Why The Selma Oscar Snub Matters

I went to see “Selma” this weekend. I went to see it because it’s an important movie,and because it’s MLK weekend, so I will be preaching on Rev. King, and it seemed important to see this movie that’s out now before preaching about this tomorrow. And as it happens, just this week the Academy Award nominations have been released. And while Selma has been nominated for best picture, the only other nomination it received was for best original song. No nods to any of the actors. No nod to the director, Ava DuVernay, a black woman. This is unusual for a film that’s nominated for best picture, and many see it as a snub. And I agree. But why is this important?

I generally don’t pay much attention to the over-produced, over-hyped mutual admiration society award shows. In 1971 “Love Story” was nominated for best picture, and it was hard to take them seriously after that. So why would I care now? I care because Hollywood reflects and refracts what is happening in the rest of society.

When “Selma” came out, a few white people started complaining that it made President Johnson look bad – that it turned him into a bad guy in all of this. Well, we see a film through the lenses we’re wearing, so if in the eyes of some people not being the primary hero is the same as being the bad guy, I guess that’s how they see it. But this is the problem with privilege. We expect the white men to be the heroes. We like it when the great white hero swoops in and rescues the poor black folks who surely can’t do it themselves.  We really do like it. Perhaps that’s why Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for best actress in 2010 for her performance as the white woman who rescues the poor homeless black teenager in “The Blind Side.”

“Selma” is not, in my opinion, the greatest movie ever made. I don’t even know if it’s going to be one of my favorites. It’s not “Schindler’s List.” It’s not The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of “Hamlet.” That’s not the point. It’s an important film, and the actors delivered outstanding performances – and even performances, by the way. It was very well cast. But the heroes of this movie are black.

Yes, white people went to Selma answering Rev. Dr. King’s call. As a Unitarian Universalist, I am very much aware that two of our own – Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo – paid the ultimate price in Selma. And I’m also very much aware that Rev. Reeb is lauded far more often than Mrs. Liuzzo. Mrs. Liuzzo was, after all, just an uppity housewife from Michigan who had no business leaving her family to go down to Alabama where she didn’t belong. Oh, but I digress (just long enough to marginalize a woman – see how we do that?).

White people did go to Selma. But this isn’t a story about marginalized white people who rarely if ever have a voice. This story – the story of Selma – is about black people standing up for black people. And this film tells the story from that point of view. And that’s making some white people of privilege very uncomfortable. So how do we handle that? We ignore it. The Academy only nominates white actors and directors (and no women directors, by the way).

It’s not about the Academy Awards. The Academy Awards are just a sign. I care about how we continue to marginalize and dismiss the voices of the oppressed. I care about how we only want to listen to history from the point of view of the dominant culture.

Go see this movie. It’s important. But that’s not enough. Remember the lessons from the film. Remember that this work is not complete. Fifty years on, the voting rights act that these very people worked so hard for has been gutted. We are still finding excuses as to why it’s ok for law enforcement to kill unarmed black people. We still need to get across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  Apathy is a bigger enemy than hate. We need to keep on walking.

That’s all I’ve got. That’s my mite.


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