Only two American women have ever been nominated for an Oscar for best director: Sofia Coppola in 2003 for “Lost in Translation” and Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 for “The Hurt Locker.” After her win at the Golden Globes, there was speculation that Ava DuVernay, director of this year’s civil rights drama “Selma,” would be the third – and first woman of color to receive an Oscar nomination for best director. But it was not to be. Although the Oscars announcement Thursday morning listed “Selma” as a contender for best movie, the nominations for best director remained a boys-only club.
Theories abound as to how, in a year many have described as the second coming of the civil rights movement, a critically acclaimed film so resonant and timely could be snubbed by the Oscar voters, who had a chance to recognize one of the few women – much less an African-American woman – who made a major motion picture. And some are arguing that loud criticism of her portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson as a less-than-perfect ally to Martin Luther King Jr. regarding the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery to secure equal voting rights are what nixed her chances.
“Selma,” writes Forbes critic Scott Mendelson, was “defamed because of the (I would argue false) notion that it isn’t nice enough to a really powerful white guy who plays a key supporting role,” adding, “I’m angry because one of the best films of the year has been libeled and that said libel apparently worked.”
The “libel” and defamation Mendel is referring to started with Mark Updegrove, a presidential historian and director of the LBJ Presidential Library, who wrote an op-ed in Politico slamming what he called the film's inaccurate portrayal of LBJ and MLK’s relationship, describing it instead as “productive and consequential.” Former LBJ aide Joseph Califano wrote his own op-ed, arguing that the Selma march was in fact Johnson’s idea, which outraged DuVernay, who responded in a Tweet that it was “jaw-dropping and offensive.”
I can argue, @HitFixGregory. Notion that Selma was LBJ's idea is jaw-dropping and offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so.
â€” Ava DuVernay (@AVAETC) December 28, 2014
It could be argued, as @hitfixgregory did in response to the claim, that “every biopic” that year had “historical flaws.”
On LBJ's assist comments on #Selma. Can't argue, but EVERY biopic - Imitation, Theory, Foxcatcher has MAJOR historical flaws this season.
â€” gregoryellwood (@HitFixGregory) December 28, 2014
But it could also be argued, as DuVernay does, that “Selma” emphasizes the central role of black citizens in their own quest for equality. “The script … was much more slanted to Johnson,” DuVernay told Rolling Stone. “I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma.” And as DuVernay told Rolling Stone, “Every filmmaker imbues a movie with their own point of view.”
Moreover, it is historically accurate that although Johnson was a civil rights hero, he was also a product of his time, and as Adam Serwer argues in a piece in MSNBC called, “Lyndon Johnson was a civil rights hero. But also a racist,” the truth is more complex than Updegrove and Mendelson suggest.
Whether “libel” and defamation played a part in DuVernay’s Oscar snub, one indisputable fact is that the nominating committee is largely older, male and white. A 2012 Los Angeles Times piece called “Unmasking the Academy” discovered that Oscar voters are 94 percent white, 77 percent male, and only 14 percent are under the age of 50.