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David Oyelowo of ‘Selma’ says Oscars only go to black actors in ‘subservient’ roles. Is he right?

David Oyelowo pulled no punches when asked about his Oscar snub during a Q&A at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival over the weekend. After making a couple of jokes, the man who played Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma” got down to brass tacks. The problem, he said, is that the Academy gravitates toward certain types of black characters, and game-changing leaders aren’t one of them.

“Generally speaking, we as black people have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings or being in the center of our own narrative, driving it forward,” he said. He brought up other snubs: Denzel Washington getting overlooked for playing Malcolm X, and Sidney Poitier, who didn’t even get nominated for his role as a brilliant police detective in “In the Heat of the Night.”

Oyelowo added: “We’ve just got to come to the point whereby there isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy, a notion of who black people are that feeds into what we’re celebrated as — not just in the academy, just in life generally. We have been slaves, we have been domestic servants, we have been criminals. We’ve been all those things. But we’ve been leaders, we’ve been kings, we’ve been those who change the world. And those films, where that is the case, are so hard to get made.”

That last part is hard to quibble with, considering it took an astounding 50 years to get a Martin Luther King Jr. biopic green-lit.

Here’s the full video (h/t Hollywood Reporter).

His other points are worth considering. Does the Academy only praise black actors when they are in certain roles? After all, Hattie McDaniel and Lupita Nyong’o both won for playing slaves; Octavia Spencer won for playing a maid in “The Help”; and of Denzel Washington’s many nominations, he won for playing a crooked cop in “Training Day.”

Then again, Jamie Foxx won for his portrayal of Ray Charles, and Louis Gossett, Jr. took home an Oscar for playing a tough and righteous drill sergeant in “An Officer and a Gentleman.” So what does it all mean? Let’s take a look.

By the numbers:

The Academy has been awarding best lead actor and actress awards for 86 years, since 1928, and best supporting prizes for 78 years, since 1936. That’s 328 Oscars, and 15 of them have been awarded to black actors.

By the roles:

The Academy-ordained roles inhabited by black actors don’t entirely bear out Oyelowo’s claims. In the lead categories, the five actors have been Sidney Poitier for “Lilies of the Field” in 1963, Denzel Washington for “Training Day” in 2001, Halle Berry for “Monster’s Ball” in 2001, Jamie Foxx for “Ray” in 2004 and Forest Whitaker for “The Last King of Scotland” in 2006.

Maybe Poitier should have won for another performance, but his role in the comedy-drama “Lilies of the Field” doesn’t fit neatly into one of the stereotypical characters that Oyelowo mentions. He’s a former GI and drifter, who stumbles upon a group of immigrant nuns and gets cajoled into helping them build a chapel. The role could have just as easily been portrayed by a white actor.

The Academy has a history of rewarding the leads of biopics, especially in recent years, and Foxx and Whitaker are just two of many examples. Although Whitaker’s role as sadistic African dictator Idi Amin is certainly less heroic or likable than, say, Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, Sean Penn as Harvey Milk or Colin Firth as King George VI in “The King’s Speech.”

“Training Day” is a little bit more difficult to gauge. Is it problematic that Washington won for playing a criminal rather than for his stunning performance as a more complicated historical figure in “Malcolm X”? How about the fact that when Washington won, he beat out Will Smith, who was a contender for his portrayal of a real-life champ, Muhammad Ali? That being said, Washington was electrifying and terrifying in “Training Day.”

In the supporting categories, some examples back up Oyelowo’s claims, including McDaniel, Spencer and Nyong’o. But there was also Jennifer Hudson in a heartbreaking turn as an aspiring Motown star in “Dreamgirls,” and Cuba Gooding Jr. hot-dogging football player screaming “show me the money” in “Jerry Maguire.”

Morgan Freeman won in 2004 for “Million Dollar Baby,” essentially playing the same narrator-type role as he did in “Shawshank Redemption,” which he was also nominated for. (He lost to Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump.”) Thinking more deeply about Freeman’s roles, you begin to realize that, even though he’s the narrator, and the movie is supposedly told from his point of view, he’s nevertheless relegated to the margins of movies that are really about white protagonists: Tim Robbins’ Andy Dufresne is really the main player in “Shawshank,” and the relationship between Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank takes center stage in “Million Dollar Baby.” (Swank won that year, too.)

“Selma” star David Oyelowo expressed disappointment and surprise at the lack of nominations for the upcoming BAFTA Film Awards for his critically acclaimed new film. (Video: Reuters)

By the snubs:

So who was robbed? And does that add anything to the conversation?

A snub is all subjective, of course, but considering Oyelowo brought up “In the Heat of the Night” and “Malcolm X,” those seem like logical places to start. “In the Heat of the Night” came out in 1967, which also happens to be the year that “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” came out. Other actors from each movie were nominated, and you could argue that Poitier — who was phenomenal in both — was doubly robbed. Rod Steiger actually took home the best actor Oscar for playing the bigoted police chief of “In the Heat of the Night” that year, beating out Spencer Tracy in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” Poitier played a class act in both roles — in the former, an accomplished lawman, in the latter, an ambitious doctor navigating the social complications of his romance with a white woman. But instead of Poitier, the nominees from those movies were the white actors, both playing characters who had conflicted feelings about Poitier’s black protagonists — before, naturally, finding their humanity and deigning to give their approval. Hmmm.

In 1992, Washington, up for “Malcolm X” lost out to Al Pacino’s over-the-top performance as a blind lothario in “Scent of a Woman.” The Pacino performance perhaps has not stood the test of time, but during that awards cycle, he was the older actor considered long overdue for a prize, whereas Washington had just won a supporting-actor prize three years earlier, as the ex-slave and Civil War soldier of “Glory.”

This year, Oyelowo isn’t nominated for best actor, a fact which many critics and viewers have seen as an egregious oversight. Instead, the actors up for the award are Steve Carell as a mentally unstable heir in “Foxcatcher,” Benedict Cumberbatch as closeted mathematician Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game,” Eddie Redmayne as ALS-afflicted physicist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” Michael Keaton as a has-been actor in “Birdman” and Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in “American Sniper.” With the exception of “Birdman,” all of these characters are based on real people, and each of the actors do their jobs well. But it’s hard to argue that Cumberbatch, Carell or Cooper capture the spirit or complexity of their characters more effectively than Oyelowo does.

It would be difficult to claim unequivocally that the academy today only recognizes certain black roles, but one thing is less ambiguous. Oyelowo should have been a contender this year.