This year’s Best Picture race is wide open except for the film right at the top of the list and that continues to be Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. How the Best Picture race is shaped is going to depend on which Oscar race they want to embrace. Is it the one where they pick daring, exciting films that push the envelope, like Birdman, Foxcatcher, Gone Girl, Nightcrawler? Or are they going heroic straight down the line, with Selma, Imitation Game, Theory of Everything or Unbroken? Will it be a little bit of both? We don’t now the answer to that yet – not even close.
The Oscar race is like politics in nearly every way you can think of, from kissing babies, to acting grateful, to having your picture on every cover of every magazine – if you show up and look the part, you too can be an Oscar contender. With good will towards Angelina Jolie and a desire to encourage her newfound artistic endeavor, voters may be inclined to overlook the poor reviews for Unbroken and give it a slot in the end of the year’s selection of the year’s best. It will be a prime example of how the Oscar race works like a political election; the same way George W. Bush’s charisma overrode every other negative thing about him. Conversely, David Fincher’s team is doing the opposite – not kissing babies, not doing meet and greets, not doing lots of publicity or advertising. Guess which way the pundits are predicting this thing will go?
Before the major guilds confirm or deny the consensus so far, we still have this nervous-making next few weeks, before Oscar ballots are turned in, before the consensus forms. How many nominations a film receives is indicative of how much the entire branch overall loved the film. How much they love the film is often dependent upon image. Has any film ever started at such a high peak in the race and then taken such a hard fall as Zero Dark Thirty in 2012? A bigger question, does anyone give a single shit about that now?
And so it came to pass that 2012 came whirring painfully back, like a gust of Doritos breath and beer at a holiday party. Remember that whole Zero Dark Thirty non-story? Remember how such a well-regarded film took such a dramatic fall? Remember Glenn Greenwald flipping out about how the film supposedly condoned torture? Remember Andrew Sullivan condemning the film before even seeing it then, upon seeing it, retracted his objections? Remember Martin Sheen and others demanding a boycott of the film? Remember how a few months later no one gave a damn? The reason no one gave a damn is because the film’s Oscar prospects and much of its political power deflated once the nominations were announced and Bigelow was shut out.
Remember the silly congressman who challenged Spielberg’s Lincoln because it got a fact wrong about how Connecticut voted? It was used a character smear against Spielberg himself, just as the torture debate was used as a smear against Bigelow. Human beings are so susceptible to that – it’s how elections are run and how the Oscar race is run. It’s the horrifying reality of a low stakes game where the only thing on the line, really, once you sweep away egos, is money. We’re right up against it now and just look at how the media is latching on to that swollen tit.
We don’t even realize we’re sinking into it. Tensions run high on Twitter. There’s a sentence you never really want to write, much less read. Op-ed articles draw clicks and RTs and linkage and furious comment debates — suddenly you’re relevant. You’re relevant because people are reading you. They’re reading YOU and nobody else. It reaches a fever pitch that doesn’t die down until ballots are counted and another controversy floats by.
You have entertainment reporters acting like Woodward and Bernstein, digging up the truth. The Selma controversy (translation: a couple of people get offended) somehow morphs into a credibility problem and before you know it that’s all anyone hears about a movie.
Somehow my pals in the race don’t seem to get that this is business as usual with modern press, social networks and people with agendas to play out. Even with Google a few clicks away, even with the world’s most informative resource right at their fingertips. To puff up in anger about the scene where LBJ asks for J. Edgar Hoover and the very next scene is the FBI taping of King’s sexual exploits.
Hollywood-Elsewhere’s Jeff Wells has been trying his best to stay quiet about Selma. It has to bother him that people have been writing about it as a real threat for Best Picture. None of Selma’s upswing made it onto Hollywood-Elsewhere but once the LBJ so-called controversy hit, he was all over it like white on rice. But a quick Google search brings up this story as reported in Mother Jones in 2013 by David Corn:
Hoover did not let up. A little more than a year after the march, after King had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Hoover told a group of reporters that King was “the most notorious liar in the country.” But the FBI’s war on King was uglier than name-calling. Weiner writes:
[William Sullivan] had a package of the King sex tapes prepared by the FBI’s lab technicians, wrote an accompanying poison-pen letter, and sent both to King’s home. His wife opened the package.
