A sage but familiar observation was repeated during last night’s Virtuosos panel at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. Selma star David Oyelowo was asked by Fandango’s Dave Karger about his reactions when both he and director Ava DuVernay failed to snag nominations for Best Actor and Best Director, which many felt were due. The fact is that 2014 was a brutally competitive year in the Best Actor category, and the bottom line is that Oyelowo, who delivered a forceful and impassioned performance as Dr. Martin Luther King, was (a) simply out-flanked by the four locks (Birdman‘s Michael Leaton, Theory‘s Eddie Redmayne, American Sniper‘s Bradley Cooper, The Imitation Game‘s Benedict Cumberbatch) and (b) failed to elbow aside the weak wildebeest in the pack, Foxcatcher‘s Steve Carell, apparently because Carell’s prosthetic nose trumped Oyelowo’s oratorical panache. And also because of the hoo-hah that broke out in December when it became clear that DuVernay had mischaracterized the actions and initiatives of President Lyndon B. Johnson during the months leading to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
But Oyelowo ignored all that and instead repeated a generic observation from the Hollywood Racism rulebook, which is that until recently the Academy has been more supportive of black performers who play kindly, acquiescent, put-upon characters rather than ones who’ve played forceful leaders and steely, stand-alone guys who don’t back off, like Denzel Washington‘s revolutionary in Spike Lee‘s Malcom X or Sidney Poitier‘s tough, principled detective in Norman Jewison‘s In The Heat of the Night. And yet among all of Morgan Freeman‘s Oscar nominated performances, his first was for playing the distinctly malevolent, non-kindly “Fast Black” in Street Smart (’87)
“Generally speaking, we, as black people, have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings or being at the center of our own narrative,” Oyelowo said. “[And] we’ve just got to come to the point whereby there isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy — a notion of who black people are — that feeds into what we are celebrated as, not just in the Academy, but in life generally. We have been slaves, we have been domestic servants, we have been criminals, we have been all of those things. But we have been leaders, we have been kings, we have been those who changed the world.”
All true, but the bottom line is that (a) Selma is a good but not a great film, and (b) Oyelowo inhabited King as well as could have been expected but without the springboard of a great film behind him, his performance couldn’t muster enough votes. And that’s that. On to Katrina!