Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Theory on Why "Selma" Could Win Best Picture

Scene from Selma
I know that I haven't necessarily been kind to director Ava Duvernay's Selma. After seeing an advanced screening awhile back, I was left with a middling reaction. In all honesty, the film was adequate, occasionally using violence to overtly dramatize situations. It also hurt that I wasn't necessarily invested in any supporting character despite the film's title (and impressive cast) suggesting that I should be. I came away feeling like Dear White People had a more invigorating take on race relations in America. I feel isolated now in having a humble opinion because everybody seems to love it. Even critics that I have considered to have defined tastes (David Ehrlich) have put it on the Best of 2014 lists. With all of this said, I want to put aside differences for one post and suggest something radical. It is only a theory right now, but I think that Selma can take Best Picture simply by good timing.

I know what you're thinking. Slow down! Well, I have given it some thought and feel that Selma is a film that benefits from good timing. Let me dissect my plan in a way that doesn't come across as crazy, irrational logic that usually plagues me whenever I see a film of some note. This is coming from an unbiased place in which I will use outside examples in order to justify my opinion. I also want to preface that the cut that I saw was "a work in progress," though it looked pretty good at the time. Still, I feel like there was a temp soundtrack and some archival footage will be edited.

Scene from 12 Years a Slave
I want to start with the most obvious example and one that is likely going through everyone's mind. Last year's winner was director Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave. Following the life of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as a slave in the south, it was a powerful piece of film making that turned the horrors of labor into art. Most of all, it felt important because while America has improved its race relations, there's still a painful past. Still, what keeps it from being more than a snuff film is the journey of Northup. It is a hellish experience that is more reflective of the power of the human spirit than relying on cheap, sympathetic cries of pain. It is a film that felt important from the outset.

The issue with the theory is that Civil Rights movies haven't done so well with The Academy just yet. Many considered The Butler a shoe-in for a Best Picture nomination last year, yet was met with nothing. Other films dealing with Civil Rights such as 42 haven't done so well either. The only other example of note is The Help, which received a Best Picture nomination and gave Octavia Spencer a Best Supporting Actress win. Between these two films, this is the only major example of America dealing with their own conflicting, racist past in the past five years. While Django Unchained, which won two Oscars, masquerades around as a film about racism, it serves more as a revenge fantasy wrapped in an homage to westerns. The racism is only reflected through wildly ignorant and cartoonish white characters.

Still, between these films, Selma finds a good home. The story follows Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) as he marches to Selma, Alabama for Civil Rights freedom in the 1960's. As the film suggests, it is about the struggle of African Americans and not just one figure. Along with King's march, the story focuses on President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and Governor George Wallace. Between the three perspectives, the history comes to life in ways that are moving and reflective of the various viewpoints. If it has any leg-up over 12 Years a Slave, it is that by the time that the violence starts kicking in, the hostility is understood in ways that emphasize its purpose. All of the campaigning and racism that precedes the film builds to the moment. Where 12 Years a Slave followed Northup and limited the worldview, Selma captures a broader outlook that is mixed with hope and despair.

Selma benefits from 12 Years a Slave for the obvious reasons. It continues the exploration of racism and power of the human spirit in American history. Most of all, it feels implicit that The Academy will also like it because it is a period piece. While The Academy has gotten better on recognizing contemporary films, there's still the allure throughout its massive history to reward a period piece. Of the past five winners, only one (The Hurt Locker) took place in contemporary times. This bodes well for the film. 

The next piece in my theory is one that may be a little controversial for most people. However, think of it only in broadest terms. I am not at all suggesting that they're of similar qualities. This is merely an observation. Selma stands a chance because of its similarities to...

Scene from Crash
director Paul Haggis' Crash.

Yes, the most controversial Best Picture winner of the past 20 years may pave the way for Selma. This isn't to say that the film is anywhere near as maudlin or forceful of its themes. It is more that structurally, the two aren't that far apart. Both deal with subjects of race relations and what it means to be an upstanding citizen in America. If looked at from this angle, everything begins to make sense. Those accusing Crash of winning because of "white guilt" could easily apply this moniker to 12 Years a Slave or Selma. The only difference is that the racism of these two films are done more reverentially.

