Monday, February 2, 2015

A Few Words on the Oscars' Race Debate from "Selma" Star and Director

There's been a lot of controversy surrounding director Ava Duvernay's Selma over the past few weeks thanks to a lot of backtalk from Twitter. It even forced the Academy's president to make a public statement about race. However, we haven't really heard about it from the people that matter most in this situation: the cast and crew of Selma. True, we've already heard director Spike Lee make a public statement (basically: "F**k them") in regards to the Academy's racial preference. However, over the past week, both the director and actor David Oyelowo have come forth to discuss the snubbing with differing degrees of honesty and maturity that a lot of the Oscars So White movement is missing out on.

To summarize, Selma is a film about Martin Luther King Jr. (Oyelowo), who marched for freedom. With many considering its chances at Oscars, it has ended up going home almost empty handed in the nominations realm. Sure, it received Best Picture and Best Song, but many are taking offense to it being ignored in other fields. What about Oyelowo's performance? Of course, the Best Actor race this year was exceptionally hard to break into. Still, with the Academy voting predominantly white this year with the main 20 acting nominees being white, there's questions to raise about this issue.

For the first piece in this dissection, here is Oyelowo at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival being interviewed. Here is his response when the subject turned to his Oscar snub:

For the most part, Oyelowo makes a lot of important points. The most notable takeaway of the four minute clip is that he particularly believes that the Academy is more prone to nominate and award black actors for playing subservient roles. For instance, he cites the legendary Sidney Poitier: the first ever black actor to win an acting Oscar. As evident by the clip, many presumed that he won for Best Picture winner and all around iconic film In the Heat of the Night. He wasn't even nominated. In fact, he won for Lilies of the Field while playing a handyman to nuns (the one note not mentioned is that this film predates In the Heat of the Night by a few years). 

The rest of the conversation is interesting, but there's a lot to consider within the context of this answer. He isn't wrong, as times when the Academy nominated black actors as power figure (Denzel Washington in Malcolm 
X being his reference), they always lose. As an educated actor, it is really hard to argue with his logic, especially with last year's Best Picture winner being 12 Years a Slave in which it follows, yes, a black slave. He doesn't show disdain towards these subservient films, but instead asks why they're the only calling card for awards season.

On the other side was Duvernay, who spoke to Democracy Now for an entire hour about the film (full video here). While Oyelowo's story is too new to have made its rounds in the press, Duvernay's opinions have become more well known and make her seem more modest. While she is also heartbroken for Oyelowo not being nominated, she makes personal claims that she didn't expect any big break with a Best Director nomination or anything of that value. 

She said: 
"You know, I didn’t expect to be. I actually knew that it wasn’t going to happen. I’ve been telling people since October; no one listened to me. I’m serious. Old interviews that are coming out now, friends who said, 'Yeah, you did say that.' I just knew it wasn’t going to be the case, so I never took it into my heart, so it never—didn’t really bother me. "
Whether this is mean to be modesty or simply her belief, it is a reassuring note to not see the director going to irrational bitterness over this fiasco. While in a good year diversity wouldn't be a problem, it feels like this year was somehow an exception and didn't necessarily provide much in the way of variety. 

Still, her strongest point was made when she directly discussed the diversity problem straight on:
"In past years we’ve had it. But the bottom line is, I don’t think the question is so much about the awards; the question is: Why was Selma the only film that was even in the running with people of color for the award? You know what I mean? I mean, why are there not—not just black, brown people? You know what I mean? Asian people, indigenous people, representations that are more than just one voice, just one face, just one gaze? So, for me, it’s much less about the awards and the accolades, because, literally, next year no one cares. Right? I can’t even tell you who won the award for whatever three years ago. I don’t know."
While the end does seem a little damning to Oscars and may suggest that she never actually cared about said award. But this is a point that I have harped on before. To put all of the blame of race issues on one film is to miss out that in general there wasn't a diverse pool of films to choose from this year. If anything, this is what we need to work on as a society. We need to work on giving more options so that the Academy doesn't have one black film against dozens of white ones. 

Still, to hear the two largest components of Selma finally come public with their opinion helps to make the debate somewhat more interesting. Yes, the lack of racial diversity in the main fields is a little ponderous. However, with this being a rare exception considering last year's wins that featured the first Best Picture win for a black director, the first Best Director win for a Mexican, a Best Supporting Actor win for a transsexual character and a Best Actress win for a black performer; there's enough to suggest that this is just a sore thumb year and not the regulations every year has gone on. Let's just be thankful that Selma was even nominated at all. 

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