How did ‘Selma’ go from Oscars frontrunner to token Best Picture nominee?

The good news for “Selma“: it earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

The bad news: it was snubbed just about everywhere else, save for Best Song (“Glory”). This is clearly the worst outcome for any Best Picture nominee since the academy expanded the category from five nominees to as many as 10 starting in 2009. So what happened?

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Sure, a few other Best Picture nominees have had only one other nomination, but “The Blind Side” (2009) and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (2011) earned acting bids, while “A Serious Man” (2009) was up for Original Screenplay. “Selma’s” only other bid is Best Song, and as much as I like “Glory,” it wasn’t written until months after the film was shot, which means no other elements of the actual production were recognized.

So “Selma” is one of the eight best films of the year, but apparently it wrote, directed, edited, shot, costumed, composed, designed, and acted itself.

This could partly be a quirk of voting. It may not have had enough number-one votes on its own to be nominated for Best Picture and got in due to the overflow from the top contenders. When dominant films like “Boyhood” or “Birdman” reached the minimum number of votes to guarantee their nominations (which they may have done by a significant margin), the second- and third-place films on those ballots come into play, and perhaps that’s where “Selma” got its boost.

But the preferential ballots in other categories clearly weren’t as kind. How to explain its shortfall compared to “Foxcatcher,” for instance? That film edged out “Selma” for bids for Director (Bennett Miller), Actor (Steve Carell), and Original Screenplay but wasn’t nominated for Best Picture. Even so, it seems the academy liked it a lot more.

“Selma’s” late release is no excuse for this near shut-out. While Paramount couldn’t get screeners out to DGA or SAG, for instance, academy voters got the film, and so did BAFTA. However, neither industry group showed the film much affection. Other films hindered by late releases have made comebacks at the Oscars, including “Django Unchained” (2012) and “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013).  This year, “American Sniper” was also late to the party but still managed six nominations.

Oscar nominations: The good (‘Boyhood’), bad (‘Selma’) and ugly (Jennifer Aniston)

Complaints about the film’s accuracy – its depiction of Lyndon Johnson has been criticized – are equally dubious as explanations. “The Imitation Game” and “Sniper” have also met with criticism for their treatments of their real-life subjects. Previous Best Picture-winners “A Beautiful Mind” and “The King’s Speech” have been questioned for their accuracy as well. Why would the academy have held “Selma” to so much higher a standard?

I can’t read the minds of Oscar voters, but we know the academy is predominantly white, so it’s hard not to feel that the Best Picture nomination for “Selma” is a kind of tokenism. The industry looked at this film – which made the AFI, Golden Globes, and Critics’ Choice lists of the best films of the year; scored 89 on Metacritic and 99% freshness on Rotten Tomatoes (just two unfavorable reviews out of 145); and has the kind of historical and political relevance they usually love – and seems to have said, “This is not our kind of film, but let’s throw it a bone or we’ll look bad.”

Well, academy, you still look bad. Whether or not race was a conscious part of their decision-making, you can’t separate race from the issue when such a clear-cut Oscar movie by and about black people is almost entirely snubbed in favor of a slate of films predominantly about white men. It says to people of color that their stories are less important – even Martin Luther King‘s – except as shields against accusations of bias.

“I don’t have a race problem,” says Oscar, pointing to “12 Years a Slave.” “One of my Best Pictures is black.”

11 thoughts on “How did ‘Selma’ go from Oscars frontrunner to token Best Picture nominee?

  1. Everytime… The same conversation all over again. Every time a film regarding people of colour, racial subjects, or made by black people is snubbed, the racist accusations start flying around.
    If this had happened to 12 Years last year, it would have been understandable. Every award show clearly loved it, it had consensus. Selma, despite good reviews, was showing signs of weakness for the last few weeks, where it managed to fail some very important nominations. It was expected people. Maybe the voters didn’t really think it was that good. And in most categories, it was bumped by Academy favorites, like Bradley Cooper or Bennett Miller. And believe me, Cooper and Miller also bumped other deserving nominees who were not black!! Surprising isn’t it? No one’s talking how Gyllenhaal and Fiennes were robbed of a nomination, because they are white and that’s ok. Now when the Academy decides to snub a black actor in favor of a white one, it’s like the end of the world over here. DuVernay was snubbed, but so was Angelina Jolie! Oh wait, because they’re women. There’s no chance that it was because there were other more deserving contenders. Fincher was snubbed too, but despite his great work in Gone Girl, it’s fair to be snubbed when you’re a white 2-time nominated male director. Stop this nonsense people. When Crash won over Brokeback Mountain everyone was homophobic. If it was the other way around, everyone who voted for Brokeback would be racist. Believe me. That’s what’s keeping good films like 12 Years a Slave winning over great films, like Nebraska or The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s a matter of opinion, not everyone has yours.

  2. Is this writer kidding me? MLK’s family wouldn’t let his speeches be used in the film. So the speeches delivered are made up and not King’s real words. That is a little more than creative liberty, it is a complete lack of “Authenticity” and “Integrity”. That action doesn’t match producer Oprah’s words and teachings. Academy voters aren’t stupid. Who they nominate is their business. An Oscar doesn’t mean anything, they are in the spirit of fun and recognition of entertainment (make believe). Does anyone really care who wins the Oscar other than the person winning?

  3. I cannot believe this article was posted. The writer forgot to mention sexism on the Academy’s part as well. They are nothing but a bunch of homophobic, racist, sexist, old white men right? These arguments are getting annoying. It was nominated for Best Picture in a year where at least 12 major contenders. That’s a victory in itself for all the nominees. Can we just celebrate the fact that it’s actually nominated and had support where Gone Girl, Foxcatcher, and Unbroken didn’t?

  4. These comments prove the need for racial diversity in casting, in the individuals who green light movies, in film schools, it goes past just the Oscar. And people of color doesnt just mean black people. The Academy Awards in its membership and it’s winners has a diversity problem period. It is a problem that cannot be fixed with a nomination and occasional win for a person of color. Also racism is not a card, please educate yourself. The lack of empathy from people who constantly see themselves in a vast array of movies Is startling.

  5. It probably didn’t help that Selma came along only a year after 12 Years a Slave; some may have thought honoring it was going too far in the opposite direction. OTOH, the whole issue about MLK’s speeches was actually a positive for the film; since family squabbles prevented them from buying rights to the actual speeches, DuVernay simply wrote new speeches that still sounded like MLK without copying his exact words. The film’s problem was (a) Paramount dragging its feet on guild screeners, possibly because they own the home-video rights to Boyhood (where the real money is nowadays), and (b) Academy members using that excuse (despite getting their own screeners in time) to justify their own bias.

  6. As far as the two noms Selma did get, obviously Best Picture was due to that category’s broader voting base (the entire Academy, not just one branch) and greater number of noms. In Original Song, “Glory” was the frontrunner from the moment it was released in a weak field; it was simply too far out in front to overcome.

  7. Sorry this is such a dispical artcule . God I’m so sick of people like this writer who looks Indian or Pakistan , orgin how the diversity in Bollywood . So every serious black movie has to get nominated or the Oscar’s are racist , and if they get nomniated then if they don’t win like last year, the Oscar’s are racist. And why didn’t the BAFTA’s nominate Selma any any category , especially since the two leads are Bristish, maybe

    because the movie isn’t that good, saw it , could be mistaken HBO movie, and it wasn’t only taking license with facts it was butching them , it’s as if 20 years from now someone does a movie about first black President and makes him a anti immigration crusader.

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