Paramount / Everett Collection

In Hollywood, black lives don’t matter

The Academy Awards’ snub of ‘Selma’ says more about the film industry than the film

January 21, 2015 2:00AM ET

One of the beautiful things about having a social justice movement in the streets is that it’s not so easy for the powers that be to get away with their repressive conduct. In the wake of the Oscars’ outrageous snub of Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” though nominated for best picture, it was passed over in almost all other categories, including best director, best cinematography, best actor (for David Oyelowo, who plays Martin Luther King Jr.) and best supporting actress (for Carmen Ejogo, who plays Coretta Scott King) — pieces have sprung up across the media condemning the Oscars’ racist, sexist snubbing and the all-white slate of 20 nominees in the acting categories.

Thanks to activist networks built across social media, significant facts about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ demographics — 93 percent white, 76 percent male and 86 percent over the age of 50 — are being spread widely. A hilarious hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite, trended in the United States, and, as is increasingly the case, became a story in its own right. Although every year people critique the racist and sexist implications of the Oscars selections, this year the story crossed over into the mainstream. It’s hard not to credit the #BlackLivesMatter movement with the media’s increased attention to racial justice issues.

But the “Selma” snub seems particularly harsh and telling because of how clearly “Selma” fits the stereotype of an Academy Award–winning film. It’s a period piece and a biopic, it’s about a beloved political figure that tips its hat to radicalism while ultimately celebrating accommodation, it was universally critically acclaimed, and it was released in December, going wide (in January) to a respectable if not blockbuster 2,000 screens. It is a finely crafted film of middlebrow entertainment that can make white people feel good about racial progress. In other words, a shoo-in for accolades.

What went wrong? Perhaps  it’s that — unlike Oscar-beloved “The Help,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained” — it didn’t feature a heroic white do-gooder. Or maybe it’s that it insulted that great white liberal hero, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose representation in the film as an antagonist to the movement has become controversial. (To be fair, Johnson’s relationship with King was much less confrontational than the film depicts, but in terms of the greater truth the film represents, presidential historians argue that Johnson was deeply involved in the repression of the civil rights movement.) Or maybe it’s about the racial politics of the film: “Django” and “The Help” feature much more stereotypical black roles, and “12 Years a Slave” was written by a racial conservative, while “Selma” has a more nuanced and progressive racial perspective and characterization.

Or maybe it’s about issues behind the camera. The snubbing of the film’s impeccable directing may reflect multiple forms of oppression: In the entire history of the best director award, Kathryn Bigelow’s 2009 Oscar for “The Hurt Locker” is the only time a woman has ever won. Out of the 433 total best director nominations, four have gone to women, and three have gone to black men. A black woman has never been nominated. Also, it’s not hard to imagine academy voters saying to themselves that they already featured a race movie last year, so why should they again this year? Does it seem unlikely, in light of how producer Scott Rudin and film executive Amy Pascal joked about whether President Barack Obama preferred “12 Years a Slave,” “Django Unchained” or “The Butler” (revealed in last November’s hack of emails from Sony Pictures) that such a reductive vision of black movies permeates Hollywood’s elite? It certainly seems to permeate the films they produce. Spike Lee suggested something similarly cynical, arguing that it’s just a cyclical thing: Every 10 years the academy celebrates a film about black people and then goes back to its regularly scheduled white supremacist nominating.

Academy voters have immense power in distributing money across the industry, determining who succeeds and deeming certain messages important and representative.

It’s probably some combination of these factors, along with more industry-internal political questions. As Doreen St. Felix pointed out on Twitter, Steven Spielberg owns the rights to an upcoming MLK biopic, and “Selma was snubbed bc The Oscars / Steven Spielberg Complex wants Spielberg to be remembered for making *the* MLK movie.” Whatever the factors in the snub, it affords an important moment to recognize the role of Hollywood in general and the Oscars in particular in reproducing the patriarchal and white supremacist state of things.

In an increasingly globalized film market, in which more and more films are being designed for export, the Oscars are a particularly insular and domestic affair (with all non-English-language cinematic production reduced to a single award). As such, they offer a glimpse into the political attitudes of a particular and particularly American moneyed elite: The Academy Awards may be understood as the political expression of the film industry.

The Oscars are a massive kingmaker. Not only do they mean an extra $20 million, on average, in box office for films nominated for best picture, but they also dramatically increase the wages and career prospects of individual winners and nominees. They produce a massive amount of media coverage and discussion and are one of ABC’s few reliable ratings successes of the year.

Academy voters therefore have immense power in distributing money across the industry, determining who succeeds and deeming certain messages important and representative. The voters are almost all white and male; consequently, the filmmakers who best satisfy the viewpoint of old white men are more likely to succeed. And on the basis of the demographics, these voters are much more likely to be the producers, studio heads or past stars of the industry than currently engaged cinema artists. The films the Oscars celebrate thus reflect the viewpoint of the moneyed interests of the industry. As a result, DuVernay’s snub might even be bad for her career.

The political significance of the snub, however, goes well beyond Hollywood. In the face of the biggest anti-racist social movement since the decades depicted in “Selma,” the academy’s snubbing of DuVernay and its nomination of exclusively white actors is more than just the usual Oscar shenanigans. As the furor over the nominations shows, it is also a political gesture. It represents an open rejection of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, a big middle finger to black people in America and the rest of the world.

At the 2013 Academy Awards ceremony, first lady Michelle Obama’s appeared, flanked by military members, to announce the best picture award to the anti-Iran propaganda fantasy “Argo.” The scene revealed an industry openly making a commitment to being an arm of the state. This year the film industry joins the state in repressing and rejecting the racial justice movement against the police, in acting as an enemy of progress, even when the stakes of doing the right thing (properly respecting a good, nonrevolutionary film like “Selma”) are quite low. Hollywood has revealed itself, once again, to be on the wrong side of justice. It’s up to the movement to prove it equally on the wrong side of history.

Willie Osterweil is a writer and an editor at The New Inquiry and the frontman of the punk band Vulture Shit.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter