Monday, January 26, 2015


Actor Chis Pine and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs announce the best director nominees

The nominations for the 87th. Academy Awards have caused a stir of controversy for a simple, straightforward resason: every nomination in the acting categories is white.  The critically acclaimed SELMA, directed by Ava DuVernay was nominated for best picture and best original song, but was completely shut out otherwise.  This stung most hard for DuVernay who was expected to be the first African American woman to every be nominated for best director.
It would appear that one year after awarding 12 YEARS A SLAVE the best picture award, (which many Academy voters admitted they didn't even see) the Academy has gotten back to its usual business of giving awards to mostly white men.  And is that such a surprise?  According to a recent New York Times article, the Academy is over 90% white and over 70% male; sadly, as our society gets more diverse, the Academy remains monolithic.  And in a perfect world, they wouldn't be playing catch up: while it was good to see Kathryn Bigelow become the first female director to win for 2008's THE HURT LOCKER, why weren't others worthy female directors like Nora Ephron (who was never even nominated for best director), Julie Taymor (who's striking 1999 film TITUS was sadly underrated) and Kasi Lemmons (1997's EVE'S BAYOU and 2007's TALK TO ME are also underrated)winning before her?  And why was  Bigelow herself not nominated again for 2013's ZERO DARK THIRTY?  Sadly, it appears that the Academy voters will break precedence once, pat themselves on the back, and then go back to rewarding white male directors  and consider the matter done.
But politically correct quotas aside, was DuVernay really wrongfully overlooked?  In my opinion she absolutely was.  Let me give an example: one of the best director nominees this year is for Morton Tyldum, who helmed THE IMITATION GAME.  While that film was reasonably well made, there were no particularly striking visuals in it; his direction was workman like and competent.  In SELMA on the other hand, there is a truly stunning and memorable scene of state troopers attacking civil rights protestors on a bridge, featuring billowing fogs of tear gas and slow motion shots of men on horse back with clubs; it's the kind of powerful movie moment that is hard to forget.  On the strength of that scene alone, I think DuVernay topped Tyldum and deserved a nomination, and I think her cinematographer Bradford Young and her editor Spencer Averick should have been nominated too.

And unlike Tyldum's film, which is mostly a simple history lesson, DuVernay wisely comments on modern times through her story: in one of the film's early scenes,  African American woman Annie Lee Cooper tries to vote and is stopped by a racist poll worker who gives her an impossible to pass poll test.  The fact that the Cooper character is played by Oprah Winfrey, one of the most famous and successful women in the world, lets us dwell on the fact that the country has progressed.  At the same time, the poll test is a harsh reminder of the current trend of voter ID laws that conservatives are trying to pass, proving that maybe we haven't come so far after all!

David Oyelowo,  the man who would be King

As for the performances in SELMA, well, actor David Oyelowo was attached to this film years ago, determined to play Dr. Martin Luther King, and he held on as different directors passed on it and other cast members dropped out; giving him a nomination would have been a nice reward for his determination. That aside, its a terrific performance, with Oyelowo emulating one of the most famous speakers of the twentieth century without just imitating him.  I also think that Andre' Holland as civil rights worker Andrew Young was a real stand out in a fine cast, and should have been nominated for best supporting actor.
Now there has been some anger in some quarters about the film's portrayal of former president Lydon Johnson, with people who knew the man saying that he was a more enthusiastic supporter of the civil rights movement than the film portrays.  Political commentator and former Johnson aid Bill Moyers,  praised the film overall, but felt that it overstepped when it implied that Johnson was behind the FBI's decision to send an incriminating recording of King having sex with another women to King's wife Coretta.  I must say that I agree with him on that point, but I don't think it hurts the film overall.  DuVernay has said in interviews that she didn't want the film to be about a noble white man coming in and saving black people, and I admire her for that. As always, historical films always have to play with the truth for dramatic purposes, and the fact that the aforementioned  historical best picture nominee THE IMITATION GAME  has also been accused of playing with the facts while still getting a best director nomination for Tyldum shows that criticisms of DuVernay's portrayal of Johnson should not have cost her a director nomination.
In conclusion I want to mention another statistic about the Academy that is notable: the average member is 63 years old.  It appears inevitable that as time goes on and new generations of voters begin to join their ranks, the club of Oscar nominated directors will become less and less dominated by white men, until someday there won't be anymore controversies about films like SELMA.  Like the Republican party, the sands of time will slowly bring change to the Academy, or it will lose its relevance.