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Race, Selma and Oscar nominations: a need to reevaluate

The 2015 Oscar nominations have come with more than a little controversy. The voters have been criticised; people have been up in arms that Oscar voters are on average 63 years old, 76% of them are men and 94% of them are white.

Their choices have also been challenged. The lack of diversity among the acting, directing and writing choices has been astounding, highlighting both the reluctance of voters to choose broadly, and the lack of important roles given to those from diverse backgrounds. No minority actor was nominated for a performing award in the twenty spaces available, and there was also a complete lack of acknowledgement of women in direction or writing.

Selma achieved just two Oscar nominations this year for Best Film and Original Song and this is a major disappointment. The film, which chronicles Martin Luther King’s crusade to remove voting restrictions on black Americans, is a cinematic triumph. I saw the film as part of a Martin Luther King Day preview screening and was highly impressed. The film certainly deserved more nominations than it received.

Anthony Mackie (Hurt Locker) has commented that the lack of nominations is the result of Oscar voters becoming “tired of race”.

I don’t feel that this is necessarily the case, rather that 12 Years a Slave has simply become the benchmark for film’s concerning race. 2013’s 12 Years a Slave was widely lauded, earning a huge 8.2 on IMDb and 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. In comparison 2013’s The Butler, another excellent film focussed on race relations, scored just 7.1 and 77% respectively, and missed out in awards season. Justification for nominations could not be found for The Butler as it was directly compared to the success of 12 Years.

This same effect can be seen with Selma. Selma fairs only slightly worse than 12 Years on IMDb, attaining a 7.8 rating, whilst achieving a remarkable 99% on Rotten Tomatoes. These scores are very strong and are almost on par with 12 Years. However, I still feel this comparison has unfairly weighed Selma down. Not only have some argued that ‘12 Years’ is a better film, the difference between black Americans being freed by white intervention, and black Americans independently reacting against their white oppressors is significant.

I was most disappointed however, in the fact that British-born David Oyelowo missed out on a Best Actor nomination. His performance, especially when interacting with supporting actor Stephan James, was mesmerising. He shone constantly throughout the picture and performed a tremendous tribute to the civil rights activist.

I find it hard to argue any of Steve Carell, Eddie Redmayne, Michael Keaton or Benedict Cumberbatch’s Oscar nominations, but I was surprised by the Best Actor nomination given to Bradley Cooper.

I had enjoyed American Sniper, but had not expected it to attract much attention. Briefly after seeing it I wrote this about Cooper’s performance: He is mostly stoic and a lot of his performance goes on behind the eyes. As his situation changes, his strained emotional state is drawn out. Cooper is certainly impressive, and worthy of his Oscar nod.

This was written before I had seen Selma, and now my opinion is different. Cooper’s performance was good, but not close to that of Oyelowo. I now consider his omission a definite snub.

I feel David Oyelowo’s performance was overlooked because of an Oscar bias toward the eccentric, transformative and mentally-troubled. Looking at those that were nominated, each Best Actor can fit into one of these three descriptions. Two amazing transformations were witnessed in 2014, resulting in nominations for Carell in Foxcatcher and Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. Michael Keaton and Benedict Cumberbatch both played characters on a different level, and Cooper’s Chris Kyle was certainly somewhat mentally-troubled.  

On the other hand, David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King could not be said to be eccentric or troubled in the same way, and his performance was not particularly transformational. This does not mean his performance was any less extraordinary. His presentation of a true American hero outshone many of those around him, including Cooper. The lack of emotional duality in his character however, made it easier to vote for Cooper’s emotionally divided ’hero’.

The snub of Selma points to a disappointing state of affairs. Looking back at previous nominations, the pattern seems the same in terms of actors; nominations mainly go to those who play eccentric, troubled or transformative characters. Actors such as Oyelowo and Teller have been overlooked this year as their characters are too functional.

There is definite bias in those that will attract Oscar nominations and those that won’t, whilst there seems to be a lack of exceptional roles for women and minorities. Selma shouldn’t have been nominated more to show diversity in the nominations, it should have been nominated more because it deserved so. Not only do the Oscar voters need to look inward, but it seems the whole film community needs to do so too.

Jake Wilson

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