The most potent story about this year’s Oscars may not be what was nominated, but what wasn’t. The civil-rights drama Selma, about Martin Luther King’s 1965 voting-rights marches in Alabama, had been considered before the nominations were announced to be a major threat to win awards — yet it was left out of all but two categories. Though the film was present among the eight Best Picture nominees, its director, Ava DuVernay, and its star, David Oyelowo, both failed to convert momentum from the Golden Globes and widespread critical adulation into Oscar nominations. (The film’s sole other nomination is for Best Original Song.)
Oyelowo’s exclusion for his performance as Martin Luther King Jr. is particularly striking; in his absence, all 20 of the nominees for acting prizes are white. (The Screen Actors Guild Awards had a similar makeup this year; Oyelowo was one of two black nominees at the Golden Globes.) In all, a movie that had been perceived as a potential multiple-category threat is now lagging behind the rest of the field. How did this happen to Selma — and what does it mean for Hollywood?
Some may consider singling out Selma to be unfair to the Academy; as Mark Harris points out comprehensively on Grantland, there were major issues with Paramount’s positioning of the movie. Selma was completed very recently and its studio did not send DVD “screeners” out to many awards-giving bodies. Its recent release also made it particularly vulnerable to criticisms about its veracity that, with more time, the film might have transcended. There were entirely straightforward reasons that Selma may have found itself missing out on major nominations that had nothing to do with its subject matter; there’s also the matter of taste, which cannot be discounted. Voters en masse may just have preferred the less visceral Imitation Game or the sweetly twee Grand Budapest Hotel or the bombastic Birdman, three of the five movies that kept DuVernay’s work out of the Best Director field. (And, in further fairness to the Academy, Birdman’s director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, is Latino.)
But the problem — and it is a problem — of Selma’s general exclusion from Oscar’s party is bigger than Selma itself. Women and nonwhite artists have always had a relatively difficult time getting their work recognized (to say nothing of getting the work made in the first place). There’s a reason it was such big news that Kathryn Bigelow, the fourth and most recent woman to get a Best Director nomination, won in 2010, or that 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress Oscars last year.
But this year was an aggressive return to form. Every one of the fifteen writers nominated in the screenplay categories this year is a man, excluding work by writers including Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl); seven of the eight Best Picture nominees are about a white man dealing with internal conflict. (Notably, the Best Actor nominees are drawn from a pool that includes Best Picture and Best Director nominees; meanwhile, the only Best Actress nominee whose film was otherwise acclaimed this year played the supportive wife to the great man her film is about — that is, Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking in The Theory of Everything.) And though the last time there were 20 white acting nominees was 1998 (the year of Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt’s Oscars), Oyelowo’s exclusion from the Best Actor field, which last honored a nonwhite performer in 2007, felt somehow unsurprising.
The absence of Selma in key categories is troubling not merely for what it represents but for its practical effect. Without the one prestige movie from 2014 starring a black performer, the acting categories had no other credible nominees; without a nomination for Ava DuVernay, the field was all-male by unthinking default. What few examples this year of art by and about women and nonwhite people fell from the race for reasons, some of which were perfectly understandable. The worst part of Selma not getting nominated for major Oscars is that there’s nothing else like it from the past year. Rewarding it would be one means of redress. Seeking to make it unexceptional would be more difficult — and also more worthy of Selma’s subject.