Thursday, September 13, 2018

Straying From the Party Line: Is King Humanized Enough in Selma?

We’ve talked about grievances harbored by Selma critics, but let’s move on to one harbored by the movie’s fans: Why didn’t David Oyelowo get an Oscar nomination for playing MLK? And they’re right: It’s bullshit. It’s an amazing, deeply nuanced performance. Let’s look at some reasons it was skipped over:

  • First of all, we have to deal with the most obvious: racism from the mostly white Academy. DuVernay didn’t get a nomination either, which is even crazier. As seen in the Maureen Dowd piece I cited last week, a lot of the white reaction to this movie, even from liberals, was nakedly racist. The Academy later tried to make its voting base more diverse.
  • Whenever black people are excluded from anything there’s always the Catch-22 argument: “They just haven’t paid their dues!” DuVernay pointed out that she knew that she wouldn’t get a nomination because she didn’t even know anybody in the DGA. As for Oyelowo, before I saw this, I only knew him as the underwritten sidekick from the British “24”-knock-off “Spooks” (called “MI-5” in America), where he didn’t set off any “future Oscar winner” alarm bells. Neither was “overdue” for an Oscar.
  • But there’s also a far more practical reason: Paramount didn’t send out any awards screeners of the movie. Every movie that has the slightest chance of winning anything sends these out, and the voting body (most of whom are retired) relies on them. Indeed, I had a newborn at the time and I was entirely relying on screeners that year, and I inevitably resented that Selma was the one contender I had to get off my ass and pay for (though I knew I was an jerk for feeling that way.) But of course the real question is, why didn’t Paramount send any out? Was it because they were dismissive towards their own movie for racial reasons? Were they throwing their weight behind another (white?) movie they liked better? I never saw anybody investigate this and I lacked the wherewithal to do it myself (I had a newborn!)

But of course, the movie itself did get a nomination, so enough people got out to see it, so DuVernay and Oyelowo should have gotten their well-deserved nominations. All three of the controversies we discussed last week might have sabotaged DuVernay, but none of them should have affected Oyelowo.

But that leaves the question: Was there anything in the writing that hurt Oyelowo’s chances? Did King go on enough of a journey to satisfy the Academy?

In a piece from the time, I talked about how Hollywood had traditionally told civil rights stories through white eyes, not just for racist and economic reasons, but also because these stories were more naturally ironic: These characters switched sides, which is a longer, more ironic journey.

King, in the movie, definitely uses ironic tactics (trying to trigger violence through non-violence), and he does have a small shift in those tactics when he reverses the second march (after a literal “come to Jesus” moment), but he never switches sides or decides that he was all wrong at the beginning. He’s always in the right morally, and always basically on the right track tactically. We’re hardwired not to like those stories or heroes as much, and not award them as much.

But there’s one last question: Could or should the movie have humanized King more? Should it have brought him down to our level more? I was looking for the opening scene’s “moment of humanity” and the closest I could find was when he’s futzing with his ascot and says “Wait till the brothers back home see me like this, they’ll get a good laugh.” This humanizes him enough for us to care about him, but we never really have a moment of “Oh, he’s just a normal guy like us” The movie never really pierces that historical-figure-gravity. He never comically trips and falls down the stairs. We never see him practice how a scene will go and then get flustered when it goes the opposite way. He never gets embarrassed when he thinks someone is waving at him but they’re actually waving at someone else.

Should they have done this? Probably not.

The film certainly shows that King was no saint (showing his adultery), but he’s still undeniably great. Except for in that one tape scene, he’s always heroic, a brilliant strategist, justifiably righteous, and just…weighty. Important. He’s Martin Luther King. It’s amazing and overdue that DuVernay and Oyelowo brought that majesty to the screen, but Academy voters prefer heroes that are a little more humble…and humbled.

They decide they just won’t bring King down to our level. It’s an understandable choice, but I wonder if it hurt the movie’s appeal to audiences and cost Oyelowo his nomination.

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