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David Poland

By David Poland

20 Weeks To Oscar: Ragin’


Last night, I wrote a piece that dismantled with factual details the contention that Selma‘s failure to get more than two Oscar nominations was an important cultural event. I sat down and wrote it, but I didn’t want to come out with it on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. My intention was not to be disrespectful of the film or the man.

Maybe I will run the piece. Maybe not. Mostly, I am just exhausted with all the rage.

I don’t know that I have seen anything like this before. It’s kind of about Oscar season. It’s mostly not. But Oscar has yelled, “pull” and now everyone is shooting at the clay pigeons. And the bullets are flying from every direction.

You couldn’t really set up a more intense juxtaposition than “Selma vs American Sniper.” It’s a ridiculous and false narrative. But it’s out there. You can feel it.

On Selma, there is a significant contingent of women and people of color that see the film as a kind of film industry savior in the midst of a white patriarchy. The Academy composition plays right into the hands of this… never mind that most of the “old white guys” of The Academy are liberal and were supportive, if not actually active in the civil rights movement.

The median age of The Academy membership, 63, puts the median voter at 14 years old when the Selma marches too place. They probably watched on their black-and-white TV. Older members made movies in the decade after Selma with heavy civil right subtexts. Feel free to insult them, after all, they are white men, and they all are too well-positioned in our society to give a shit. Or so goes the mantra of some.

The average age of The Academy doesn’t change too dramatically over time because the organization is a gathering of veterans, and you just don’t have a ton of people who qualify in their 30s. I looked back to 2012, when The Academy started their internal campaign to make the organization younger and less white in the last two years of new member invitees. I looked at the age of actors being invited, mostly because their ages were readily available. The average age was 46.92. The youngest was 29-year-old Jonah Hill. The oldest was 68-year-old Ken Howard (who was also SAG President, likely pushing him in). 8 of the 25 invitees are of color. 11 of the 25 are women. Five of the 25 were under 40 at the time, all but one of those a prior Oscar nominee.

For the sake of discussion, last year’s class of acting invitees was only 20 deep, only five are women (only two former nominees), and only three of color. So even while The Academy has been pushing the gender and race agenda, progress can be hard to come by… because The Academy is an institution of elitism. That is the nature of the beast. The elite of the film industry, male and female and all the colors that are in the group. There is no bar to entry, except for what the group itself sees as exceptionalism.

There are many who feel this Academy thing should end… that the limitations of the film industry over the last 100 years, in terms of open access to people of color and women, makes the organization impossibly suspect. And while I don’t think that shutting the Academy doors is necessary, I am not offended by that position. It is forthright and honest.

What I find somewhat intolerable is the chant of “fix The Academy.” It is not broken. It does what it was built to do. As the numbers change in the film industry, the numbers in The Academy will change. Roughly 3% turnover each year.

Another occasional argument is to kick out members after they have not worked in their chosen field for some period. I can’t really address this argument with a straight face. Ageism is brutal in Hollywood and once you are in the club, you should be allowed to stay in the club. Moreover, the anger at older members is driven by a sense that they are in the way of more “progressive” choices of films to honor. Don’t trip on the giant pile of “Oscar only nominates indie movies” stories on the way out to selling that take.

Maybe I am just an old guy. I bowed out of active participation in the Broadcast Film Critics when the group decided that anyone with a blog who claimed to have a certain number of readers could join the group. This while critics at newspapers and TV stations across the country were being laid off, left and right, a newly-endangered species. If the number of paid critics is contracting and the number of “Broadcast Film Critics” is expanding, I did not (and do not) understand what the principle behind the group actually is. I’m funny that way.

I understand the principle behind The Academy. I won’t fight to the death to maintain it. If the public wants it to go away, it will. But I know that if you tinker with it too much, too quickly, inorganically, it will not have the same principle or meaning as a result.

And I offer this challenge. Make a list of the 50 female directors or 500 actresses who are not in The Academy who you think deserve entry. And then we can start a discussion about The Academy. What I see as needed is more roles for women that would bring prestige to more actresses and more films of every size directed by women so that you could fill that list of 50 without making it 5 directors who have made a studio movie and 45 from Sundance.

