I held off on writing an Oscar nominations reaction article last week because whatever conversation wasn’t focused on The LEGO Movie‘s snub (seriously, how is that not up for Best Animated Feature?) was focused on Selma‘s snubs, and I hadn’t seen Selma yet. Based on its shockingly few nominations (Picture and Song but nothing else), I have to assume most of the Academy hadn’t either. Paramount did a late theatrical release, not even sending DVD screeners until late in the awards season, and by then an idiotic smear campaign discouraged Academy voters from seeing it. The passion of the few who did see it got it a deserved nomination for Best Picture (it’d squeeze into my top 10 somewhere between 9 and 6), but it deserved more recognition, in my opinion, in five other categories.
Best Actor for David Oyelowo – This is maybe the most egregious of the oversights. Oyelowo captures Martin Luther King Jr. at a point in his life where he was simultaneously lionized, demonized, and pushed to his limits by the slowness of society to enact his dream. It’s a performance that carries the movie, and as impressive an achievement as any actor’s this year.
Best Supporting Actor for Tom Wilkinson – The “LBJ controversy” is just embarrassing. Maybe Wilkinson and the film’s portrayal of the President is somewhat historically inaccurate, but it’s less so than The Imitation Game or American Sniper. He’s shown as a good guy hampered by the political process and the biases of his upbringing. The loudest complaints about his portrayal seem like they’re angry he’s not shown as the “white savior.” Avoiding that trope should be reason for praise.
Best Original Screenplay – For some bizarre reason, Dreamworks owns the rights to MLK’s speeches, so Selma‘s screenplay (by Paul Webb, with heavy uncredited rewrites by director Ava Duvernay) had to write an MLK screenplay without any direct quotes from his speeches. That they managed to write King so believably in the face of this challenge deserves serious credit. Competition is tough in this category (Birdman and Grand Budapest Hotel are no-brainers, Boyhood‘s script is unorthodox but successful, and people love Nightcrawler; Foxcatcher seems to be the odd one out getting more respect than love) but this could have been in the running.
Best Cinematography – I’m especially in awe of Selma‘s visual accomplishment after shooting a movie myself. The visual style (many shots where the camera moves around with a shallow depth of field, wider depth of field reserved for moments of visceral intensity) is both a technical challenge and emotionally evocative.
Best Director for Ava Duvernay – I liked The Imitation Game, but there’s nothing about Morten Tyldum’s directing that stands out as particularly unique and worthy of a Best Director nomination. Ava Duvernay, on the other hand, announces herself as one to watch with Selma. The first act alone would justify a nomination, juxtaposing MLK’s Nobel Peace prize win with a series of scenes illustrating just how far his quest for justice was (and, in their uncomfortable contemporary familiarity, still is) from being won. The combination of political strategizing and marital stress has drawn comparisons to Spielberg’s Lincoln, but where that film felt stagebound, Selma is cinematic and alive. If The Babadook (also directed by a woman, interestingly enough) is the year’s scariest fantasy-horror, Selma is its scariest real-life horror movie. Maybe some of those avoiding it are doing so because it’s so real, but that realness is why it’s not merely important and relevant, it’s also an exciting, emotional cinematic experience that would be thoroughly satisfying if not for reality continuing to make this struggle ongoing and never satisfying.