Last week, leading up to the 87th Academy Awards telecast, The Hollywood Reporter posted transcripts of conversations with various voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences about their top picks in each category. Inevitably, these transcripts revealed nothing particularly novel, the individual members capriciously passing judgment on films and individual talents that they didn’t like, understand, or have any prior relationship with. This fact won’t surprise the more jaded film buff who already accepts the inherent hypocrisy of democratically-elected recognition of highly subjective works of art.
However, there was one remark made by a particular member of the Academy (described as an anonymous female and longtime component of the 378-member public relations branch) of some note that ran in the interview published on Wednesday, February 18th regarding the merits of Selma as a Best Picture hopeful. The comment in question ran as follows:
“What no one wants to say out loud is that Selma is a well-crafted movie, but there’s no art to it. If the movie had been directed by a 60-year-old white male, I don’t think that people would have been carrying on about it to the level that they were. And as far as the accusations about the Academy being racist? Yes, most members are white males, but they are not the cast of Deliverance; they had to get into the Academy to begin with, so they’re not cretinous, snaggletoothed hillbillies. When a movie about black people is good, members vote for it. But if the movie isn’t that good, am I supposed to vote for it just because it has black people in it? I’ve got to tell you, having the cast show up in T-shirts saying ‘I can’t breathe,’ I thought that stuff was offensive. Did they want to be known for making the best movie of the year or for stirring up shit?”
Regardless of the gender or race of this particular voter, politically correct pundits will be sure to take ire with the latent rhetorical bigotry of the above statement’s content. That’s not to mention the commentator’s seemingly eager willingness to question the artistry of Ava DuVernay’s theatrical adaptation of the life of Martin Luther King Jr., possibly the single most well known and beloved Civil Rights activist of the twentieth century. As if the matter at hand couldn’t get any more contentious, added into the mix of impolitic impoliteness are the untimely remarks regarding the cast’s engagement in the more contemporary acts of civil protest surrounding police brutality wrapped up in the unlawful slaying of Eric Garner by the NYPD. Whatever your own personal feelings on the “I Can’t Breathe” movement, offhandedly dismissing others’ involvement in non-violent political demonstration is in poor taste. Anything further said on your behalf is doomed to come off as sounding entirely self-involved and racially blind, which is worse than simply stating that there is no art to a movie about a well-known black man which is directed by a black woman.
And yet, what is wrong in saying that you subjectively saw no art in another person’s equally subjective attempt at the very same? It’s not as if in saying you didn’t particularly like Selma that you don’t understand the moral and ethical issues with which the film itself is summarily concerned. By positing the possibility that the film would not have been so positively received had it been directed by a comparatively talented 60-year-old white male, the speaker doesn’t belie any personal disrespect for DuVernay individually, but merely admits to a general aesthetic distaste for the film in question.
If we start to point fingers at Academy members for holding opinions on films that differ from our own, we’re no better than the very worst internet trolls, tweeting increasingly vulgar comments allowed by the impersonal nature of social media and the anonymity it affords those of us who decide to hide behind disingenuous avatars and pseudonymous usernames. While it’s easy to poke holes in this particular voter’s indifference towards the Best Animated Feature nominees Song of the Sea and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya solely because they are the most foreign, it’s also hypocritical; one’s own preference for other films in this and other categories is as valid as that of this particular Academy member, subjective opinion ruling the day in the doling out of those most coveted of golden idols.
Regardless of your own personal politics, whether you hold American Sniper to be high-octane entertainment or conservative war propaganda, Selma was deemed insufficient in the eyes of one Academy voter in particular, a highly political decision based entirely on subjective merits. Alternatively, if we expect the nominees to be entirely objective, than the criteria would have to be accordingly quantifiable: box office returns would make Best Picture nominees out of The Hunger Games and Transformers. Politically speaking, some movies are going to get short shrift, because the comparative qualities between films are subject to the personal opinions of much larger political bodies and powers that be, powers that see the merit in clear cut historical dramas such as The King’s Speech while failing to see the artistry behind more alienating, challenging statements in genre films like Inception. Selma may be directed by a minority voice, both in terms of race and gender (making its low rating in the Best Picture race puzzling) but only from a political standpoint, which is only half of the basis upon which individual films are chosen for recognition. This democratic process cancels out many a more deserving feature in the process, time and time again.
Instead of berating the Best Picture nominees that did or didn’t win this week, why not celebrate the films that you loved regardless of whether or not they were nominated at all? Their own quantifiable permanence on film is the only truly objective way to view any of them. Long after we’ve all forgotten who played Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, and after we’ve gotten over the fact that The LEGO Movie was unduly snubbed, opting instead to watch it for the hundredth time to our own greater amusement, Selma will likewise stand on its own two feet. Its individual merit as art will conclusively be subject to the test of time, the politics of subjective opinion put aside in favor of what the film continues to offer after repeated viewings, the only true way of measuring the independent merit of subjective opinions.
By the time you read this, the 87th Oscar broadcast will already be over. Certain films, actors, and directors will be either ecstatic or dejected, and a whole sub-group of the American populace will be up in arms over which of their favorite films got snubbed. During the proceedings, an astounding number of people will have taken to Twitter to voice their own personal favorites in the individual categories, and many a cursory comment will have been made in support or in attack of certain contenders. Which is as it should be. So long as we don’t begin to think that any of these voices, our own or others’, are of any lasting merit or definitive authority — subjective opinion being ephemerally impermanent — the symbolic gesture of the exchanging of the little gold men will rule the evening, while ultimately signifying nothing.
Featured Image: Selma, Paramount Pictures