The same is true for people of color. We need more to be seriously in the studio game to get more balance in The Academy. I, for one, would have no objection to, say, successful black movie comedians getting in, like Ice Cube or Kevin Hart. Getting Snoop Dogg in may be more of a challenge. I assume Tyler Perry is already in… one of his cinematographers is. But if not, welcome. Tyler Perry may not be critically acclaimed, but he is commercially legit and deserves a place, as a white guy with his kind of career would have. (Adam Sandler?) But still, not enough bodies to make a real impact. We need a longer list of serious films and filmmakers of color in the industry before they can impact The Academy. (For the record, Middle of Nowhere grossed under $250k and Ava DuVernay got into the Director’s Branch. An effort is being made.)

Now on to the other side of the war zone. American Sniper.

A huge hit. The film revolves around a soldier who has an eye-popping 160 military-recorded kills. In the third act, he succumbs to PTSD and recovers in the same act. Is it an examination of the price paid for soldiers who do what they do under orders (orders which are never discussed in a political context) or is it military propaganda, promoting the idea that killing Iraqis was (and perhaps, is) okay and does not demand any further consideration by the American public?

The violence against black Americans in Selma triggers images of modern-day Ferguson and other police killings of blacks. But there is never any question in the film about which side is right. American Sniper doubles down, tweaking both sides of the current discussion about law enforcement in America, attached to the discussions about America’s military overseas, especially in the middle east.

Are we just doing our job or are we overreaching? Overreaching by going into into Iraq… overreaching by opening fire on an unarmed man who threatens you… overreaching by being okay – even enthusiastic – about killing people of a different color in a different country… overreaching by turning police departments into small army units… etc. Or again, is all of this or some of this what is necessary to live in peace and comfort?

This is where the fight is… these very important issues. But not unlike the argument over Selma, which has somehow become viciously pinpoint-focused on The Academy, those attempting to have those discussions in public are being shouted down by whatever side they aren’t on. And the rhetoric is horrible, including vile language and death threats.

Making it worse, American Sniper got six Oscar nominations to Selma‘s two, although amazingly, neither Best Picture-nominee got a nod for Best Director. But aside from the awards issue, the Selma support, which is often quite comfortable calling out white men as the source of all the pain, is a perfect juxtaposition with the very white male support of American Sniper, although any assumption that Sniper is overwhelmingly supported by men and not women would seem belied by the box office.

In other words, the pro-American Sniper crowd is the crowd waiting for the Selma marchers to dare to come across the bridge, defending what they see as theirs and willing to be violent to do it.

But there is a problem with this silly conceit. There are a bunch of liberals who like American Sniper and don’t see it as a kiss-up to the problematic military interventions in the Middle East.

But it gets worse. The primary factual pushback against Selma‘s portrayal of President Johnson? You guessed it… more liberals.

So not only do you have liberals and conservatives/military fighting against one another, but you have a massive internal battle between liberals and liberals… on both movies.

This is the kind of turf battle that I would turn to Walter Hill to direct. Get out the pick-axes and sledgehammers!

Many of those who are enraged by Selma‘s so-called snub have taken to positioning those questioning its factual question marks around LBJ as self-serving angry old white men who can’t live with allowing Dr. King the credit that is due him if it isn’t filtered through a white savior. But these men were some of those who worked with LBJ in pushing through the Civil Rights Acts and ultimately, the Voting Rights Act. These are, mostly, live long left wingers who served their country in the name all that their current attackers hold dear. Joe Califano, who worked for both the Johnson and Carter administrations, showed the poor taste to offer an opinion that Selma should be disqualified from box office success or awards for the alleged LBJ slight. Those were fighting words.

But it got tougher to argue that Selma is dead-on accurate with the chiming in of the iconic, gentlemanly Bill Moyers, who noted the errors, but still supports the film (what I consider the correct position) and New York Times op-ed firestarter Maureen Dowd, who wrote about both being a fan of the film and being offended by the rewriting of history.

Dowd pissed off a lot of liberals. Some serious people even accused her of showing racist stripes because she talks about seeing the movie in a theater filled with black teens who were on their phones. She, along with Moyers, were getting in the way of the backlash backlash.

