Let’s look back: As of early December, “Boyhood” and “Birdman” had all the early critical heat, but they were still eccentric art-house films. “Selma” sneaked in late and seemed to win hearts and minds. It was a sweeping historical drama, and Academy voters like those. It told the story of a key moment in the civil-rights movement, an issue dear to Hollywood’s progressive self-identity. And while so many other civil-rights dramas focused on white do-gooders (“The Help,” “Mississippi Burning,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” etc.), “Selma” won cheers for finally putting the African-American leadership at the front and center of the story.
And by most critical accounts, it was really, really, really good.
“A stirring, often thrilling, uncannily timely drama that works on several levels at once,” wrote our colleague Ann Hornaday. “‘Selma’ hums with suspense and surprise,” wrote the New York Times. “Packed with incident and overflowing with fascinating characters, it is a triumph of efficient, emphatic cinematic storytelling.” Critics praised the masterful performance of David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. — and the confident, inventive directing of Ava DuVernay, a newcomer who released her first movie only four years ago.
“Selma’s” 99 percent rating from Rotten Tomatoes, which measures the rate of positive reviews across the vast field of professional film critics, was higher than that of any other Best Picture nominee. Dissenters spoke out, to be sure — Michael Sragow of Film Comment called it “deliberate, broad, uninspired” — but were few.
When the nominations were announced Thursday morning, “Selma” did get a Best Picture nomination, a more elite field than usual with only eight films named.
But other than a Best Song nomination (“Glory,” by Common and John Legend), that’s all “Selma” got. Of the eight Best Picture nominees, it’s the only one that did not also get a nomination for its script. (“Nightcrawler” seems to have squeezed it out of the Best Original Screenplay category.)
And Oyelowo, once considered a serious Best Actor challenger to “Birdman’s” Michael Keaton? Denied a nomination.
And DuVernay, once considered not just a lock to become the first African-American woman nominated for Best Director, but maybe possibly the first to win? Also denied.
(Instead, a Best Director nomination went to Bennett Miller of “Foxcatcher,” who — while well-regarded — was not expected by most awards-watchers to get a nod in this competitive year. Weirder still, considering that “Foxcatcher” didn’t even get nominated for Best Picture. It’s the first time a movie has been nominated for Best Director not Best Picture since the Oscars expanded the field of movie nominees five years ago from five to a max of 10.)
So what happened? “Selma” may have risen fast, but the backlash came up even faster. Former aides to Lyndon Johnson complained that the movie unfairly made him look like the bad guy.
“The film falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. . .” his former domestic policy chief Joseph A. Califano Jr. wrote in the Washington Post. “In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted.”
Backlash is a rite of passage for any movie-awards contender. It’s not unusual for producers to mount whisper campaigns undermining their rivals. But the complaints from the LBJ camp were unusually fierce. Who was right? Our colleague Karen Tumulty wrote that the evidence “suggests that there are places where the director and her critics are each right — and ones where each is wrong. . . [Johnson and King] had common goals but sometimes conflicting priorities. And the unspooling of events a half-century later can look very different, depending on whether it is viewed from the perspective of Washington deal-making or from the dangerous front lines.”
(READ IN DETAIL: ‘Selma’ sets off a controversy amid Oscar buzz)
DuVernay’s style of addressing the controversy may have soured some Oscar voters. She issued a couple of testy tweets: “Notion that Selma was LBJ’s idea is jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so. . . . Folks should interrogate history. Don’t take my word for it or LBJ rep’s word for it. Let it come alive for yourself.” But then she declined to answer most questions about it in interviews or panel discussions.
There were a couple of warnings that “Selma” might not have a big year at the Oscars. It was nominated in major Golden Globe categories but only won for Best Song. More significantly, it did not get nominated for the specialty awards handed out by key movie-making guilds — the SAGs, the Directors Guild or the Producers Guild.
Was it racism? Sexism? The LBJ thing? Some Hollywood observers pointed to a simpler explanation: “Selma’s” studio, Paramount, had mailed free DVD screeners to Oscar voters — but not to guild voters.
Which raises the possibility that, with “Selma” having opened so late in the season, maybe not enough voters have seen it yet.
Is it hopeless for “Selma”? Maybe not. Remember that two years ago, Ben Affleck failed to get a nomination for Best Director, but his “Argo” won Best Picture anyway.
And “Selma” still has more chance than most nominated movies to make a big impact before final ballots are due: Last weekend, its first weekend in wide release, “Selma” was No. 2 at the box office, and it will almost certainly go on to make more money than “Birdman” or “Boyhood.” And in Hollywood, money still talks.