‘Selma’: Resolving the Dilemma Between a Great Motion Picture and Culturally-Relevant One

Selma ItalianIn 1993, Denzel Washington was nominated for an Academy Award based on his lead role in Malcolm X. Washington lost that year, to Al Pacino (for Scent of a Woman), and in the wake of it, Director Spike Lee went on record, saying he believed that Denzel Washington had been robbed.

Pacino’s performance in Scent of a Woman was brilliant, this despite the fact it represented only the third, or even fourth, most impressive turn of his career. While no one should be faulted for having such a remarkable track record, it stands to reason Denzel Washington pulled off an acting feat that still endures. Washington would not collect for another eight years, at which point he received the Best Actor Academy Award for his performance in Training Day – an equally powerful turn in a more box-office-friendly movie.

The fact that Denzel Washington was even nominated for Malcolm X seems oddly relevant, particularly given the stink surrounding Selma in light of this year’s recent Oscar nominations. The question being: how – or why – would the Academy nominate one actor for his portrayal of a deeply polarizing African-American Civil Rights figure, only to snub another for his betrayal of a more beloved one? In other words, why Malcolm X and not Martin Luther King?

The answer is that Denzel Washington provided a much more penetrating performance in a vastly superior display of cinema. Selma, despite an opening scene that absolutely commands the audience’s attention, very quickly disintegrates into schmaltz. A pair of venerable British actors (Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth) clumsily cast as Lyndon B. Johnson and Alabama Governor George Wallace? An understated turn by Tessa Thompson that pales in comparison to her lead role in Dear White People? The repetitive appearance of Oprah Winfrey serving as nothing more than a distraction? Little by little, these faux pas take their toll, compounded by a screenplay that literally whitewashes the despicable grit of Southern-American Confederacy.

According to Deadline, Director Ava DuVernay rewrote close to 90% of Paul Webb’s original script. Included in these rewrites was a necessary revision of Martin Luther King’s original speeches, the rights to which had previously been sold to Dreamworks (by way of Warner Brothers). So now you’ve got a sanitized script, toned down to satisfy a PG-13 rating, featuring speeches that were never delivered at assemblies that never actually took place. The costumes worn by poor, black activists have no grime, the attitudes of rich, white bureaucrats arrive entirely declawed, and any investigation into deep-set attitudes that originally gave rise to widespread ignorance (i.e., the groupthink mentality of long-held American institutions) comes bearing no real weight at all.

This is not to say that Selma is not a good movie, or even to deny that it is one of the most important motion pictures of the year. It is simply to say that Selma is not an Oscar-caliber picture, nor does it feature any Oscar-caliber performances. Any outlet that would promote a case of bias along race lines is guilty of manipulating its audience in the most underhanded way possible. I am speaking here of the Huffington Post, of Bloomberg News, of the New York Times (by way of David Carr). I am speaking of the Associated Press, The Washington Post and Entertainment Weekly. I am speaking here of any entity that would poison the well by way of disingenuous means. This … This is race-baiting in the age of aggregate film criticism. This is castigating the Academy for its failure to recognize Selma as a movie that received the same approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes as Paddington. This is the same narrow thinking that led America down this rabbit hole to begin with, and it is propagated by several syndicates that – for one reason or another – have something to gain by trading upon race.

When a motion picture like 12 Years a Slave confronts racism with precision, that film deserves not only the nine Oscar nominations it received, but the three Academy Awards it later won. Point being, in the case of Selma, capitalistic media perpetrates a disservice by encouraging noble fare as a popular surrogate for craft. And I will use here, by way of example, Clint Eastwood’s recent biopic, American Sniper.

American Sniper, which whitewashes its subject in a wholly different way than Selma; American Sniper, which evokes jingoism on the Right in much the same way Selma already has among the Left; American Sniper, which is a better motion picture than Selma despite not being nearly as important; American Sniper, whose lead actor, Bradley Cooper, does not deserve an Oscar nomination any more than Eastwood’s biopic deserves to be nominated for Best Picture.

American Sniper is the beneficiary of people embracing ideals over value and substance. How else does one explain Bradley Cooper being nominated in a year when Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year) and Tom Hardy (Locke) remain simultaneously out in the cold? How does one explain American Sniper AND Selma being nominated for Best Picture while A Most Wanted Man remains nominated for nothing? You won’t hear about any controversy surrounding A Most Wanted Man for the simple reason there’s no percentage in it. Instead, media outlets will treat you to an embedded clip of Jennifer Aniston referring to herself as “the number-one snubbed” on Ellen (Is there anything more repugnant?).

It bears mentioning that both Lee Daniels and Spike Lee were offered the directorial reins for Selma. Daniels turned it down in lieu of The Butler. Spike Lee, well, who really knows why Spike Lee might have turned Selma down. It could be Paramount wouldn’t relinquish creative control. It could be the script appeared too formulaic. Then again, it could be Spike Lee, a director who demonstrates a brilliant, honest vision for whatever he seeks to accomplish, simply recognized Selma maintained no oratorical access to Dr. Martin Luther King; to several speeches that defined not only the man, but the most strident push for equality in this country’s history. Assuming that was the case, Lee’s directorial instinct might have proven unequivocally correct.

(Selma is currently playing in theaters nationwide. It received Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Song, but none for Best Director or Best Actor.)