“King, look into your heart,” the letter read. The American people soon would “know you for what you are—an evil, abnormal beast…There is only one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”
The president [Lyndon Johnson] knew Hoover had taped King’s sexual assignations. Hoover was using the information in an attempt to disgrace King at the White House, in Congress, and in his own home.
Worse, it seems the FBI was trying to encourage King to kill himself.
Hoover kept feeding Johnson (who’d become president after JFK’s 1963 assassination) intelligence suggesting King was a commie stooge. In 1967, when the FBI mounted an operation to disrupt, discredit, and neutralize so-called “black hate” groups, it focused on King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as Hoover publicly blamed King for inciting African Americans to riot. The following year, King was assassinated by James Earl Ray, who subsequently evaded an FBI manhunt, to be captured two months later by Scotland Yard in England.
As the March on Washington is remembered five decades later, it should be noted that King’s successes occurred in the face of direct and underhanded opposition from forces within the US government, most of all Hoover, who did not hesitate to abuse his power and use sleazy and legally questionable means to mount his vendetta against King.
But despite tgat backstory, the only message that reads loud and clear this week is that the image of LBJ matters more than any other minute of film in Selma. Forget about the moment when the first black woman directed such a high profile film to such rousing acclaim. Forget about a country ripped apart by racially fueled actions by police and even self-appointed neighborhood watch patrols. Forget about the country’s first black President in his second term obstructed more than any sitting president in US history.
What I learned about LBJ growing up was that he liked to take a crap with the door open and that he was a good ol’ boy from the South until he had a major turnaround. This debate is ongoing, as is the debate about JFK’s own position on civil rights. The debate about President Lincoln, whether he was really sympathetic to black rights or whether he, too, was a closet racist.
Let’s talk about what’s really at stake here – who gets to take credit for being a civil rights leader back then – LBJ or Martin Luther King. I’m going to tip the credit in King’s favor because without his pressure and leadership there would have been no change. None.
The problem with the Oscar race now is that there are too many people writing about it and not enough stuff to write about. The feeding frenzy that’s about to take hold on Selma is straight out of the Fox News playbook. Clearly we haven’t learned our lesson from 2012.
The buzz around Selma on the eve of its opening was deafening. To date, it’s second only to Boyhood as one of the best reviewed films of the year. It is moving, entertaining, inspiring – and it gives voice to the many who remain silent because their stories aren’t regularly covered in the press, nor represented in the Oscar race.
In the end, it is just the voter and the screener. The publicity fills in the rest. If it becomes about image, as a few movies are trying to do this year, quality goes straight out the window. Now that we’ve arrived at the sticky business of image making in the Oscar race, you’re about to watch a brief but powerful character assassination of DuVernay take place, just like you watched, with horror, the same thing happen to Bigelow back in 2012.
What is tragic about it, and what people should be paying attention to instead, is how the mirror always gets turned back in the same direction, doesn’t it? The only thing that matters is how we are portrayed – humanity in the best possible light.
The haughty protests coming from the op-ed pieces on Selma aren’t that much different from the same shrill protests that came out against Gone Girl. It’s as though those writers have forsaken their ability to actually think for themselves and are somehow confusing films for pulpits, classrooms and churches. They’re films, they’re art, they are interpretations of ideas, celebrations of human character – but they are never meant to replace real life, or real history.
We give over our living history to people who don’t deserve to shape it, not in the moment anyway. Someone, someday is going to write a wonderful book about how the Obama presidency impacted black American filmmakers. At the top of that list will be DuVernay’s marvelous, exceptional film about the march on Selma. It is a film that speaks to the minority, not the majority.
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
The Grand Budapest Hotel