The same week that the infuriatingly predictable (read: white male) 87th Annual Academy Award nominations were released, I saw Selma in theaters. Where as I previously wanted to see the movie because it looked well-made, the Civil Rights Movement and the time period surrounding it have always fascinated me, and I heard positive reviews (plus a lot of backlash surrounding the portrayal of LBJ that intrigued me too), now I felt I needed to see it to understand why it had been shut out in the writing, directing, and acting fields.
This was easily one of the most profound movie-going experiences of my life. After an opening that shows Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. receiving the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, Director Ava DuVernay wastes no time portraying the brutality of the racist South with a scene that shows the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama church bombing that resulted in the death of four young black girls. That shocking scene of violence serves an important purpose in storytelling by showing us in an unflinching way the stories we hear about or read in history books every day and choose to repress or ignore. Good drama makes us look right at the things we don’t want to see.
From there, we follow MLK and many other activists and leaders as they organize and attempt multiple marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. This is a based-on-a-true-story film that gives us one succinct moment from a long and historical movement. We witness the unwavering violence on the part of white police officers and civilians, hear the triumphant speeches the eloquent orator Dr. King gave, and feel the energy from the brave protesters that banded together in the face of adversity.
When the movie ended, I looked around the theater. Sitting in an affluent Brooklyn neighborhood, the theater was filled with white people, my friend and I included. At first, nobody moved. We listened to the powerful theme song “Glory” that played over the credits, we murmured to each other, or we sat in silence, sorting through the many feelings this film provoked in us. When moviegoers stay paralyzed in their seats because they are so affected by what they watched, that is a good movie. That is an Academy Award worthy movie.
How do you justify the lack of nominations for this film? How do you explain why David Oyelowo was not nominated for his multi-dimensional portrayal of an American icon? Don’t tell me Meryl Streep’s performance as the witch in Into the Woods is more well-deserving of a Best Supporting Actress nomination than Carmen Ejogo’s elegant performance as Coretta Scott King. Why didn’t DuVernay earn a directing nomination for her acutely focused scenes portraying MLK’s heroism, struggles, and flaws that she effortlessly balanced with panoramic shots of protesters marching towards Selma, their sheer number awe-inspiring. This was a biopic that fulfilled exactly its purpose: it humanized its subject, taught us something new, and affected us, deeply affected us. Listen to the national conversation right now. People are talking about Selma. Why weren’t the Academy members?
The disconnect between who lives in this country and how we tell their stories is alarming. In 1988 the film Mississippi Burning was nominated for Best Picture, as well as Best Director (Alan Parker), Best Actor (Gene Hackman), and Best Supporting Actress (Frances McDormand). This film told the story of a period in the Civil Rights Movement through the lens of two heroic white men. Why can’t a movie with the same subject and credentials that happens to be told through the lens of heroic black men and women earn the same accolades?
The Academy Awards broadcast is my Super Bowl. This is the event I talk about for weeks leading up to it, the event I drag my friends to crowded bars to watch or else throw champagne viewing parties at home. I read all the reviews and the prognostications and play the office pool. I always look forward to the Academy Awards. This year, I didn’t. This year I feel indignant. This year we could have made history by giving the first female woman of color a directing nomination–great not just because of its history-making but because she deserves it for her craftsmanship and dedication to bringing this story to the big screen.
I realize that racism within our storytelling and the systems where we tell stories like the film or publishing industries isn’t as life-or-death as racism within our police departments, but I am within this industry, both as a writer and a book publicist, so this is the industry where I am closest to these issues and where I have an opportunity to say something. I feel compelled to say something. There are so many movements, from #ReadWomen to #WeNeedDiverseBooks that address the fundamental problems with pop culture’s lack of diversity. There aren’t enough. We need more. We need more people willing to stand up and speak out. What are we telling America’s youth when we say a black man’s story and a black woman’s hard work telling that story aren’t worth the same praise, or even attention, as a story of equal value about or told by a white man? Black lives matter. So do the stories about black lives.