There was some serious shock and awe when the Oscars nominations dropped Jan. 15 and the critically acclaimed Selma received only two nods, one for best picture and another for original song. Director Ava DuVernay and leading man David Oyelowo, who played Martin Luther King Jr., were both snubbed, leading to a wide-ranging discussion about the lack of racial diversity at the top of the Hollywood pantheon.
How was it possible, critics and moviegoers asked, that the two brightest lights from this brilliant film, which tells the dramatic story of the 1965 freedom marches in Selma, Alabama, did not even manage to make their way onto Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' shortlist?
On Sunday night, an anonymous member of the Academy gave us a chilling insight into those snubs. Quoted in the Hollywood Reporter, the individual, described as an Oscar winner himself, gave this explanation (emphasis added):
"I lived through the '60s and my most heartfelt opinion is that 'Selma' did not suffer from racism but is just inadequate to the events that it covered — to the civil rights movement and to [Dr. Martin Luther] King [Jr.] and to the various demonstrations that were held and to the people involved. The scenes with LBJ and [FBI director] J. Edgar Hoover conspiring together like two little white weasels bothered me; I thought that was incredibly misleading. And the portrayal of Malcolm X as having an alternative way is ridiculous — he had no alternative. The whole film is kind of a left-wing, modern, black rap version — there's no white people who have any speaking parts who are favorably depicted, when, in fact, there were white people on the scene, beyond a few ministers, who risked their lives and who died supporting the civil rights efforts."
There's a lot of nonsense packed into just a few sentences, so let's break it down:
"I lived through the '60s and my most heartfelt opinion is that Selma did not suffer from racism but is just inadequate to the events that it covered."
To start, that weird qualifier — having "lived through the '60s" does not automatically imbue an individual with some kind of unique insight into every notable event that took place over those ten years. As to the question of Selma's relative historical "adequacy," Sunday night's field is riddled with dubious accounts of important historical events. Alas, The Imitation Game didn't suffer much despite serious questions about its central characters. The film received eight total nominations, including actor in a leading role, actress in a supporting role, directing, film editing, production design, adapted screenplay and music (original score.)
Selma, it should be noted, was salvaged from an abandoned script (written by a white dude who decided to keep sole credit) by DuVernay, who was not nominated for a screenwriting award. Music stars John Legend and Common sing the duet, "Glory," which accounted for Selma's only other nod. Which brings us to...
"The whole film is kind of a left-wing, modern, black rap version — there's no white people who have any speaking parts who are favorably depicted, when, in fact, there were white people on the scene, beyond a few ministers, who risked their lives and who died supporting the civil rights efforts."
And there you have it. After a prolonged wind-up, our anonymous commentator lets it fly, deriding the film as "black rap version" of, well, he doesn't say. We can infer that he felt it had a certain edge that he associates with "black rap," which is by the tone of the statement a really bad thing.
His comments fit comfortably in the mold of our worst fears about why Selma did so poorly in the preliminary Oscar voting. The film, unlike so many others that deal with the black experience in America, does not single out a "white savior" to lift the protesters up from their pain. In Selma, the struggle belongs to King and his allies, often at the dramatic expense of the script's white players. And that, as history suggests and this anonymous bile confirms, played into the thinking of at least one of Hollywood's most influential cowards.