After a brief run (a few hours) of trying to defend the changes by claiming that they were only being pointed out because Ava DuVernay is a woman and a woman of color at that, the popular positioning shifted to, “that’s not the point… the movie offers something else… LBJ is a minor character.” I don’t really disagree with this, but with all the facts being confirmed by source after source, it was still quite rare to hear an acknowledgement that history had, indeed, been changed somewhat.

About 24 hours after Dowd’s missive comes David Carr’s column, which is not positioned as a response, but might have been. I imagine Carr was onto this issue on his own steam and that the timing was coincidental. In any case, Carr went pretty wild on the arguments against The Academy’s old men, the old men of LBJ, and Selma’s primary nomination for Best Picture being an important problem worth lingering on.

Both writers claim a love of the film. Both writers claim to be unhappy about the lack of more nominations for the film. But they separate at LBJ.

Dowd 1-liner: “There was no need for DuVernay to diminish L.B.J., given that the Civil Rights Movement would not have advanced without him. Vietnam is enough of a pox on his legacy.”

Carr 1-liner: “This is not a movie that endangers L.B.J.’s legacy, it cements King’s at a near perfect moment in history and should be celebrated as such.”

Feels like the makings of a food fight. Yet I don’t see these arguments as completely contradictory. Carr dismisses the LBJ complaints, even if true, in the name of art and a greater good. Down embraces the LBJ complaints as an issue because she feels the power of the art will distort history and diminish the good done by Selma.

My point is not to adjudicate the disagreement here, but to point out that the liberal bastion of The New York Times can’t make up its mind either, taking very harsh positions that both mesh and conflict.

I should also note that Carr’s closing paragraph is as close to my best view on all this as anything I have read:

While the snubs may sting and point toward a broader blindness, it’s still more important in the long run that a young female black director received the backing of a Hollywood studio and made an important film. Long after the last blubbering actor has been played off the stage while thanking his or her makeup assistant at the Oscars, we will still have “Selma.”

I wish I knew where that guy was when his darker side was wallowing in the nasty, wildly-misguided psuedo-allegations that were highlighted repeatedly in the rest of the column.

Also on the left, there are fans of American Sniper and haters and every flavor in the middle. Aside from the abusive insane comments, e-mails, tweets etc, that are coming the way of most every writer that is either not a fan of the film or calling out Chris Kyle on the ugly rhetoric in his book, there is also a dismissal of pretty much every pro-Sniper writer as being either an angry white male or lacking the ability to consider Eastwood critically or being a right winger or worse, and anti-Muslim bigot.

I guess my point is, ultimately, that being a moderate on any of these angles on any of these two movies may be the most dangerous place of all. The positions people are taking, in seemingly every direction, are so extreme that not taking a position is seen as an attack. Or suggesting that there are factual problems with anyone else’s claims. Or, well… here’s a tweet sent in my direction this morning:


Benefiting from all the high drama is Boyhood, now even more likely to win Best Picture. Though the real threats to the film’s win seem to be Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel, voters will probably be too fatigued with all this fighting to even consider any argument requesting a change in the status quo. Perhaps gentle, loving Boyhood is the only opportunity left in this crazy Oscar season to all just get along.

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25 Responses to “20 Weeks To Oscar: Ragin’”

  1. Waterbucket says:

    Where is the outcry for Hispanic and Asian representation at the Oscars?

  2. Matthew says:

    That’s the most American tweet I’ve read today.

  3. Stella's Boy says:

    I like Wes Anderson a lot but Grand Budapest Hotel did nothing for me. Saw it Monday and can barely remember anything. Made no impression. The cast is great and I chuckled a few times, but it’s a trifle. Not even close to being his best movie.

  4. YancySkancy says:

    Waterbucket: And those jingoistic Academy members snubbed FORCE MAJEURE and made its director cry. They clearly have something against Swedes.

    You may say, “How can you call them jingoistic when they nominated other foreign language films?” Well, the same way they can be racist and still nominate SELMA for Best Picture. It’s the new Oscar snub logic.

