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.”

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