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Opinion: This year's Oscars were a decidedly white affair

The Academy’s (94% white) voters indisputably snubbed creative talent by non-white actors and directors this year.

Donal O'Keeffe

HAD AVA DUVERNAY been nominated for Best Director for the film Selma – as it had been widely expected she would be – DuVernay would have made her own small but vital piece of Oscar history and taken her place too on the greater stage of American history, becoming the first ever African-American woman nominee in that category. Instead, the 87th Academy Awards is now looking a decidedly white affair, something which has been greeted with some disquiet in Hollywood and around the world on social media. (You should check out #OscarsSoWhite.)

DuVernay’s Selma celebrates a crucial turning-point in the American Civil Rights struggle and its release was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches and the Voting Rights Act. It comes at a time when race relations in the US have not been as fraught in a generation. Worthy as they are, of course, these factors would be completely irrelevant to whether Selma should have received greater Oscar recognition, had the film not also been such an obvious artistic and cinematic triumph.

The best-reviewed film of the year

It was without doubt America’s best-reviewed film of the year, receiving an approval rating of 99% on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, with Ava DuVernay hotly tipped for an Oscar nod, and the film’s star David Oyelowo expected to be nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal of Martin Luther King.

The New York Times said: “Selma is not a manifesto, a battle cry or a history lesson. It’s a movie: warm, smart, generous and moving in two senses of the word. It will call forth tears of grief, anger, gratitude and hope. And like those pilgrims on the road to Montgomery, it does not rest.” With the NYT hailing it as “a triumph of efficient, emphatic cinematic storytelling … bold and bracingly self-assured … astonishingly rich and nuanced”, Selma seemed an Oscar shoo-in.

Some part of the Academy’s collective, 94% white, 77% male, average age 63-year-old brain must have at least partly agreed, giving the film as it did a nomination for Best Picture (and – be still my beating heart – Best Song, too). The problem with this token nod is, as the film reviewer Daniel Montgomery put it on GoldDerby.com, “So Selma is one of the eight best films of the year, but apparently it wrote, directed, edited, shot, costumed, composed, designed, and acted itself”.

Historical accuracy and art

It has been suggested that the Oscar prospects of Selma may have suffered because of some quibbles about points of historical accuracy – for instance, the portrayal of President Lyndon B Johnson’s lack of enthusiasm about granting voting rights to African-Americans has been angrily-disputed by LBJ’s supporters. That might well seem a fair point until one looks at Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing.

Whatever about the more technical nominations, American Sniper has a script so historically inaccurate – drawing a clear and utterly nonsensical line of influence from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to the 9/11 attacks – that it might as well have been written by Dick Cheney himself.

But I guess, you know, Clint, he’s old, he’s white and, empty chair or not, the man is one of us.

Racial tension in the United States

Last year’s Oscars were celebrated as a game-changer for the Academy and for diversity, with Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy’s first African-American president, predicting that the success of 12 Years a Slave would serve as a breakthrough for black actors and directors.

“I would say… a major door will have been kicked down,” Boone Isaacs said before Steve McQueen won Best Picture for 12 Years a Slave and Lupita Nyong’o won Best Supporting Actress for the same film. “I believe very strongly that the entertainment and motion picture business is going to be more open and aware of different voices.”

At a time when New York, Ferguson and Cleveland have been torn apart along racial lines, with anger and violence triumphing over reason and discourse, America has never needed reminding more of what great political leaders like Doctor Martin Luther King and (yes) President Lyndon Baines Johnson could achieve through dialogue. Given its own talk of diversity and breakthrough, only a year ago, it seems sad that the Academy has largely overlooked a great and very timely film and gone back to business as usual.

If 12 Years a Slave really did kick down doors, as Boone Isaacs predicted it would, the Academy – and it’s worth repeating those statistics: 94% white, 77% male, average age 63 years old – has wasted little time in building that door back up and nailing it firmly shut again lest it really be more open and aware of different voices. Despite David Oyelowo uncannily inhabiting the role of Doctor King, here we have the whitest Oscars since 1998, with not a single black nominee for Best Actor.

Given this year’s whitewash, it’s hard not to agree with GoldDerby.com’s Daniel Montgomery’s withering conclusion.: “‘I don’t have a race problem,’ says Oscar, pointing to 12 Years a Slave, ‘One of my Best Pictures is black.”

Correction: The original version of this article mistakenly referred to ‘the first ever African-American nominee’ in the opening paragraph – this has been corrected to ‘first ever African-American woman nominee’.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for TheJournal.ie. He tweets as @Donal_OKeeffe.

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