Every Oscar year has controversy and one of this year’s centers around Selma. The film focuses on a major event in the Civil Rights movement, the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights. The film received only two nominations, one for Best Original Song for “Glory” by John Legend and Common and…one for Best Picture. Had the film only been nominated for best song, there may actually have been no controversy. But it was nominated for Best Picture with no nod to its director, Ava DuVernay, its screenplay, co-written by DuVernay and Paul Webb, or any of its performances, particularly the lead performance by David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. Is this really the same actor who played the snooty, money grubbing, corporate jerk in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and the “can we trust him” detective in Jack Reacher (2012)? Yes it is. Oyelowo transformed himself, not only his outward appearance but also his speech patterns and mannerisms, into the late Dr. King, much like Daniel Day-Lewis transformed himself into Abraham Lincoln. The difference is that Day-Lewis won his third Academy Award for his portrayal. Oyelowo wasn’t even nominated.
Again, this controversy may not have arisen had Selma not been nominated for Best Picture, a nomination that raised awareness of and interest in a film with a relatively small $20 million budget by a relatively new director. Selma is Duvernay’s third feature film, but she has an extensive résumé of shorts and documentaries. The film may not have been made at all, or at least may not have found major distribution, if not for Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt working behind the scenes as producers. But the film was made, found distribution, found an audience, received press, found a bigger audience, was nominated for and won several awards, found a bigger audience, and finally garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and Best Song, which raised the question why wasn’t it nominated for anything else?
Selma is indicative of a problem with the Academy, namely its increasing attempt to make everybody happy by nominating as many films as possible. As a result, deserving films and performances often get left out, while other films and performances that would never have been nominated in the past suddenly find themselves thrust into the spotlight. Selma is example of the first problem, while last year’s Nebraska is an example of the second. I like Alexander Payne and his films as much as anyone, but just because he decides to shoot in black and white (actually in color and converted to black and white in post-production) doesn’t mean it’s one of the year’s best pictures. The cinematography nomination was also superfluous. Though there were some beautiful individual sequences, the film often looked washed out and over- (and sometimes under-) exposed. Any cinematographer will tell you that shooting in black and white is very different from shooting in color. Different lighting techniques must be employed. You don’t simply drain the color in post. When done right, you end up with The Artist (2011), Schindler’s List (1993), or The White Ribbon (2009). When done poorly, you end up with, well, Nebraska. Nebraska’s multiple nominations had more to do with the appeal of Payne, the fact that he shot in black and white, and the return of Bruce Dern to a major role on the big screen than the resulting film itself. It was nominated for its parts, not its sum.
Though there is no single point when the problem of making everyone happy began, we can look to various changes in the awards for indications of this tendency. For example, after pressure by the public to recognize animated films, the Academy introduced the Best Animated Feature category in 2001. Previously animated features had only won “special achievement” awards. But when Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture in 1991, the Academy realized that animated films were not going to go away and were, in fact, artistic achievements. Since 2001, the nominees tend to be a mix of popular films, fan favorites, and little known independent and/or foreign films. Pixar is reigning king of animation with nine nominations and seven wins. Its two closest competitors are DreamWorks (two for eleven) and Disney (one for eight) with Disney’s only win coming with last year’s Frozen.
This brings us to the second major controversy this year. Why wasn’t The LEGO Movie nominated? This controversy has been debated and argued to death, mainly because there is no answer. I honestly expected the Academy to come out with a reason, claiming some little known detail in the rules that rendered the movie ineligible. This is what they did with “Please Mr. Kennedy” from Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and Springsteen’s “The Wrestler” from Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film of the same name. But no such explanation ever came. The film was simply not nominated. So, this could be a year for a future trivia question, “Name the first sequel to win best animated feature?” Will it really happen? Will How to Train Your Dragon 2 really be The Godfather II of animation? Let’s hope not. Maybe the Academy will at least award Big Hero 6 or The Boxtrolls. Or better yet, maybe voters will mutiny and write-in The LEGO Movie as the real winner. It won’t happen, but I can dream.
Speaking of dreams, this brings us back to Selma. Selma is the victim of another recent change in the Academy, namely, the decision in 2009 to return to ten Best Picture nominees as opposed to five. This policy was amended two years later to “between five and ten,” so this year there were eight. During the 65 years that the Academy nominated five films and five directors, there have often been times when one film’s director was not nominated, and reciprocally, one director’s film was not nominated. But since 2009, all five directors nominated also had their films nominated. Even in 2013, when Ben Affleck was left out, the five nominees’ pictures were all up for the big award. But this year, the Academy again dropped the ball. Selma’s Ava DuVernay was left out and was not replaced by Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle, or The Theory of Everything’s James Marsh, or even American Sniper’s Clint Eastwood. She was replaced by Foxcatcher’s Bennett Miller, whose film failed to make the final cut.
Foxcatcher was a great film with great performances, but if the Academy doesn’t deem it worthy of a Best Picture nod, should its director be rewarded with an individual nomination over other worthy nominees? This is the real controversy. If the Academy could get its act together (and stop trying to please everyone), evaluate its nomination procedures, make those procedures clear — and enforce those procedures — we might not have these situations. We might assume that DuVernay was left out because there were other, more suitable nominees this year. Instead, we’re having to ask if she was overlooked because she was black and a woman. Come on, Oscar. It’s 2015. We shouldn’t even have to have this conversation.