  5. movieman says:

    I gave “American Sniper” a second look the other night in an attempt to put my finger on why it’s quickly become such a cultural phenomenon, and I think I have it figured out.
    “AS” is, simply put, the greatest male weepie since “Field of Dreams” 25 years ago. And I mean that in the kindest, most respectful way.
    For all the lefty pundits snickering that it’s strictly a red state phenom, please explain those record-brusting per-screen averages in limited release when it was showing on just a handful of screens in such liberal bastions as Manhattan and Los Angeles.
    P.S.= Sorry Et and Leah: I still think it’s another masterful Eastwood-ian meditation on mortality. And Cooper is tremendous, vastly more deserving of his Best Actor nomination than Redmayne or Carell (and I love “Foxcatcher,” too).

  6. michael bergeron says:

    your photos above remind me I need to see Streets of Fire, which I haven’t watched in nearly three decades … a couple of people I work with talk about SOF all the time

  7. brack says:

    I have no interest in seeing American Sniper much as the same way I really wasn’t looking forward to Zero Dark Thirty (what a snore fest that turned out to be).

    At least with American Sniper we know that it’s very, very loosely based on reality; there’s no denying the fact that the guy who inspired this movie was a liar. There’s a difference between factual errors and pure fantasy. I take it that Selma belongs in the former and not the latter.

  8. palmtree says:

    Waterbucket, did you forget the Margaret Cho furor surrounding her Golden Globes appearance? The issue there was not just the character she portrayed, but also the fact that she was the only Asian person on stage…or in the room for that matter.

  9. Hallick says:

    The racism claims regarding Duvernay’s omission from the Best Director list seem more than a little hyperbolic in light of the fact that Steve McQueen was nominated last year in that category and then he (and the other three nominees) lost to Alfonso Cuaron. I’m not saying that it absolves the Academy’s membership of any and all racial preferencing in how they vote, but people can stop acting like were all staring down some crypto-moderate wing of the Klu Klux Klan (which would be really weird since the president of the Academy two years running has been Cheryl Boone Isaacs, an African-American woman).

    If “Selma” had it’s Oscar-campaigning shit together from the start, I think Duvernay would’ve been nominated.

  10. film fanatic says:

    I have a pet theory that the shameless, patronizing “IT’S TIME” campaign run by Fox Searchlight on behalf of “12 YEARS A SLAVE” last year is part of the reason for SELMA’s relative lack of noms this year. The entire thrust of the “IT’S TIME” campaign was a heavy-handed attempt to guilt Academy members into choosing based on “making a statement,” which is actually insulting to Steve McQueen’s movie, as if to suggest that it couldn’t win by itself on merit. It’s hard to play that card two years in a row and not expect some blowback or voter fatigue.

  11. leahnz says:

    movieman, to clarify – i think cooper is good in AS, i don’t think the movie is that good.

    what i haven’t seen is anyone discussing (maybe because i’ve haven’t had time to read much about all this) from a filmic perspective is the specifically problematic nature of adapting an ‘autobiography’, and in this case of a man who has himself clearly shown his character as a liar and very likely a pathological one (for instance in the case of shooting to death scores of looters during Katrina, if he wasn’t lying well then he should have been in prison, either proposition is disturbing in terms of the pathology and very questionable character of kyle as a human being).

    i think my question is: is lionizing someone based on his own first person narrative of his ‘story’ to be applauded when, 1) disturbing material that would make the ‘tragic war hero’ far more unsympathetic is sanitised from the narrative, and 2) abhorrent acts and/or disturbing lies related by kyle himself (i.e. the murder of numerous civilians, the ventura incident,) during self-promoting/aggrandizing media appearances are conveniently ignored?

    why not include these incidents in the narrative of chris kyle? what were the film-makers afraid of? i’d think the answer is obvious, because kyle appears considerably less of a tragic hero and far more a disturbed asshole when his attitude and character as a man is examined, and i think this in itself shows a disingenuous paradigm from a film-making perspective.

    i think comparisons to winter’s adaptation of ‘wolf of wall street’ from Belfort’s own ‘memoire’ are somewhat apt, not in the specifics obviously but from a disingenuous filmic perspective wherein the reality of much of belfort’s dark pathology incl domestic abuse and failure to pay restitution is conveniently sanitised out of the autobiographical narrative (tho at least belfort’s life as a self-help huckster is very briefly touched on at the end where kyle’s self-promotion is not).

    why are film-makers so unwilling to tell even somewhat authentic stories about these men? (rhetorical question, i know why)

    the most authentic autobiographical account in the mix at this year’s dog-n-pony show is Cheryl Strayed’s, hers and hornby’s film adaptation of which takes a pretty raw, unflinching look at the personal carnage she inflicts on herself and others and the toll her struggles and terrible choices take, leading to an examination of her own personal character, albeit on an intimate scale. good on them for showing some guts and bravery.

