MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

20 Weeks To Oscar: Ragin’


Last night, I wrote a piece that dismantled with factual details the contention that Selma‘s failure to get more than two Oscar nominations was an important cultural event. I sat down and wrote it, but I didn’t want to come out with it on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. My intention was not to be disrespectful of the film or the man.

Maybe I will run the piece. Maybe not. Mostly, I am just exhausted with all the rage.

I don’t know that I have seen anything like this before. It’s kind of about Oscar season. It’s mostly not. But Oscar has yelled, “pull” and now everyone is shooting at the clay pigeons. And the bullets are flying from every direction.

You couldn’t really set up a more intense juxtaposition than “Selma vs American Sniper.” It’s a ridiculous and false narrative. But it’s out there. You can feel it.

On Selma, there is a significant contingent of women and people of color that see the film as a kind of film industry savior in the midst of a white patriarchy. The Academy composition plays right into the hands of this… never mind that most of the “old white guys” of The Academy are liberal and were supportive, if not actually active in the civil rights movement.

The median age of The Academy membership, 63, puts the median voter at 14 years old when the Selma marches too place. They probably watched on their black-and-white TV. Older members made movies in the decade after Selma with heavy civil right subtexts. Feel free to insult them, after all, they are white men, and they all are too well-positioned in our society to give a shit. Or so goes the mantra of some.

The average age of The Academy doesn’t change too dramatically over time because the organization is a gathering of veterans, and you just don’t have a ton of people who qualify in their 30s. I looked back to 2012, when The Academy started their internal campaign to make the organization younger and less white in the last two years of new member invitees. I looked at the age of actors being invited, mostly because their ages were readily available. The average age was 46.92. The youngest was 29-year-old Jonah Hill. The oldest was 68-year-old Ken Howard (who was also SAG President, likely pushing him in). 8 of the 25 invitees are of color. 11 of the 25 are women. Five of the 25 were under 40 at the time, all but one of those a prior Oscar nominee.

For the sake of discussion, last year’s class of acting invitees was only 20 deep, only five are women (only two former nominees), and only three of color. So even while The Academy has been pushing the gender and race agenda, progress can be hard to come by… because The Academy is an institution of elitism. That is the nature of the beast. The elite of the film industry, male and female and all the colors that are in the group. There is no bar to entry, except for what the group itself sees as exceptionalism.

There are many who feel this Academy thing should end… that the limitations of the film industry over the last 100 years, in terms of open access to people of color and women, makes the organization impossibly suspect. And while I don’t think that shutting the Academy doors is necessary, I am not offended by that position. It is forthright and honest.

What I find somewhat intolerable is the chant of “fix The Academy.” It is not broken. It does what it was built to do. As the numbers change in the film industry, the numbers in The Academy will change. Roughly 3% turnover each year.

Another occasional argument is to kick out members after they have not worked in their chosen field for some period. I can’t really address this argument with a straight face. Ageism is brutal in Hollywood and once you are in the club, you should be allowed to stay in the club. Moreover, the anger at older members is driven by a sense that they are in the way of more “progressive” choices of films to honor. Don’t trip on the giant pile of “Oscar only nominates indie movies” stories on the way out to selling that take.

Maybe I am just an old guy. I bowed out of active participation in the Broadcast Film Critics when the group decided that anyone with a blog who claimed to have a certain number of readers could join the group. This while critics at newspapers and TV stations across the country were being laid off, left and right, a newly-endangered species. If the number of paid critics is contracting and the number of “Broadcast Film Critics” is expanding, I did not (and do not) understand what the principle behind the group actually is. I’m funny that way.

I understand the principle behind The Academy. I won’t fight to the death to maintain it. If the public wants it to go away, it will. But I know that if you tinker with it too much, too quickly, inorganically, it will not have the same principle or meaning as a result.

And I offer this challenge. Make a list of the 50 female directors or 500 actresses who are not in The Academy who you think deserve entry. And then we can start a discussion about The Academy. What I see as needed is more roles for women that would bring prestige to more actresses and more films of every size directed by women so that you could fill that list of 50 without making it 5 directors who have made a studio movie and 45 from Sundance.

The same is true for people of color. We need more to be seriously in the studio game to get more balance in The Academy. I, for one, would have no objection to, say, successful black movie comedians getting in, like Ice Cube or Kevin Hart. Getting Snoop Dogg in may be more of a challenge. I assume Tyler Perry is already in… one of his cinematographers is. But if not, welcome. Tyler Perry may not be critically acclaimed, but he is commercially legit and deserves a place, as a white guy with his kind of career would have. (Adam Sandler?) But still, not enough bodies to make a real impact. We need a longer list of serious films and filmmakers of color in the industry before they can impact The Academy. (For the record, Middle of Nowhere grossed under $250k and Ava DuVernay got into the Director’s Branch. An effort is being made.)

Now on to the other side of the war zone. American Sniper.

A huge hit. The film revolves around a soldier who has an eye-popping 160 military-recorded kills. In the third act, he succumbs to PTSD and recovers in the same act. Is it an examination of the price paid for soldiers who do what they do under orders (orders which are never discussed in a political context) or is it military propaganda, promoting the idea that killing Iraqis was (and perhaps, is) okay and does not demand any further consideration by the American public?

