produced, written, directed and performed by blacks — be so controversial for having a particularly black point of view?

It is hard to escape the impression that even in 2015 the only black characters that the American film industry can reward are maids, slaves or dysfunctional urban archetypes, in stories where there is an identifiable white saviour. Any triumphs are of the spirit, of personal fortitude, nothing that compels social responsibility, invokes political will or even a sense of historical reckoning.

The controversy over Selma is thus not so much a contest about truth or artistic merit, but power. Pro-LBJ critics would have us believe that black civil rights activists had no agency or that their agency was inconsequential against presidential magnanimity. That is an assertion of power.

Withholding recognition is also an assertion of power: DuVernay and her mostly African-American cast and crew will not be given credit by their white peers for telling their history, for apportioning the weights in the story as they saw fit. 

Perhaps it is this integrity — this loyalty to their story above all — that will help Selma outlast the controversy and the awards. Truth lasts.


Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based social commentator who contributes regularly to Eureka Street. She tweets as @foomeister .

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Selma, Ava DuVernay, David Oyelowo, Martin Luther King, Lyndon B. Johnson



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Existing comments

Clearly articulated....well put.....food for thought in so many contexts
GAJ | 20 February 2015

Great review by Fatima Measham. Explains a lot. Only in Eureka Street could I read this!
Tony kevin | 20 February 2015

Racism is alive and well and has re-invented ways to dis-inherit others. The dis- tribution of Power continues to be uneven and contorted. Well written but undoubtedly likely to be seen by only a small part of the population this article deserve its own Oscar.
John | 20 February 2015

So much hinges on one's point of view, in many areas. An important stage of development is the ability to recognise the limitations of one’s point of view. A way to gauge this in children is to set up a square table with the sides respectively facing N, S, E. and W, and on the East side is placed a square, and on the West, a circle. A child seated at N, will see the square on the left, the circle on the right. A child at S will see the reverse. When asked to draw what the other child sees, some draw it as they themselves see, but a more developed child will recognise the difference, but may insist that the situation is ‘really’ as They see it. This problem applies not only to Selma but to many other disputes as well, to economics, to politics, and to religions. We all need some more degree of maturity.
Robert Liddy | 20 February 2015

Such a lot to think about in your writing Fatima.The awarding and withholding of recognition In the assertion of power is just one reflection that comes to mind. The ceaseless work that certain people do for minority groups and disadvantaged is never given any credit. Witness the support of the BASP to those struggling in detention centers. Note the work behind scenes of those working in mental health . By denying the existence of these saintly people does it help to hide the true picture of the plight of the many suffering in our midst? The minds of Australians could possibly be encouraged to think about others in a new way if the works of these people were recognized. Instead we applaud sportspeople and highlight the destructive elements in society. The accademy has seen fit to ignore Selma. The power evident in other institutions that dominate our world is frightening. It is good when they are laid bare for what they are why they act in such a way. Thanks Fatima for such an insightful article.
Celia | 20 February 2015

I'm surprised that American make-believe fairy tales, the signature of Hollywood, and the mean-nothing Oscars even make it into ES.
Ed O'Farrell | 20 February 2015

Sometimes I see a film as much for information as for entertainment. I was in my early adulthood at the time of the events depicted in "Selma" and followed them from the then remoteness of Australia. However the film had far more to tell, and values to instruct us today. I believe that you are correct, Ms Measham, "Selma" will outlive the culture of the old white guys of the Academy.
Ross | 20 February 2015

Yes Tony Kevin. Only in a Left-wing publication, could I read this!
Ron Cini | 20 February 2015

Ed O’Farrell:- ‘I'm surprised that American make-believe fairy tales, the signature of Hollywood, and the mean-nothing Oscars even make it into ES.’…….. I’m surprised and even saddened that the crisis facing all Established Religions, and the terrible consequences that have arisen from it and are continuing to arise from this, have not received more attention and prominence from ES.
Robert Liddy | 21 February 2015

Rod Cini, There is a cure for articles such as this one written by Fatima Measham and published in a Left-wing publication: Don't read them!
David Timbs | 23 February 2015

Thank you, Fatima and Eureka St, for this important reflection on the way we are now.
Joan Seymour | 23 February 2015

The American Oscars are a joke and irrelevant. The Berlin Film Festival has given Selma just recognition where David Oyelowo gave an excellent speech. The Berlin Fesival also recognised another film about the American civil rights movement which was 'What Happened, Miss Simone' which is about the role of singer Nina Simone in the civil rights movement. It is interesting that both these films were made by women directors. This is also an opportune time to reflect on the role of Faith Bandler, who died recently, in the Australian 1967 referendum when 90% of people voted 'Yes' for Aboriginal people's voting rights. However, the shame of both America and Australia in 2015 is the lack of civil rights for black people.
Mark Doyle | 25 February 2015

To RON CINI - An African American person reading this article would regard it as being quite conservative. The whole left/right wing this is getting a bit passe these days. The Cold War is over. Let's move on and just aim for accuracy and objectivity (which I see evident in Fatima's article) instead of this childish point-scoring bully-boy attitude.
AURELIUS | 25 February 2015


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