Commentary about ‘Selma’ heralds diversity over merit

It’s Oscars season again, which, of course, means that the internet is buzzing with arguments over award snubs. This year’s main obligatory controversy over Oscar nominations concerns the film “Selma,” by up-and-coming director Ava DuVernay. It’s a civil rights film portraying Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers’ historic march from Selma to Montgomery. A Washington Post article by the Ann Hornaday criticized the Oscar nomination’s lack of diversity, the perceived snubbing of “Selma”’s actors being one of the focal points of the piece.

In the article, she writes, “In a year when the stunning civil rights film, which chronicles the voting rights movement in 1965, dovetailed all too perfectly with current events . . . the oversight seems all the more stark.” I believe this is my main issue with her argument. The piece is pervaded with the sense that “Selma” shouldn’t have garnered more acclaim because it was a good movie but because it was a relevant movie. I’m not going to pretend that the Oscars have never been influenced by politics, but I at least appreciate it when that obvious influence is acknowledged. Hornaday’s reasoning seems strictly political and not at all concerned with the actual merit of the films and artists in question. She goes on to state that DuVernay would have been the first African American woman to have earned the honor of a best director but that “that barrier will stand another year.”

To put it frankly, if I were Ava DuVernay and I read that sentence, I would be rather insulted. I’m also a black woman—a black woman who hopes to one day have some hand in the art world as well—and this kind of rhetoric seems to me to be very counterproductive in application. I understand the sentiment perfectly well, but it so often comes across as a mindset that puts “style over substance,” and worries me as a minority artist. If I ever have the opportunity to be a part of an Oscar recognized film or Book Award nominated novel, I sincerely hope that my being a black woman has nothing to do with it. I’d constantly be wondering if I only got the recognition because it was “due time” for someone “like me” to have it and not because I actually deserved it and was actually good enough. The controversy surrounding all of the Oscar snubs this year seems rooted in this low self-esteem inducing idea that “We need more X demographic nominations to prove how far we’ve come.”

This is only compounded by the fact that the Oscars are notoriously stagnant when it comes to who gets nominated. The term “Oscar bait” exists for a reason, and “Selma” is egregious Oscar bait, from its “deep, thought-provoking content about how racism is bad” to the time of year it was set to premiere. Being Oscar bait doesn’t make a movie a bad movie, of course — the awards are supposed to provide some measure of quality, after all, and I personally thought “Selma” was perfectly fine — but Hornaday’s essentially complaining about an Oscar bait film that she happened to like more than other Oscar bait films not getting as many nominations as she wanted it to. It’s the prototypical argument about award snubbing, simply couched in talks about diversity quotas as opposed to talks of merit and quality.

She goes on to call the other nominees “depressingly monochrome,” with “monotonous storylines about great men”— conveniently forgetting to list “Selma” among the list of nominated films that follow the “great man” storyline that’s supposedly so off-putting. As someone who sees herself as an artist, I find this kind of commentary unproductive. Not only does it disrespect the “depressingly monochrome” actors and actresses and filmmakers who might just actually deserve some recognition for a job well done, it couches its criticisms in a very unpleasant light. As opposed to defending the point about what films should and should not have been nominated based on what made each a good film, she spends most of the article tearing down the other films as not diverse enough and boring in the plot department. She talks about the merits of “Selma” all of three times, two of them in relation to another movie, and not in her own words, simply saying that “many critics” thought the lead actor’s performance deserved a nomination. There isn’t much balance to be found.

While I would agree with the author that the Oscars “play it safe” far too often — remember, Oscar bait — her criticisms are shaky, at best. There are plenty of legitimate claims to be made about the faults of the film industry, but the productive points she made wound up being drowned out by a voice that seemed to herald diversity over merit and came across not as a voice of progressiveness but simply as the voice of a critic angry about her favorite movie getting snubbed this awards season. And if we’re going to be angry about the Oscars unrightfully ignoring something, “Selma” only getting a measly best picture nod palls in comparison to the fact that “The LEGO Movie” didn’t get any nominations at all. Now, that is a snub.

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