Oscars’ Night and America’s “Selma”—by Ayala Emmett and Peter Eisenstadt


Rapper Common and musician John Legend
Rapper Common and musician John Legend

Last Sunday some of us stayed up late not because we were Oscars’ devotees but because we hoped to see “Selma” win. Many of us, viewers and reviewers, who saw the film following its release in November 2014, thought of several Oscar wins because of the high quality of the film. We were captivated by its astonishing cinematic qualities, the fine work of cinematographer Bradford Young; we were spellbound by a riveting storytelling that director Ava DuVernay skillfully created while drawing on a well-known narrative. Reviewers praised this accomplishment noting that, “even if you think you know what’s coming, ‘Selma’ hums with suspense and surprise. Packed with incident and overflowing with fascinating characters, it is a triumph of efficient, emphatic cinematic storytelling.”

Reviewers and audiences were touched by the outstanding performance of David Oyelowo who rendered a movingly familiar yet newly revealed and humanly compelling Martin Luther King; an extraordinary group of actors enriched the overall performance. The Village Voice described the film as “at once intimate and grand in scope” and the New York Times wrote that “Ms. DuVernay’s portrait is astonishingly rich and nuanced.” Praise for the film abounded shortly after its release and the fans waited for the Oscars.

To be fair, the film was not perfect. No film in two hours can capture the full complexity of an event such as the Selma protests. And although we think that some of the criticism of the portrayal of Lyndon Johnson was overblown, it certainly is true that the film’s depiction of LBJ was somewhat lacking in nuance. Johnson was not as initially strongly opposed to a voting rights act as the film indicates.   If, as the film correctly claims, the events in Selma helped push Johnson make up his mind to introduce a voting rights bill, he had, pre-Selma, already largely decided to do this. And though this is an extremely sensitive issue, the question of King’s marital infidelities and the FBI tape, and its impact on his family and the civil rights cause, was handled artfully, if not entirely accurately. But these matters fall, we think, within the acceptable scope of artistic license. There are no major distortions in the film, especially in the subject matter at the film’s core, the complexity of the political currents in Selma in early 1965, how King successfully shaped the protests, and the raw, sometimes murderous violence to which the protesters were subjected.

Oscar voters, members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, however, refused to recognize the film’s high quality. Their refusal was described as a snub, “Selma was this year’s much-discussed, ill-resolved Oscar snub. The film created a lot of critical excitement when it was released, but failed to make a big impact in the academy’s nominations; many people, including myself, observed that a largely white industry would find it easy to dismiss Selma.”

The Academy’s decision was not lost on the Oscars’ host Neil Patrick Harris who welcomed Hollywood’s “best and whitest–I mean brightest.” Picking up the thread of the snub of “Selma” when David Oyelowo was greeted with applause, Harris jested, “Oh, now you like him!”

While the Academy declined to recognize the cinematic artistic value of “Selma” it was willing to give it a music award for the Best Original Song, which is an honorable and coveted win and the performance of the song was the artistic and emotional high of the evening. What has been a rather staid night changed, ”the moment of change came when musician John Legend and rapper Common took the stage to perform “Glory,” nominated for Best Original Song. The performance moved the audience to tears and a long standing ovation and the song’s perfect cultural pitch reflected the film’s larger cultural significance.

Why was the film snubbed by the Academy? It was ignored precisely because of its high quality, not only artistically, but socially and culturally and most revealingly because the film refused to be just about the past and rejected the myth of post-racial America. In their acceptance speech musician John Legend and rapper Common revealed and exposed the unspoken conundrum of the Academy to honor a film that depicted not only America’s shameful racist past but, its present practices. When Common gave his acceptance speech he said, “We say that Selma is now because the struggle for justice is right now.” John Legend said, “We live in the most incarcerated country in the world,” and he noted that, “more black men are in jail now than were enslaved while slavery was legal in the United States.”

Common and Legend represented the film’s authentic quality that moved the Oscars audience. What came through for audiences and reviewers in the pre-Oscars period was the film’s point of view: it was so refreshingly an authentic, insider, African American perspective. This was apparently a major difficulty for a Hollywood that was accustomed to mediate, represent and interpret Black American life. The Oscar, America’s highest official authority of best films of the year chose to stand with an America that refuses to come to terms with its past of slavery, legal segregation, and lynching and its present of endemic quotidian violations of human rights of African Americans citizens.

With “Selma” the Academy could have forged a genuinely historic moment of an America that was finally a grown-up nation rather than a country in the grips of unseemly denial about racial divide and pervasive prejudice. National maturity hinges on the ability of a society, including its popular culture, to face its history because the past inflects the present. Well-deserved Oscar wins for “Selma” in major categories would have meant a moment of truth: that “Selma” is as American as apple pie. “Selma” depicts, among other things the democratic aspirations of the American founders, the colonists and patriots who in the 18th century said, “Give me liberty or give me death” and how that famous statement by Patrick Henry, a Virginia slaveholder, would become transmuted, two centuries later, into “we shall overcome” in the fight against eradicating slavery’s legacy. Major wins for “Selma” would have affirmed the truth that Martin Luther King embraced American values and the Declaration of Independence. The Academy could have proved that King was right in having faith in American democratic inclusive values of liberty, and it failed.

But perhaps an even greater victory for “Selma“ than a parcel of Oscars would be the reversal of the odious 2013 US Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder, which eviscerated major portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It is a very sad commentary on our times that passage of new voting rights act, similar to the 1965 act, would be impossible today, outside of the realm of political possibility. And Republicans in many states have passed laws that seek to infringe and inhibit the unfettered right to vote freely in elections. Perhaps the most important message of “Selma” is not to take our voting rights for granted, and a reminder that sometimes our rights are worth fighting and perhaps even dying for.