Selma’s Oscar snub: Racist or not?

If you tuned in to the Oscars this Sunday, you will have heard the names of some movies like “Birdman,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “The Imitation Game” repeated, but one critically-acclaimed movie only mentioned twice.  With 98 percent positive ratings from Rotten Tomatoes and people from Oprah to Obama singing the praises of this film, many are shocked by the lack of Academy Award nominations for “Selma,” which received one for Best Picture and one for the song “Glory” by John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn.  “Selma,” which highlighted Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, tied nominations with summer blockbuster “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which featured talking raccoons and trees.

The Oscars is as much a political engine as it is an awards show. Dr. Thomas Poe, UMKC associate professor of Film and Media Arts, argues the Oscars missed a PR opportunity in neglecting “Selma.”  Racism has always been a top story in the news, but more so in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and others.  Nominations for “Selma” might have indicated change among Academy members. Attention may not focus on the lack of diversity among the 6,028 voting members. Currently, they are 94 percent white and 76 percent men, with an average age of 63. However, beyond the political reasoning lies the question of why the film was not nominated.

“Selma” may have been ignored because of latent racism.  When asked about this possibility, Poe posited the Academy might have felt grounded in the open-mindedness it proved the year before with “12 Years a Slave,” which won three of nine nominations.

“I hope that’s not the case, but that could come to a reasonably minded person,” Poe said.  “It certainly came to this reasonably minded person.”

Another reason for the lack of nominations could be that “Selma” had a limited opening on Dec. 25 and didn’t have a wide opening until Jan. 9.  This could be critical, as voting began Dec. 29 and ended Jan. 8, giving voters just two weeks to watch the film in the few theaters that were showing it.

There is also a problem with the genre of the film.  Poe said this is the sort of movie the Academy loves (aka “Oscar-bait”): Hollywoodized accounts of historical events with one main hero and is the sort of “good-for-us” morality tale often approved by high schools.  Unfortunately, “Selma” doesn’t have a new or innovative spin on this genre.  Maybe King’s story is too well known. “The Imitation Game,” on the other hand, had nine nominations and focused on a homosexual in an era when it was basically illegal to be so.

Many are also outraged at the lack of nominations for the main actor in “Selma,” David Oyelowo.  Peter Travers of Rolling Stone said in a Dec. 23 review, “Oyelowo’s stirring, soulful performance as King deserves superlatives.”  Unfortunately, Oyelowo is a British actor who is relatively unknown in America, so the limited voting time likely hurt him.

In the end, will this year’s Oscar snub hurt the cast and crew of “Selma?”  Not really.  It frequently happens that actors or directors who were snubbed one year will get a win the next year. Such has been the case for notable actors such as Jeff Bridges and Elizabeth Taylor.  Oyelowo may still have a chance to win an Oscar.  The DVD’s box will proclaim “Nominated for Two Academy Awards,” and that will satisfy most.

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