The Internet is awash in anger (more than usual) over the fact that the motion picture Academy didn’t honor Ava DuVernay’s film Selma—a historical drama about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s successful campaign to secure the franchise for black voters in the South—with more Oscar nominations.
Selma snagged a Best Picture and Best Original Song nod, but was shut out of all other major categories, including lead and supporting actor and actress, director, and screenplay.
The Academy is a slightly mysterious, highly unrepresentative body, and some of its critics have thus attributed the snub to a campaign, led by historians and partisans, to disparage the film for advancing an inaccurate portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson’s relationship with MLK, and Johnson’s strategic views about the fight for voting rights.
Perhaps that explains it. But I have doubts. Two decades ago, the Academy nominated Oliver Stone’s JFK—a much more historically questionable, and criticized, film—for eight awards, including best picture, supporting actor, and director. Of course, JFK was a film made by and about white people. Selma is not. This distinction might’ve hinted at the Academy’s racial bias in years past. More recently, the Academy bestowed Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 film Django Unchained with five nominations, and Steve McQueen’s 2013 film 12 Years a Slave with nine.
The outrage directed at the Academy points to something real, but all we can say for sure is that it reflects an earnest difference over aesthetic preferences between Selma’s fans and its nominators. And on that point I side with the Academy: It’s absolutely possible for a film to exhibit uneven acting and production and still be the best movie of the year. Selma is such a film.
I went to see Selma three weeks ago not as a critic, but as a moviegoer with a strong bias for art that doesn’t pull its punches about the evils of white supremacism. My recollections of the actual film and of my immediate reaction to it probably aren’t perfect, but they’re recent. I expected to adore Selma as both a cultural watershed and a piece of historical art abstracted from its subject matter, but came out admiring it mostly as the former.
There are many, many incredible moments in Selma. The opening montage is one of the most striking and unforgettable minutes of filmmaking I’ve ever seen, and DuVernay threads Annie Lee Cooper’s role in the voting rights movement so elegantly into the movie that she was able to cast a figure as visible as Oprah Winfrey in the part without damaging the effect.
But the film is also littered with strange aesthetic choices and ham-handed exposition. One of its strongest devices—its use of screen text to depict log entries from FBI agents tracking King’s every movement—is overused to the point of distraction.
The decision to cast Johnson as a secondary and counterproductive character in the film is the source of misplaced backlash from history scolds and LBJ allies. But it constrained the director’s ability to bring voice to Johnson’s role at the expense of subtlety. The sparse dialogue between King and Johnson must by necessity cram a tremendous amount of context and meaning into few words, and the film accomplishes this with excruciating literalism. In a different scene, J. Edgar Hoover, depicted competently overall by Dylan Baker, apprises Johnson of his ability to have King killed with such forced obliquity that Baker might as well have punctuated his statement with an ostentatious wink. Johnson himself is portrayed by British actor Tom Wilkinson, who’s typically excellent, but miscast in the role of a strongly accented Texan.
The Academy likely erred in denying a nomination to David Oyelowo, who plays King ably, but his acting stands out mostly in contrast to his costars, and to the clumsiness of the screenwriting.
These are all stylistic criticisms, and if a movie were merely the sum of the aesthetic choices that hold it together, Selma would be a disappointment. Instead, it is easily the most important dramatic movie of the year, as well as one of the finest, and there need be no contradiction.
For this, Selma owes a tremendous debt to the historical gravity of its subject matter. But the decision to depict the black activists as the prime movers of their own liberation was made in house. Selma avoided the common trap of depicting white people as the key agents of redemption, which allows it to underline both King’s brilliance as an organizer and the power of symbolism as a movement builder. Anyone with cursory or weak historical knowledge of the civil rights movement will take a giant leap by seeing this one movie, and that speaks to its quality.
Nearly all of the Oscar trophies are meant to reward skill and stylistic judgment, but the best movie award is the most subjective and thus the most malleable. It’s capacious enough to allow that a story can be inspired, and the decision to turn it into a film brilliant, even if the technical execution is ultimately flawed. Selma isn’t a best picture nominee because the Academy felt politically obligated to recognize it somehow, but because best picture is the one category that really fits.