  12. pat says:

    What person talks about “Streets of Fire” ALL the time?! How the heck does that even happen? Even if I wanted to discuss it with others, I have no idea how I could possibly bring it up organically in conversation.

  13. Stella's Boy says:

    I’m reminded of A Beautiful Mind. Wasn’t a lot left out regarding Nash and some of his atrocious behavior, including anti-Semitism and child molestation?

    Haven’t seen AS so can’t really say anything about the movie. I do think Kyle was a despicable human being, and it saddens me to see many conservatives insist he should be lionized and adored. Their lashing out at anyone who dares to question his character reminds me of the “love it or leave it” crowd during the Bush/Cheney years.

  14. PcChongor says:

    To be fair, “Selma” was just as narratively power-scrubbed as “American Sniper” was, and confusing after-the-fact myth with reality is hardly anything new when it comes to Oscar bait biopics.

  15. Sam says:

    Out of curiosity, is there someone somewhere who is maybe discussing Selma or American Sniper on their cinematic merits? Or is that not a thing anymore?

  16. YancySkancy says:

    Sam: Their merits are immaterial to those who are outraged. In fact, it’s likely that a large percentage of the outraged haven’t even seen them. Many people are content to feel second-hand outrage.

  17. Stella's Boy says:

    Selma is magnificent. Only Boyhood moved me as much as far as 2014 movies are concerned. Oyelowo and Ejogo are incredible. Great film fully deserving of a best picture nomination.

  18. leahnz says:

    “To be fair, “Selma” was just as narratively power-scrubbed as “American Sniper” was, and confusing after-the-fact myth with reality is hardly anything new when it comes to Oscar bait biopics.”

    no. (“to be fair”?) this comment sounds like someone parroting something they’ve read somewhere because they think it makes them sound smart (or something).

    first, Selma, NOT based on an autobiography, specific to my comment. Selma takes place over a very short time period focusing on one historical event, one that is well documented through first-hand accounts of people who were there, media footage and historical records, MLK’s life has been well scrutinised and recorded; claiming ‘selma’ is as “power-scrubbed” as AS – the first-person autobiographical account of a self-aggrandising, pathological liar – is ridiculous.

    and really, what is an ‘cscar-bait biopic’, this is a term coined by talking heads who aren’t artists and don’t know anything about making movies, they just talk about them like they do. so the film-making teams behind ‘selma’ and ‘American sniper’ (both relatively low-budget movies tho ‘sniper’ had far more $ to work with) wanted to make their respective movies with the purpose of procuring Oscars as the goal rather than because of a desire to tell their particular stories and all the blood, sweat and tears that goes into doing so? in many cases film-makers don’t know precisely when their movies will be released, a decision made by the bean counters after production is complete and they see what they have. the awards shit is cherries on the top. to claim that all biopics are made as ‘Oscar bait’ is ludicrous and needs to stop.

    (i’d heard the anti-Semitism and horribleness re: nash but not the kiddie-diddler thing, yowza)

  19. palmtree says:

    Also, Nash’s theories are wrong and the ravings of a mad person. There’s that too.

  20. palmtree says:

    And in case anyone else wants to equate AS with Selma:

  21. leahnz says:

    yeah Selma is a movie about MLK and the brave people who marched to Selma, not LBJ (but i’m sure webb’s – a white English dude – original LBJ-centric treatment would have been much more comfortable for some, sticking to the ‘accepted’ paradigm rather than seeing the oppressed people at the center of the narrative and source of self-realised power, thanks to duvernay’s un-credited rewrite)

  22. Brattpackr says:

    I may be missing something here, but “The Academy” is not a sanctioned U.S. Authority of anything. I laugh at the Globe choices just as much as I laugh at “The Academy’s”. There are the MTV Movie Awards…laugh, but Google how long that has been going on. Same thing on BET. Should the nomination process for any award ceremony on BET be held to the same “color blind” standards that are somehow demanded of any other award? No. If you don’t like the rules of the game, move on. Make up your own award show and have at it.