The violence against black Americans in Selma triggers images of modern-day Ferguson and other police killings of blacks. But there is never any question in the film about which side is right. American Sniper doubles down, tweaking both sides of the current discussion about law enforcement in America, attached to the discussions about America’s military overseas, especially in the middle east.

Are we just doing our job or are we overreaching? Overreaching by going into into Iraq… overreaching by opening fire on an unarmed man who threatens you… overreaching by being okay – even enthusiastic – about killing people of a different color in a different country… overreaching by turning police departments into small army units… etc. Or again, is all of this or some of this what is necessary to live in peace and comfort?

This is where the fight is… these very important issues. But not unlike the argument over Selma, which has somehow become viciously pinpoint-focused on The Academy, those attempting to have those discussions in public are being shouted down by whatever side they aren’t on. And the rhetoric is horrible, including vile language and death threats.

Making it worse, American Sniper got six Oscar nominations to Selma‘s two, although amazingly, neither Best Picture-nominee got a nod for Best Director. But aside from the awards issue, the Selma support, which is often quite comfortable calling out white men as the source of all the pain, is a perfect juxtaposition with the very white male support of American Sniper, although any assumption that Sniper is overwhelmingly supported by men and not women would seem belied by the box office.

In other words, the pro-American Sniper crowd is the crowd waiting for the Selma marchers to dare to come across the bridge, defending what they see as theirs and willing to be violent to do it.

But there is a problem with this silly conceit. There are a bunch of liberals who like American Sniper and don’t see it as a kiss-up to the problematic military interventions in the Middle East.

But it gets worse. The primary factual pushback against Selma‘s portrayal of President Johnson? You guessed it… more liberals.

So not only do you have liberals and conservatives/military fighting against one another, but you have a massive internal battle between liberals and liberals… on both movies.

This is the kind of turf battle that I would turn to Walter Hill to direct. Get out the pick-axes and sledgehammers!

Many of those who are enraged by Selma‘s so-called snub have taken to positioning those questioning its factual question marks around LBJ as self-serving angry old white men who can’t live with allowing Dr. King the credit that is due him if it isn’t filtered through a white savior. But these men were some of those who worked with LBJ in pushing through the Civil Rights Acts and ultimately, the Voting Rights Act. These are, mostly, live long left wingers who served their country in the name all that their current attackers hold dear. Joe Califano, who worked for both the Johnson and Carter administrations, showed the poor taste to offer an opinion that Selma should be disqualified from box office success or awards for the alleged LBJ slight. Those were fighting words.

But it got tougher to argue that Selma is dead-on accurate with the chiming in of the iconic, gentlemanly Bill Moyers, who noted the errors, but still supports the film (what I consider the correct position) and New York Times op-ed firestarter Maureen Dowd, who wrote about both being a fan of the film and being offended by the rewriting of history.

Dowd pissed off a lot of liberals. Some serious people even accused her of showing racist stripes because she talks about seeing the movie in a theater filled with black teens who were on their phones. She, along with Moyers, were getting in the way of the backlash backlash.

After a brief run (a few hours) of trying to defend the changes by claiming that they were only being pointed out because Ava DuVernay is a woman and a woman of color at that, the popular positioning shifted to, “that’s not the point… the movie offers something else… LBJ is a minor character.” I don’t really disagree with this, but with all the facts being confirmed by source after source, it was still quite rare to hear an acknowledgement that history had, indeed, been changed somewhat.

About 24 hours after Dowd’s missive comes David Carr’s column, which is not positioned as a response, but might have been. I imagine Carr was onto this issue on his own steam and that the timing was coincidental. In any case, Carr went pretty wild on the arguments against The Academy’s old men, the old men of LBJ, and Selma’s primary nomination for Best Picture being an important problem worth lingering on.

Both writers claim a love of the film. Both writers claim to be unhappy about the lack of more nominations for the film. But they separate at LBJ.

Dowd 1-liner: “There was no need for DuVernay to diminish L.B.J., given that the Civil Rights Movement would not have advanced without him. Vietnam is enough of a pox on his legacy.”

Carr 1-liner: “This is not a movie that endangers L.B.J.’s legacy, it cements King’s at a near perfect moment in history and should be celebrated as such.”

Feels like the makings of a food fight. Yet I don’t see these arguments as completely contradictory. Carr dismisses the LBJ complaints, even if true, in the name of art and a greater good. Down embraces the LBJ complaints as an issue because she feels the power of the art will distort history and diminish the good done by Selma.

My point is not to adjudicate the disagreement here, but to point out that the liberal bastion of The New York Times can’t make up its mind either, taking very harsh positions that both mesh and conflict.

I should also note that Carr’s closing paragraph is as close to my best view on all this as anything I have read:

While the snubs may sting and point toward a broader blindness, it’s still more important in the long run that a young female black director received the backing of a Hollywood studio and made an important film. Long after the last blubbering actor has been played off the stage while thanking his or her makeup assistant at the Oscars, we will still have “Selma.”

