Movie Review: Why the Oscars got it wrong with Selma

Daniel Sarath
Published: February 5, 2015

The numerous Oscar snubs for Selma will go down as some of the most infamous in movie history. It was thought to be the only film that could potentially challenge Boyhood's campaign in many of the major Academy Award categories, but instead Selma was mostly excluded from the list of  nominees. Director Ava DuVernay, actor David Oyelowo and writer Paul Webb all missed out on nods that were considered to be locked. It only received two nominations - one for Best Picture and another for the Best Song.

The snub began yet another cultural conversation about the diversity of Academy Award voters, who are predominantly elderly white males. Commentators speculated that the Oscars' small demographic aren't adequately reflecting the movie going public and are racist by omission, leading to an unfair representation of female and black talent. However, there could be another reason why Selma was shockingly omitted from many of the Academy Awards' top categories.

Perhaps it was snubbed because Selma is far from your typical Oscar bait; films that often consist of a familiar set of themes and hallmarks that are known the appeal to the aforementioned demographic of award voters. It may seem like so-called Oscar bait at first, dealing with the powerful true story of the landmark march for equal voting rights that took place in Selma, Alabama in 1965 and was led in part by Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo). However, the movie is far from your traditional biopic in almost every way. In fact, as the movie's title suggests, it isn't even really a biopic at all.

Selma is not so much about King. It's about the community of this Alabama city and how they stood together, via King's leadership, to fight for civil rights. Equally as important as King's arc are the characters that orbit him, from the tale of Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) and her protest against the courthouse that shames her attempts to vote to the tragic story of Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) who was killed in cold blood by police officers during the marches. You can tell the filmmakers are not solely interested in King but instead are passionate about how people collectively achieved changed through their unity.

How the film portrays Martin Luther King Jr. is also remarkably refreshing. This isn't the simplistic portrayal of the activist one might have expected but one that shows him as a real, rounded human being full of both strengths and flaws. David Oyelowo plays him as a man with the weight of responsibility on his shoulders, who is feeling the pressures of the politicking and diplomacy needed to instigate change. The most interesting moments of Selma are not, for instance, the rousing speeches King makes to inspire the Selma community. They are the intimate moments of him carefully rehearsing his sermons or reflecting on the ethical dilemma of inciting racial violence to force President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) into action, knowing it will lead to suffering.

While the Oscar snubs may become historic, Selma's story is so expertly and powerfully told, a uniquely thoughtful take on the fight for civil rights, that it thankfully won't matter. As troubling as its absence might be from the Academy's nominations, this is not a film that needs the trivial validation of a golden statue. After all, it is one that we will certainly still be watching, feeling and discussing in many years to come.

Selma is out in UK cinema tomorrow.

Photo credit: Atsushi Nishijima,, Paramount Pictures