I woke up this morning to the news that Ava DuVernay wasn’t
nominated for a Best Director Oscar. She would’ve been the first black woman to
be nominated for this award. While the film has been nominated for Best Picture and Best Song, a sense of shock ran through me upon the news of her exclusion.
I’ve been in a strange denial over the past weeks as the film and director have
been lambasted by strategic
claims of “historical inaccuracies” over Lyndon B. Johnson’s character. I’ve
been hesitant to write anything about it because it seemed so ludicrous and
small in comparison to the film’s overwhelming achievement as a well-acted (David
Oyelowo was also robbed), superbly-directed narrative exploring black
resistance, political strategy, and human complexity.
As an emerging black female writer and filmmaker, this is
personal. It is personal because we endeavor to tell stories about black women,
black people, black human beings within an industry that doesn’t always care
about those people. DuVernay’s ascent into filmmaking over the last
years has provided inspiration for so many women filmmakers, and I am one of
them. The Academy’s omission of her achievement today speaks to us all. Of
course, this omission is not new. We cannot expect something new from an Oscar voting
demographic made up of
94% white, 73% male voters.
Many have consented to the belief that freedom of expression and artistic license works best when rendered by a white hand. They pointed to historical inaccuracies
in DuVernay’s portrayal of LBJ, a man who
was known to refer to black people as niggers while also working, reluctantly, to secure legislation for black people’s
civil rights. Sounds like a complex character to me. Why is freedom of
speech, and freedom of expression inextricably tied to privilege? I don’t
remember Quentin Tarantino’s fictionalized version of slavery in “Django
Unchained” costing him awards season recognition. In fact, it won him an award
for best original screenplay.
What today’s snub also says to us is that, in telling a
story that honors black people, that complicates their existence and explores
their vulnerabilities, and in making a film that places them in the center of the
narrative, not as tropes, or afterthoughts to white characters, may mean that
you won’t be recognized. Making a film on your own terms, as some of the
great male auteurs did- Scorsese, Kubrick, Lee- might leave you excluded as a
woman. At the end of the day, that
might be okay. Each time I’ve seen “Selma,” I’ve been filled with a sense of purpose. I walked out of the theater to hear young and elderly black people singing and clapping their hands to “We Shall Overcome”
and discussing scenes from the film. This is what it’s about. This is any filmmaker’s
wish- that their film lives in the hearts and minds of the people it was made
I believe that DuVernay wanted this above all. She wanted to
engage people. That is an achievement in itself, but when do our achievements
start to get the recognition that they deserve? This is a question I’ve asked
before in a piece on the exclusion of Black female screenwriters from
mainstream recognition, which also applies here. When does an industry that thrives
on people of color’s invisibility, also recognize that many within the American
viewing public want more, in terms of stories and the ways that they are told.
And yet, there is something strangely significant about this
announcement on the day of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. A day we celebrate
for racial progress and change. There is a beautiful scene in “Selma” where King
sits in a jail cell with Ralph Abernathy, bathed under yellow light and
darkness. He speaks of his uncertainties about the change and progress they’re
fighting for. “What’s the use of sitting at the lunch counter if you can’t
afford the burger?” he says. Abernathy reassures him that they take the
movement piece by piece, day by day. I think of this scene today, and of the
various obstacles that underrepresented filmmakers face in telling their
stories. Can one film reverse a history of cinematic exclusion? No. But piece by piece, film by film, we persevere to create compelling portrayals, and with each one, we
resist erasure, validating our own achievements.
Nijla Mu’min is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. She writes film and writes about film.