However, I singled out Crash because of a different reason: ensemble. The cast of characters that occupy the Los Angeles streets of the story are all dealing with similar issues. Some are profiled blacks while others are misunderstood shop keeps. The stories rotate and all come together when there is, as the title suggests, a crash. There's culmination in themes that are likely attributed to the film's reliance on racial themes. While many films have dealt with hard hitting subjects such as race, few have done it with an ensemble of Crash's size. 

Thus lies the catalyst. Selma isn't necessarily the worst victim of "white guilt," but it stands to benefit from its depiction of racism. As stated earlier, the film focuses on both King's march as well as the various political parties having to determine how it will shape their vision of America. There's even a few scenes in which Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) tries to vote. The themes underneath racism are expansive and most characters have a moment to create their sympathetic argument. The march may be reflective of the masses, but we get to see various characters have their own little moment of suffering thanks to racism. Even King has a few intimate moments with his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) to reflect his own insecurities.

The Academy has always been into hard hitting subjects since 1930's Best Picture anti-war winner All Quiet on the Western Front. In fact, the award is synonymous with feeling important. It explains why Crash was the winner (though I have a conspiracy here). In fact, Selma is a film boiling with important questions relevant to "white guilt." They're more blatant than 12 Years a Slave, but they still get their point across.

So between period pieces, "white guilt," and ensembles, what still gives this the edge? Let's finish this piece with a look at relevance. While King has long since passed away, racism still exists in America. That's not enough to justify a win. While Oyelowo does a solid job, I don't think that a film can be elevated on performances alone. They have to be representative of their times. With this all in mind, I want to show you the final piece of the puzzle. It will convince you that this isn't just some crazy scheme. This is actually a possibility.

Cops at the Ferguson Riots
To summarize, there's currently chaos in Ferguson, Missouri. After a trial that found a police officer named Darren Wilson unable to stand trial following insufficient evidence regarding a shooting of a man named Michael Brown, riots broke out. The chaos stemmed to the west coast with Los Angeles swamped with protesters. Similar events have happened in the past, including most prominently with Trayvon Martin. Still, the Ferguson Riots loom over our consciousness at the moment, so I will decide to use them as my prime example of civil injustice and people protesting. Set aside your politics, please. I don't wish to hear your thoughts on Ferguson in the comments.

The death of Brown is very reflective of what hasn't changed in American society. There's still hostility towards minors with occasional outbreaks of violence. As depicted briefly in the trailer (and more elaborated on in the film), the actual march to Selma is met with brutality. King's march was civilized without a single iota of hostility. He simply wished to march to the courthouse to express his opinions. This was met with batons clubbing men, women and children. Earlier in the film, there's a scene regarding King talking to an elderly man who lost his son. The hopelessness in the exchange captures a deeper, more vulnerable reflection of why racism is awful. 

Most of all, there's a sense of the civilian versus law enforcement present in both Selma and Ferguson. In both cases, minorities were brutally beaten and it was usually a white man doing the action. It is chaos. There are those that are fighting a pacifist battle for justice while others are just riddled with chaos. Some have even made personal comparisons between the Ferguson Riots and the real life King's approach to protesting. If there's one thing that can be said, King was a charismatic protester and could get his issue across quite brilliantly. While Selma doesn't even touch on his famous "I Have a Dream" speech (different moment, I know), it does end with a speech about freedom and that we should strive for a better future. Thankfully Oyelowo is good at delivering King's speeches with charisma.

David Oyelowo in Selma
I cannot predict how long Ferguson will be in the public consciousness. However, beyond Brown and Martin, the unfortunate reality is that these instances are doomed to repeat themselves. Still, the timing almost feels perfect for a film like Selma. If nothing else, it reflects themes relevant to the moment, like right now as you're reading this. Provided that these instances resonate, there's a chance that all of the pieces will collide and the film will be seen as this great, grand commentary on American culture. 

Ignore the fact that it could get Duvernay the first black female Best Director nomination. Just focus on the subject matter. As someone who has seen it and likes it, I can attest that this wouldn't be a cop out winner. Do I think that there's better? Yes. However, in a season that has yet to have a standout favorite dealing with egos (Birdman) and youth (Boyhood), few feel like they're more important to a broader audience. Yes, I could go for a happier Best Picture winner, but considering that The Academy likes hard hitting films like 12 Years a Slave, Selma still seems like a clear favorite. If nothing else, it is the only film so far this year that has both stood a chance for Best Picture and stood for something relevant to now.

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