‘A Sharp White Background’: What’s Behind The Selma Oscars Snub?

“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” Zora Neale Hurston wrote in her essay “How It Feels To Be Colored Me.” I remembered this line in the early moments of Ava DuVernay’s Selma, when Annie Lee Cooper approaches the county clerk’s window to attempt to register to vote in a not-so-distant past. The clerk’s contempt is immediate and demands Cooper individually name 67 county clerks for the state of Alabama, before inevitably denying her application.

Hurston’s words again came to mind as news of the 2015 Academy Award nominees filtered through my various timelines yesterday to reveal that not a single actor of color nominated for the nation’s top film/cultural honors. I feel most colored…

Although Selma’s best picture and best original song nominations are significant, the snubs for the other artists who helped craft one of the best pictures of the year (99% FRESH TOMATOES, GUYS) feel egregious. Beyond the visionary work of its director, there are no nods for Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King Jr., the costume designer, Ruth E. Carter, or cinematographer, Bradford Young, whose lush work captures our collective imagination of the era that we glean from old kodachrome slides. Seriously. Matched up with the other nominees in the category, I find this snub mortifying.

The noticeable absence of people of color in this year’s performance Oscar nominations says to me that the Academy rewards a specific kind of black performance, one that renders African-Americans oppressed, distressed or in servitude. Consider Mo’nique in Precious, Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, Denzel Washington in Training Day, Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost and Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls. And in films that feature the darker parts of American history, the black performances that have garnered the Oscars’ adulation often serve as conduits for white enlightenment or redemption: Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years A Slave, Washington in Glory, Viola Davis for The Help and Hattie McDaniel in Gone With The Wind.

Last year, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave won best picture, causing some to prematurely declare 2013 the breakout year for black filmmakers. Indeed, the 2013 film year yielded commercial successes like The Best Man Holiday, The Butler and critical darling Fruitvale Station. And with Nyong’o’s devastating portrayal of Patsy rightly earning her the Oscar for supporting actress, many were quick to tout a new era for black actors.

Instead, in 2014, the round-up of the years’ top contenders is a veritable reimagining of the white man’s burden.

The year’s big film contenders are a mirror of the Academy’s membership. On the question of whether or not the academy has a diversity problem, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy’s first African-American female president, demurred at Vulture:

Not at all. Not at all…The good news is that the wealth of talent is there, and it’s being discussed, and it’s helpful so much for talent — whether in front of the camera or behind the camera — to have this recognition, to have this period of time where there is a lot of publicity, a lot of chitter-chatter.

But last year, Isaacs was more forthright in addressing the Academy’s representation problem, acknowledging that the institution is “still primarily white male,” and noted her efforts to diversify the voting pool of members by “removing the cap of membership to allow for 400 more applicants” and “inviting people of color to apply.”

Clearly those efforts didn’t go far enough. Yesterday, Twitter shined a big white light on the harsh reality of the Academy’s own demographic breakdown. Within its 15 categories of membership, it’s 90 percent white according to a 2012 report from the L.A. Times. The actor’s branch of Academy membership is 88 percent white. The Academy’s writers and executive branches are 98 percent white.

Yesterday, the internet was quick to point out that there are other industry-specific obstacles at play here. Oyelowo and DuVernay are industry unknowns. But given the makeup of the Academy, is it any wonder why? Selma was also independently financed. But I quibble with the notion that a small-budget indie film couldn’t earn more acknowledgement in multiple categories from the Academy when in previous years we’ve witnessed ‘small’ films earn top nods or honors: What about Slumdog Millionaire, Little Miss Sunshine, or Beasts of the Southern Wild?

Other pointed out that there simply weren’t many directors or actors of color to choose from. This isn’t quite true; Amma Asante’s film Belle, for instance, features a powerful performance from newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw and certainly could have bobbled up for consideration by the Academy. But it’s undeniable that representation is far lower than it should be, and this is why snubbing Selma hurts as much as it angers. If there were plenty of other major films made by people of color, the stakes wouldn’t be especially high for a $20 million dollar film. If there were more films and narratives from people of color greenlit by major studios, the Academy would not only reflect the diversity of the nation, but have an equally diverse pool of contenders.

Syreeta McFadden is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. She is a columnist for Feministing, contributing opinion writer for The Guardian US and is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station.

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