This year’s race for Best Picture has some wonderful films in the lineup suddenly. There doesn’t seem to be room for movies that aren’t quite as good as the ones that are making it in. But the Producers Guild’s preferential ballot gives voters ten spots. One has to think that if a movie can’t make it on a ten picture ballot, how can it make it on a five picture ballot?
Selma did not send enough screeners out in time for the PGA vote. That doesn’t mean the movie is out of the race. With only three days left to vote for the Oscars, it’s hard to know if Selma makes it in. My guess is that it does.
206 films were directed by women this year. Three that I can think of were directed by black women. Only one shimmers on Rotten Tomatoes with 100% positive reviews and that’s Ava DuVernay’s Selma, the story of the march from Selma to Montgomery and the lead up to the Voting Rights Act. Things were going pretty well for the film until today’s announcement that it did not make the cut for the Producers Guild. And, as was pointed out by Kris Tapley, it hasn’t hit any of the major guilds, from the Editors to the Art Directors. It’s becoming increasingly worrisome to me that this door might remain shut.
If the reason is because this magnificent film isn’t what the steak eaters like? So be it. But if the reason is that it supposedly “got LBJ wrong?” Shame on them.
When Argo was up for Best Picture a scandal erupted in Toronto that great liberties were taken with history, specifically who took credit for the freeing of the hostages and whose credit was quietly removed. That’s history. This year, several films take liberties with the facts for the sake of drama. It isn’t that what LBJ did for the civil rights movement isn’t important. Of course it is important to maintain his revived legacy, to allow for that legacy to nestle peacefully in time.
LBJ is not the primary subject of the film. It shows his resistance as a point of conflict. LBJ’s image was tarnished by the extreme right and has since been rehabilitated. It’s a thing to be proud of that, of all the leaders at the time, LBJ stepped up and did the right thing. And did so because he thought it was right. He was facing opposition at every turn, which the movie shows.
But … guess what? This isn’t a movie about LBJ. This isn’t a movie about his presidency. This is a story about a man who has never had a film made about him. As director Ava DuVernay talks about the film’s history:
“The original script was passed around in 2007, but no major studio was willing to fund it. Brad Pitt’s small production company Plan B Entertainment and French investors financed it in 2008 with a modest budget. For years, it struggled with financing and changes in its director. It wasn’t until Oprah Winfrey stepped in this year that the project turned into a major motion picture event. With her financial backing, Paramount jumped in to distribute the film.
“It’s been 50 years since the events that we chronicle occurred,” said “Selma” director Ava DuVernay at the recent panel discussion. “The fact that there hasn’t been any theatrical portrayal of who he was and what he did is — I think — criminal.”
The Oscars are a game of dirty pool. You have to watch your back if you’re in the race because there are so many forces gunning for your spot. You’re lucky if you are working for a company that is connected to high places, like network television or reputable newspapers. All the better to make sure the distracting message is heard. NBC News devoted significant airtime to it tonight, with Oscar ballots still outstanding. (NBC of NBC/Universal, a studio with its own dog in the hunt.)
Though I appreciate LBJ’s contribution to the civil rights movement, I didn’t walk out of Selma thinking about him. This was an opportunity to watch a richly made film about Martin Luther King, Jr. That message has now been diminished. In one month’s time, when the ballots are counted, no one is going to give a damn. They put their collective footprint down to preserve a US president’s legacy — for whom? tfor people who agree with them? Probably. Or did they think, in their own way, that they were “teaching” DuVernay a lesson?
What did I think of when I watched Selma? I thought of the once-in-a-lifetime appearance on the scene of Martin Luther King, Jr. at a time when oppressed non-voting citizens of the United States needed him most. I thought of the people who laid their lives on the line to make sure that year people in America and in our government knew what was happening in Selma and all over the South. I thought of the story of Selma, and how few stories about America’s civil rights movements have ever made it to the big screen. I thought of Fruitvale Station and The Butler and how they were similarly shut out of the awards race because they confront the ongoing racial tension that weaves through our society now, even with (especially with) a black president. I thought of Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere winning Best Director at Sundance but then having nothing come of it in the awards race — except for the few of us that were paying attention.
I thought of King’s words, his famous speeches, what he changed, how he changed it, and what lingers in our culture 50 years later – and how important it is to celebrate this American hero. I thought of how carefully made Selma was and what a good filmmaker DuVernay is and how she took on the challenge of a much bigger production and combed through it painstakingly, so much so that it wasn’t even ready to produce screeners in time for voting. But I appreciate that kind of meticulousness.
I thought suddenly about Oscar history, and how it might be made this year, how those doors might be flung open for women of color to make some kind of progress. I thought about those doors that will remain shut.
But if it doesn’t, is that going to take away from the film’s impact? I don’t think so. You see, the Oscars are a mirrored reflection of their own tastes. With or without an Oscar nomination, I hope people seek out Selma for its richness of character, its persistence of vision, its unimaginable place in film history — this opportunity will not present itself quite the same way again.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. One of the primary forces for social change was killed by some loser with access to weaponry. That it happened so long ago makes it seem like it wasn’t one of the greatest tragedies we’ve ever faced as a nation. To make your topic of conversation coming out of Selma that it didn’t emphasize LBJ’s enthusiasm for civil rights is to ignore the legacy of the man who is all too often forgotten.
He is a man who left us with words that would influence generations. DuVernay’s film has the opportunity to extend that legacy, not just to young black ticket-buyers throughout the country, not just to the many living in poverty who fight, daily, for their own civil rights, but to the black artists, to the women especially, who face nothing but roadblocks, day in and day out both behind and in front of the camera.
As King himself once said in his Nobel speech:
“Doors of opportunity are gradually being opened to those at the bottom of society. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are developing a new sense of “some-bodiness” and carving a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of despair. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.”21 Here and there an individual or group dares to love, and rises to the majestic heights of moral maturity. So in a real sense this is a great time to be alive. Therefore, I am not yet discouraged about the future. Granted that the easygoing optimism of yesterday is impossible. Granted that those who pioneer in the struggle for peace and freedom will still face uncomfortable jail terms, painful threats of death; they will still be battered by the storms of persecution, leading them to the nagging feeling that they can no longer bear such a heavy burden, and the temptation of wanting to retreat to a more quiet and serene life. Granted that we face a world crisis which leaves us standing so often amid the surging murmur of life’s restless sea. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities. It can spell either salvation or doom. In a dark confused world the kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men.
That man, that beautifully thoughtful, heroic diamond of a man, deserves to shine.