I wish I knew where that guy was when his darker side was wallowing in the nasty, wildly-misguided psuedo-allegations that were highlighted repeatedly in the rest of the column.

Also on the left, there are fans of American Sniper and haters and every flavor in the middle. Aside from the abusive insane comments, e-mails, tweets etc, that are coming the way of most every writer that is either not a fan of the film or calling out Chris Kyle on the ugly rhetoric in his book, there is also a dismissal of pretty much every pro-Sniper writer as being either an angry white male or lacking the ability to consider Eastwood critically or being a right winger or worse, and anti-Muslim bigot.

I guess my point is, ultimately, that being a moderate on any of these angles on any of these two movies may be the most dangerous place of all. The positions people are taking, in seemingly every direction, are so extreme that not taking a position is seen as an attack. Or suggesting that there are factual problems with anyone else’s claims. Or, well… here’s a tweet sent in my direction this morning:


Benefiting from all the high drama is Boyhood, now even more likely to win Best Picture. Though the real threats to the film’s win seem to be Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel, voters will probably be too fatigued with all this fighting to even consider any argument requesting a change in the status quo. Perhaps gentle, loving Boyhood is the only opportunity left in this crazy Oscar season to all just get along.

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9 Responses to “20 Weeks To Oscar: Ragin’”

  1. marco70go says:

    I won’t even comment on the idiotic #teamSelma/#teamSniper thing.
    Quite simply, I don’t get how a movie receiving a nomination FOR BEST PICTURE can be considered snubbed.
    Of course, we all can see Ava DuVernay is not among the five nominees for Best Director. But, nor is Clint Eastwood; or David Fincher; or Damien Chazelle; or James Marsh (and the list could go on and on and on).
    Of course, we all can see David Oyelowo is not among the five nominees for Best Actor. But nor is Jake Gyllenhaal; or Ralph Fiennes; or Bill Murray (and the list could go on and on and on).
    Selma’s screenplay is good, but not outstanding; did it deserve a nomination? No.
    Should we measure the quality of a movie by the number of nominations it got? No, because no one would ever think Working Girl is thrice as good as Selma, nor that The Godfather with its 10 nominations is less relevant than The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, who got 13.
    Selma is one of the 8 Best Picture nominees. Period.
    Gone Girl is not there, it should have been, and no one is raging about it.

  2. Bob Burns says:

    No surprise that Sniper got plenty of noms and Selma didn’t. Warner is the best at Oscar, only Harvey comes close, and Selma was clearly an afterthought for Paramount, which is bad at Oscar anyway. Clearly Paramount wasn’t prepared for a Selma campaign and almost certainly wasn’t going to invest much in a Selma campaign had Interstellar been a better contender.

    Selma is this generation’s To Kill A Mockingbird and its place in our culture, like Mockingbird, will not depend on its film award success. Personally, I’d much rather Paramount spend $10M on special viewings of Selma for students than on an Oscar campaign. Or not. Students will be watching Selma in church basements and classrooms for decades to come anyway.

    DuVernay’s depiction of LBJ wasn’t merely a dramatic choice by a director. She was clearly deeply immersed in the history and lore of civil rights community and was surprised by the reaction of the LBJ hagiographers. This is hardly the first time that white liberals discover that they are viewed differently by blacks than they view themselves.

    Which should be a lesson to the Academy. They may be liberal, but they obviously do not care all that much about black stories. Ask yourself, in the fifty years since Selma, how many war movies and holocaust movies we’ve seen, yet Hollywood could barely be bothered to make, or watch a film about what is arguably the most important historical event in 20th century American history, other than, maybe, one of our many wars.

  3. Neil says:

    Those Selma snipers are really ridiculous. “Either you are with us or you are with THE TERRORISTS!” They live in a land of false dichotomies.

    What’s particularly telling is that so many of them claim to care so much about POC, but then they block/ban/dismiss POC whose voices don’t fall in line with the “correct” view.

  4. Pj says:

    One looks like legitimate outrage with esteemed voices taking issue or defending elements of a movie. The other simply looks like Oscar bloggers trolling the Internet.

  5. Kevin says:

    “Gone Girl is not there, it should have been, and no one is raging about it.”

    Clearly, you don’t read Awards Daily!

  6. Glamourboy says:

    This is why I think Selma might actually win Best Picture. The only way to really address the bricks being thrown, the only way to prove that the academy is still relevant is for this to happen.

  7. David Poland says:

    Whatever chance Selma had to win Best Picture… and there was a chance… is gone with the claims that the membership is racist. I recall zero examples of the organization voting for people who called them out.

  8. Jerry says:

    DuVernay probably lost some votes by no getting a finished cut done in time for the AFI screening and that may have been enough votes to get a nomination. I assume she has learned a lesson and her next movie will be done on time.

    Most of the internet is so childish that American Sniper’s fake baby is considered its major flaw.

  9. Bob Burns says:

    You described a racist organization in your commentary David.

    No, the academy is not a bunch of sociopathic white terrorists like the Klan and the many other white terrorist groups we have in the US. They aren’t sociopathic white supremacists. They are, as an institution, racist. And always have been. Selma is just one more thing on a very long list.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon