I understand the disappointments of “Selma” fans, who think Ava DuVernay’s film about the lead-up to the Voting Rights Act deserved more serious consideration in multiple categories. I’m one of them. But in discussing what happened this awards season, I think it would be a mistake to argue that because Academy voters had mixed feelings about “Selma,” the movies they nominated instead are all necessarily worse.
Just because a struggle is happening in a white man’s life doesn’t automatically render it uninteresting, or the depiction of it of poor quality. Being burned out on a certain kind of story is not the same thing as that story being no good. And suggesting so is a mirror image of the problem the Academy’s critics diagnose: that the voters don’t find the journeys of women and people of color valuable just because of their gender and their skin. Rather than trashing “Boyhood” and Richard Linklater’s interest in childhood, or even the careful attention to domestic life and caregiving in “The Theory of Everything,” the question we ought to be asking ourselves is how to get Academy voters to be excited about those kinds of stories when they are about people who don’t look like the members of the nominating pool.
Why, for example is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” about a Hollywood star looking for a comeback, a Best Picture nominee, and not Chris Rock’s “Top Five,” which is also about a star who feels trapped by his franchise? Some of it might have to do with race: Iñárritu is Mexican and “Birdman” star Michael Keaton is white, while Rock is black. But there is also an element of perceived cinematic achievement — “Birdman” appears to be shot in a single take, an element that has caused much discussion — as well as simple momentum and familiarity. Three other films by Iñárritu — “Amores Perros,” “Babel” and “Biutiful” — received Academy Award nominations in the past. The Academy knows him and believes that his work is consistently of a fairly high quality.
Similarly, the odd raft of nominations for “American Sniper” likely is due to a number of factors, not just one. Once again, we have to weigh the Academy’s familiarity with and fondness for both director Clint Eastwood and star Bradley Cooper. It’s also worth considering that “American Sniper,” while a fairly indifferent movie, offers Hollywood an opportunity to do something unusual. The industry frequently honors movies that couch concerns about America’s wars in expressions of sympathy for individual suffering veterans. “American Sniper” lets Academy voters extend that sympathy to a veteran who was an outspoken conservative.
It’s also probably worth noting that while “Selma” may emphasize the role of activists in the civil rights movement, which is certainly a necessary shift away from movies like “The Help” and the well-established white savior trope, it is still the sort movie that reinforces the idea that for your inner life to be of public interest, you have to be a historical figure on a fairly significant scale.
DuVernay gives us an intimate look at the marriage of Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), an examination of the decision-making process of President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), and a subplot about John Lewis (Stephan James). But other figures in the civil rights movement, including Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson), Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo) and Andrew Young (André Holland), exist mostly to add grist to King’s decision-making process. And while we see the pain that reverberates out of the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), we learn little about his life before he joined the fight for equality or his fears about the risks of participation.
But it’s a heavy enough burden to ask “Selma” to push any aspect of film forward, much less to saddle it with sole responsibility to persuade Academy voters to value both nonwhite, activist perspectives on history and the inner lives of women and people of color.
Instead let’s hope that the Academy’s encounters with Ava DuVernay this year and with Steve McQueen (director of “12 Years a Slave”) last year are the beginning of a credentialing process. Neither filmmaker may be able to change the emotional needs of the Academy: Only time and shifting demographics will do that. But if DuVernay and McQueen have earned admission to a club where the privileges of membership include serious consideration of all their projects — be the subjects personal or world-historical — from Academy voters, the losses and snubs they have may not be for naught, and may pay off in a more vibrant Oscars future.