I liked SELMA. And I thought it suffered a bit from the usual standard biopic pitfalls of not digging more deeply into the complex areas inherent in its story and characters, as well as not trusting actual events to be powerful enough of a story to not have to alter history to create extra drama or to paint a more “desirable” picture. That said, I still found the film effecting and it stayed with me longer than either THE IMITATION GAME or THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, the other 2 biopics from last year made in a similar mold.
For me, these kinds of linear tellings of stories with historical beats that need to be hit always feel too manufactured. Which isn’t to say they don’t have impact or are not good films. Many are, and this one is. But there’s a deeper level of human experience, the human condition, that these types of films never quite manage to reveal for me. More often than not, this begins at the script stage. These films often feel like the events themselves were strung out in a line with index cards and the characters’ personal struggles inserted to up the drama instead of revealing and exploring the many layers and complexities of the human beings and their struggles being portrayed. For me, the film MR. TURNER was the only biopic I saw from last year that transcended this issue. Perhaps because the filmmaker/writer, Mike Leigh, knows that it’s the characters’ inner journeys that dictate the “events” that unfold and not the other way around.
I am shocked, however, that the Academy –who loves these sorts of films– wasn’t overwhelmingly compelled to give actor David Oyelowo an Oscar nom for his riveting performance here. It’s the stuff good Oscar-noms are made of! And let’s not forget director Ava DuVernay who, in my opinion, showed a delicacy and nuance in her approach that left both the directors of THEORY and IMITATION in the dust. For me, this is just more proof that it’s all about marketing and screeners. SELMA wasn’t able to get screeners out to all members in time and, therefore, the film was not seen by as many voters and, as a result, lost votes it otherwise might have swept. In other words, they lost their opportunity to buy more votes.
Then there’s the issue of race. Did it play a part? Gender? Did it play a part? I honestly don’t know. Academy members would give you a firm “NO!” on that question. But it’s hard for me to imagine a well-made film about something so passionate that not only recounts a major event in the Civil Rights Movement, but also works as a clear reminder to everyone that we have not come nearly as far as we’d hoped or imagined — in the year of Ferguson, MO. and a seemingly endless run of young, unarmed black men being shot by white police officers and 6 years of boiling-over racism in the face of our nation’s first black president — not fiercely grabbing the attention of Academy voters and audiences across the nation. The stories in SELMA are not just historical. They’re contemporary. That this film — again, made in the style Academy members are religiously drawn to — was so completely snubbed or ignored at the Oscars is worthy of its own biopic on how this came to be in a year when a film like this should have resonated throughout the country.
Is this something to read into? Is this a reflection on us as a nation? Or just of Academy voters? I don’t know, but either way, I find it unsettling. And like so many people who froth with hatred at the mere mention of Obama’s name and still vehemently claim that racism plays no role in their reaction, I find it hard to believe Academy members when they say things like “I didn’t think Selma was a particularly good film… and I think the outcry about the Academy being racists for not nominating it for more awards is offensive.” Perhaps I would buy into this statement if IMITATION GAME and THEORY OF EVERYTHING hadn’t garnered the very nominations SELMA was denied. Or how about this comment made by another Academy voter: “Selma is a well-crafted movie, but there’s no art to it,” followed by, “having the cast show up in T-shirts saying “I can’t breathe” [at their New York premiere] — I thought that stuff was offensive.”
Really? THESE are the kinds of things they found offensive? And SELMA lacked art? The kind of art that was instead on display in IMITATION GAME and THEORY OF EVERYTHING? Really? I’m sorry, but it seems perhaps Academy members have just as hard a time with deep self-reflection as the movies they customarily flock to like moths to a flame.
Poor marketing? Racism? Sexism? A desire to not look more deeply at ourselves? All of the above? Whatever it may be, the results are the same and they deserve a second look. And a continued conversation.