This year, only eight out of potentially 10 films are nominated for the Best Picture Oscar; two of them encapsulate a key problem with the Academy, but also with filmmaking in general. They are Selma and American Sniper. Both are about real-life Americans who did important things for their country. Both are popular, for different reasons and groups. Selma is about the struggle for a universal freedom; American Sniper, willingly or not, has appealed to the xenophobic urges in several (white) Americans – it is a staunchly conservative film. However, with just two nominations to American Sniper’s six, Selma, directed by a relatively new-to-the-field black woman, Ava DuVernay, feels like the victim of institutionalised racism. It’s not the first time either.
In 2014 Steve McQueen’s emotional wrecking ball, 12 Years A Slave, won three awards. Steve McQueen won Best Film, John Ridley for Best Adapted Screenplay, and Lupita Nyong’o for Best Supporting Actress. All deserving winners, all of them black. So what’s changed? Did it fulfil a quota for White Guilt this decade? In 1992, another film about black life in America, Boyz n the Hood, received nominations for direction and writing, making John Singleton, the first ‘African-American’ to receive a Directing nomination. Yet neither cast nor film were nominated, and Singleton won nothing. As rooted in black life as his film is, with its portrayal of intra-race violence and poverty, it’s ideally positioned to be an Oscar film. It’s honest, but lets the audience off the hook with its easy ending. Was the subject of race too hot for the film to impact the Academy? 21 years later, Fruitvale Station (2013) was a Festival hit, winning the Sundance Grand Jury Prize (Drama) for director Ryan Coogler. Telling the true story of Oscar Grant’s last day before police killed him, it’s relevant, well-made, and was completely un-nominated. Perhaps the film was too small, released at the wrong time. It’s still another case of black lives onscreen not receiving just recognition in the biggest awards ceremony in the world.
That does not happen when the director is a white man. Crash, directed and written by Paul Haggis, is frustrating. Exploring racial tensions across multiple groups in Los Angeles over 36 hours, it’s a mess. There are good ideas and great editing, but when you think it’s going to portray black men differently, Ludacris pulls a gun and threatens Sandra Bullock. It’s too middle-of-the-road, attempting to please everyone. It won three awards including Best Film. In a completely different film, tension and violence between minorities and policemen is shown, but the discrimination is not condemned. L.A. Confidential is an excellent noir, justly nominated for nine Oscars in 1998. However the casual use of such acts to further the plot, in a story about white men is chilling, especially when it is so good.
Are there good films about race in America, directed by white men? One might say The Colour Purple, directed by Steven Spielberg, and adapted from Alice Walker’s novel. The screenwriter and director, despite not having easy jobs, already had an accurate perspective to work from. Additionally the first instances of racism occur halfway into the film; it focusses more on sexism, although the scenes featuring Oprah Winfrey are haunting. How many nominations did the film get? 11, winning zero; Spielberg himself was not even nominated. But take a look at IMDb’s most popular films of 1985, and The Colour Purple is the only of that year’s nominees to make the Top 20. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained won twice: Best Supporting Actor for Christoph Waltz and Best Screenplay for Tarantino; the film itself was nominated. But Django Unchained is not just a great film, it’s a great film about race. Exposing that horrific part of American history, Tarantino makes the audience root for Jamie Foxx’s freed slave Django to get his brutal revenge on the vile white men in charge. It’s fun, fantastical, and seething with truth. Argo won that year – the obvious and self-flattering choice for Hollywood.
It is depressingly clear that the Academy cannot get to grips with films that place the majority of them as bad guys. It’s an open secret that they are a vastly white organisation; maybe that’s why Django Unchained did as well as it did – in the end, the villain is Samuel L. Jackson. They are out of touch. After the events of 2014 exposed to people across the globe just what it means to be black in America, honouring Selma with more than the two nominations it got (the Best Picture one feels perfunctory, because the film appears to merit it) would have been a step forward. Never mind the fact that the film deserves it – America deserves it. More nominations means more exposure, and more people get to see it. The day after the nominations were announced, American Sniper expanded its release; it now stands within reach of becoming the highest domestic-grossing release of 2014, with only The Hunger Games in its way. Would Selma have been as big a hit? No. There are nearly as many guns as people in America. They will buy their own tickets. Selma, based on real-events, and shaped by recent ones, came around when it was absolutely needed.
There are countless problems with the way the Academy operates. But it wouldn’t have killed them to do the right thing. To evolve into a ceremony that recognises diversity of filmmakers, and of films. Spike Lee’s 1989 film, Do The Right Thing is still relevant today, contains an incredibly diverse-cast, and is one of the most powerful and challenging films you could possibly see. It tells us that, doing what’s right is hard, when society (or the backbones of it) can’t punish or recognise when it does wrong. Nominations: two, for Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Danny Aiello). It won neither. 26 years later, the Academy is still getting things wrong.
The 87th Academy Awards will be broadcast on Monday 22 February at midnight on Sky Movies Oscars. Watch the trailer for Selma below: