For any black artist who has ventured into the mainstream world of media and entertainment, “Selma” director Ava Duvernay being snubbed by the Academy Awards is not surprising, but it’s still sad.
Duvernay’s landmark film won a best picture nod after she coaxed Oscar-worthy performances from actors such as David Oyelowo, who portrayed Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet Oyelowo, who was widely expected to win a best actor nod for his uncanny portrayal, was overlooked along with Duvernay, who did not win a best director nomination.
But the insults did not end there. After seeing “Selma” snubbed in nearly every Oscar category by Academy voters who are reportedly 94 percent white and 77 percent male with an average age of 63, Duvernay endured yet another indignity. She watched Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first African American woman to head the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, announce the nearly all-white Oscar nominees on King’s birthday. Then, in the face of widespread protest against the Academy’s whitest list of nominees in a generation, Duvernay witnessed the irony of Isaacs defending the Academy’s race problem.
When asked by New York magazine’s Vulture blog if the Oscars have a diversity problem, Isaacs said, “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.”
The magazine asked specifically about Selma, to which Isaacs responded, “Well, it’s a terrific motion picture, and that we can never and should not take away from it, the fact that it is a terrific motion picture.”
But we don’t need Isaacs to tell us it’s a good picture. We know it’s a good picture, and for those of us who have watched the films produced by Hollywood over the years, that is exactly the point.
A good picture that is told from the viewpoint of African Americans is not the norm for Hollywood.
Duvernay’s characters go against type. They are not maids, like the women portrayed by Oscar winners Hattie McDaniel and Viola Davis. They are not abusive mothers, like Oscar winner Mo’Nique. They are not chauffeurs, like Morgan Freeman’s character in the Academy award-winning film, “Driving Miss Daisy.” They are not naked, like Oscar winner Halle Berry in “Monster’s Ball.”
The characters in Duvernay’s “Selma” were extraordinary people locked in a struggle for their very dignity. They were morally strong, emotionally complex, and most importantly, they were at the center of their own story. It was a story that was told in their voices and from their own perspective. They were real people–whole people–and Duvernay dared to portray those African American characters as intelligent human beings.
That the movie was not a transcript of history is to be expected. That Duvernay took poetic license is her prerogative. Yet Duvernay has been criticized because she did not portray President Lyndon Johnson as a soaring portrait of white liberalism. I have not seen similar criticisms about “American Sniper,” a film that made a sympathetic character of a man some view as a cold-blooded killer who took liberties with the truth.
However, I digress. Duvernay did her job and did it well. That she was snubbed is not her fault. Black artists have always sought and been denied mainstream acceptability. The late R&B singer Luther Vandross faced such indignities, as did Patty LaBelle and other black singers who tried and failed to cross over.
But the barriers are not limited to music and film. I’ve seen it in literature, as well. Pipe Dream, my first novel, was widely acclaimed. The New York Times reviewed it. So did the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. It won a starred review from Kirkus Reviews, a rarity for a black novel. But at least one reviewer, for Library Journal, panned the book, and said it was “recommended only for libraries with comprehensive African American contemporary fiction collections.”
That reviewer may not have known that the book was drawn from my own painful experiences in a world with which I was intimately familiar. But he knew that I was reaching for something beyond that world, and while his criticisms may have been heartfelt, his recommendation to keep the book in a black world was offensive. However, it was not surprising.
When African American artists dare to reach for excellence, gatekeepers arise and attempt to put us in our place. We’ve seen it as writers, and as painters, and as singers, and as directors.
But if I were to offer any solace to Ava Duvernay, it would be this: No one can put you in your place, because your place has already been reserved. You are among the most courageous directors of our time.
By failing to see that, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has said more about itself than it could ever say about you.
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