Saturday, October 3, 2015

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Selma" (2014)

As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Selma (2014)
Directed By: Ava Duvernay
Written By: Paul Webb
Starring: David Oyelow, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Running Time: 128 minutes
Summary: A chronicle of Martin Luther King's campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.

The History

Despite the film's story taking place 50 years ago, director Ava Duvernay's Selma may have become one of the more important films of 2014. Focusing on events from Martin Luther King Jr.'s life, the film depicted one of the most important, iconic Civil Rights movements in America's 20th century history. Its imagery was powerful and the performances were magnetic. However, it was the world around it that seemed to usher in the film's relevance, for better or worse. It was often hailed as one of the best films of the year with many already growing riotous towards its recent Oscar snubs that went to films predominantly focused around frustrated white males. The symbolism of Selma's fighting for equality became prescient to awards season because of this, choosing to question why black filmmakers and actors were ignored.

Yet the logical reason that the film made an impression more than, say, Boyhood was because of the current events that the film was born into. With the film focusing on police brutality in Selma, Alabama in the 1960's, it felt a little discomforting to see riots in Ferguson break out while black citizens like Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner became icons to the movement for equality. To call Selma a film that is still relevant today isn't some hype spun for Oscar season. It's unfortunately truthful. Maybe things have gotten better, but the ironic similarities transcend the film's actual quality. Its story of masses rising in protest mirrored events that became worldwide news stories from November through December of 2014: right when the film was making waves.

This would be easy to ignore if the film wasn't itself buzz worthy. The lack of King biopics made this project all the more compelling and gave actor David Oyelowo yet another boost in becoming a recognized actor. In fact, it likely will define him after a role that is filled with confidence. While the film was about the ensemble as well, including supporting players ranging from Oprah Winfrey and Carmen Ejogo to Lorraine Toussaint and Wendell Pierce; it was also just a powerful film about fighting for justice. It may have not been the first film to tackle this subject, but with a confident black female director - it was one of the few that understood the deeper significance of Selma's events. Duvernay has stated before that the march felt integral to her identity because her relative saw the marches in person at 11 years old.

No matter what, Selma is a film that has withstood the test of Oscar season and has probably shown the most lasting legacy close to a year later. There's so many elements that make the film important. It's not just in the craft or performances, but in the identity of the film and its scorching relevance to the moment. For whatever it does in a conventional manner, Duvernay saves with overwhelming riot scenes and quiet moments between King (Oyelowo) and his wife (Ejogo). It is likely that as time scoots further away from its release, it will be a film that felt more important and, more than Boyhood, the film people will look back and wonder why it didn't get major Oscar traction.

The Campaign

It is important to note upfront that Duvernay and the cast didn't make the film initially for awards contention. The director has stated, up to three months prior to the nominations, that she knew that she wouldn't be nominated. Even if the idea of her being the first black female director nominated for Best Director would be seen as a positive step for The Academy, it wasn't the film's main draw. The aforementioned importance to the moment was Selma's intent. In fact, it explains directly why their campaign inevitably failed. Instead of waiting for a 2015 awards push, the film came up to the finish line without a perfectly edited version of the film. It made its release, but the rest became problematic.

The simple answer for why many believe Selma to have failed to receive many nominations comes from the DVD screener debates. It was recorded that Selma was the last film to send out screeners, largely due to the lack of a final print being available. When it was, the production to create the screeners would take up a considerable amount of time. It is true that this shouldn't stop voters from seeing the film at an actual theater. Even then, Deadline reported that it didn't matter. At a West Coast Academy screening night, Selma received half of the audience that a later showing of the musical Into the Woods received. On top of end of the year release dates (which also impacted films like Unbroken and Big Eyes), it seemed like nobody was really excited about Selma upon its release.

Things become murky when considering that the screener debate isn't entirely at fault. While the late release definitely impacted its chances, the BAFTAS did receive the Selma screeners prior to voting. Foreshadowing The Academy, the film failed to receive any nomination while the family film about a talking bear called Paddington received one. Even then, it becomes trickier when considering that Selma had four nominations at the Golden Globes, of which it won Best Original Song for "Glory." Considering that these award shows are done way before The Academy Awards happen, it doesn't entirely make sense.

The final complaint was one that is arguably hypocritical to films by white male directors from that year. Selma's depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). Many claimed that he was a champion of Civil Rights and that his relationship with King was significantly different. There were various complaints of omitted supporting players, but the Johnson debate fueled most of the conversation. Meanwhile, the complaints around The Imitation Game were far more scant, considering that the film's depiction of Alan Turing stripped away his homosexuality in favor of a bland espionage drama. Of course, those films were more conventional and expected, especially in a year rich with biopics.

The final, least proven theory is that it is all 12 Years a Slave's fault. The film was a success, winning Best Picture in 2013. It was a powerful film that earned it several Oscars. However, there's a small facet of people who claim that Selma - by comparison - was a redundant black prestige movie, of which voters weren't willing to see. Never mind that the past five Best Picture winners all focused on people in some ways involved with the arts. Somehow fighting for equality against all odds is somehow a redundant theme to some. True, Duvernay's later comments that it seemed unfair to single Selma out as the only important black film of 2014 feel highly ignored. Even then, it served as fuel for what was to come.

The Payoff

The film received two Oscar nominations: Best Picture and Best Original Song for "Glory." While this proves that the film wasn't totally shut out, it did immediately raise protests about The Oscars in general. The Twitter meme "Oscars So White" served as a punchline to the year's lack of racial diversity in major categories. All 20 acting nominations were white. While it doesn't look like the best, it doesn't mean that the year was void of diversity. Female director Lauren Poitras won Best Documentary for Citizenfour. Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron won three awards for Birdman, including Best Director and Best Picture (he was also the second to win the former). Even if this didn't solve the "Oscars So White," dilemma, it proved that it wasn't entirely hopeless. True, Oyelowo's Best Actor snub still strikes a chord with various people, but the actor humbly has shaken it off.

It feels important to note once again that Duvernay, Oyelowo, and the cast were not outwardly offended by this. Yes, Selma's impact suggests that there should've been more of a presence. Even then, it won Best Original Song, at which point singer and actor Common and John Legend gave a rousing speech about equality. Host Neil Patrick Harris even tried to do a humorous routine with Oyelowo during the ceremony about Selma being snubbed, which turned more into an awkward reflection of The Academy's many complaints in the two months leading up to the awards show. 

The film wasn't made specifically for awards consideration. Even if there's likely those who will remain bitter about its failed chances, it should be noted that it at least has sparked potential conversation for the Oscar season ahead. Maybe there will be more diversity to counteract the "Oscars So White" jokes. It has yet to be seen. Depending on your views, the awards ceremony wasn't a total bust for another reason. Producer and actor in the film Oprah Winfrey won a LEGO Oscar during a live performance of the Best Original Song nominee "Everything Is Awesome" from The LEGO Movie:

The unfortunate truth is that as time has marched on, Selma still remains relevant. While this is a point of pride, it's also a reflection of society. The film was released at the time to comment on police brutality. It couldn't have asked for a more prominent mirror with Ferguson. Even if the film is way more than a commentary film, it will be hard for many to separate the two, largely because it's also a good (if lazy) excuse for why it didn't have a strong presence at The Oscars. Was it the screeners? Kind of. Was it racism? Who knows. Whatever the reason is, Selma started conversations about a variety of topics, which itself may be stronger than any awards push.

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