  23. Triple Option says:

    I’m not sure people are really as “outraged” over the Selma snub as the histrionic, click-seeking internet portals are trying to portray. There are films snubbed every year but in bringing up the snub as it relates to Selma, the first insinuation is that it’s based on race. Then, the first ones to be questioned are Black leaders and artists and industry professionals. And that’s the only time you hear their voices. It’s the only time they’re asked. People ask questions like “do you think that the limited number of people of color in the voting academy has anything to do with the limited number of nominations for people of color?” Many will answer yes. So, yes, race gets brought up as an issue but it’s hardly a growing outcry for change that has come over over such things as New York’s search and detain procedures.

    I don’t doubt that people aren’t happy about it but I question the level of rage or protest assigned since I don’t think many Blacks would be surprised by the (lack of) nominations. There’s happiness when films like The Help, 12 Years, Beasts of Southern Wild and The Butler are honored but otherwise Academy nomination morning is just Tuesday.

    What I find particularly sad is that it’s all or nothing for Selma. First of all, does that movie get made w/out Oprah. Second, had she not been on the production team would the film had made even a big enough ripple for people to know it was missing among the nominees?

    How many films of consequence are released each week? How many of those feature performances of note by African Americans? I don’t buy that it’s because there’s a dearth of talent. For all the under performing and outright bombs that occurs each year, is there any correlation or metric shown or supposed that the film would’ve done better had it had fewer people of color in it?

    If there’s an excuse why the Academy can be let off the hook for the lack of diversity among the nominees it’s because the shortage of promoted films with diverse casts. As this goes, those people in the Academy should share in the culpability because they haven’t shown to be making the best effort to make films with more representative casts or filmmakers.

  24. palmtree says:

    ““The Academy” is not a sanctioned U.S. Authority of anything.”

    Yes, it is. It is the only group that hands out Oscars.

  25. Bulldog68 says:

    It’s not just Selma though. It’s a complete lack of diversity among the nominees. And among recent black nominees its mostly for playing black characters or about the black experience. It’s rare it’s just for a performance that could have been played by anyone, like Denzel in Flight, comes to mind.

    Not saying that this year there was a deluge of performances by non-whites that really jumped out at me, but it seems that there is a demarcation made.

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“But okay, I promise you now that if I ever retire again, I’m going to ensure that I can’t walk it back. I’ll post a series of the most disgusting, offensive, outrageous statements you can ever imagine. That way it will be impossible for me to ever be employed again. No one is going to take my calls. No one is going to want to be seen with me. Oh, it will be scorched earth. I will have torched everything. I’m going to flame out in the most legendary fashion.”
~ Steven Soderbergh

I feel strongly connected to young cinephile culture. The thing about filmmaking—and cinephilia—is that you can’t keep hanging out with your own age group as you get older. They drop off, move somewhere. You can’t put together a crew of sixty-somethings. It’s the same for cinephilia: my original set of cinephile friends are watching DVDs at home or delving into 1958 episodes of ‘Gunsmoke,’ something like that. The people who are out there tend to be young, and I happen to be doing the same thing still, so it’s natural that I move in their circles.

In terms of the filmmaking, there was a gear shift: my first movies focused on people around my age, and I followed them for three films. Until The Unspeakable Act, I was using the same actors, not because of an affinity for people at a specific age, but because of my affinity for the actors. I like to work with actors a second time, especially if I don’t feel confident casting a new film. But The Unspeakable Act was a different script, and I had to cast all new people. Even for the older roles, I couldn’t get the people I’d worked with before. But when it was over, the same thing happened: I wanted to work with Tallie again in the worst way, and I started the process all over again.

I think Rohmer did something similar around the time of Perceval and Catherine de HeilbronnHe developed new groups of people that he liked to work with. These gear shifts are natural. Even if you want to follow certain actors to the end of their life (which I kind of do) the variety of ideas that you generate makes it necessary to change. And once you’ve made the change, you’ve got all these new people around.”
~ Dan Sallitt