Slave, yes, Lupita won for playing a slave. Abusive mother, yes, Mo’Nique won an award for that role. Maid, yes, Octavia won for playing a maid. In a film industry in which 98 percent of producers are white, 98 percent of writers are white, 88 percent of actors are white, and 93 percent of the Academy is white, it is clear that everyone is comfortable seeing African Americans in certain roles.
This year’s Oscar nominations provided the Academy with the opportunity to nominate the first female African American director, Ava DuVernay, for an Oscar for best director for Selma, the first major Hollywood film about Martin Luther King, Jr. While the film itself was nominated for best film, none of the actors nor the director were included in any other Oscar category.
David Oyelowo, the British actor who so flawlessly played King in the film, was not nominated for best actor, leaving a field composed of 20 white nominees. Of course, DuVernay was doubly cursed, because she was fighting both the diversity gap and the gender gap in an industry that prefers to laud the creative efforts of white men.
Selma to Montgomery
It has been over half a century since the Civil Rights Movement and King’s historic march from Selma to Montgomery, the march so powerfully captured in DuVernay’s film. Watching the movie, I reflected on how much had changed since the 1950s, and how much work still remains to be done.
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Who could miss the irony of the fact that the Voting Rights Act that Dr King and others dedicated their lives to passing was repealed in 2013?
Selma is in part so moving because it shows that the Civil Rights Movement is not ancient history.
According to US civil rights leader Julian Bond: “The effort of yesterday’s Civil Rights Movement was to eliminate poverty, to eradicate poverty, and to prepare people to be competitive in the modern world. A small number of people achieved that but not sufficient numbers. And the struggle now has to be to widen this net to get other people engaged in this.”
DuVernay’s film shows what this kind of engagement looks like. It is hard to believe that we have returned to a time when states are allowed to pass laws to threaten and intimidate African American voters.
Paying off debt
Watching DuVernay’s film, I was reminded that the Civil Rights Movement has not failed; we have failed to continue to uphold and work for those ideals. Rather than encouraging our youth to fight for a more just society, we send them away to $30,000-a-year universities and tell them not to worry about debt.
Many of them will be burdened with school loans for the rest of their lives, and it will prevent them from making the kind of inspiring and selfless choices that created the Civil Rights Movement.
We have forgotten that the life lived in pursuit of an ideal provides an education in itself, one whose lessons are far more diverse and engaging that what we see in classrooms today. DuVernay’s film honours the selfless pursuit of equality, and in ignoring her work the Academy says more about itself than about anything else.
The fact that DuVernay was not nominated for an Oscar is representative of a much larger problem in the Academy.
Until African Americans, people of colour, and women are equally represented in all fields of film production and in the Academy, we won’t know the meaning of quality, and we will continue to impoverish ourselves with a narrow vision of what art is worthy and whose imagination is worth honouring.
Alice Driver is a journalist and the author of ‘More or Less Dead: Feminicide, Haunting, and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico’.