After being handed an MVP Award at last night’s Critics Choice Movie Awards (which I attended, sitting at table #49), Jessica Chastain spoke of the general need for more “diversity.” Right now diversity is a p.c. code term that means Selma‘s Ava DuVernay should have been nominated for a Best Director Oscar (it would have been a nice token gesture) and David Oyelowo should have been nominated for Best Actor (okay but who would he have bumped?). Things would feel more congenial if this had happened, for sure, but I still don’t think Selma is good enough to be celebrated as one of the year’s absolute best. That’s a minority opinion, I recognize. It can also get you branded as someone who doesn’t quite get it and who should perhaps (what do you think, guys?) be kept at arm’s length. Trust me — that’s what the cool kidz are saying without actually saying. Get with the pro-Selma mentality or we won’t let you attend parties and meetings in our little clubhouse.
“Today is Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, so it got me thinking about our need to build the strength of diversity in our industry,” Chastain said, “and to stand together against homophobic, sexist, misogynist, anti-Semitic, and racist agendas. I’m an optimist, and I can’t help but feel hopeful about the future of film, especially looking at all these beautiful people in this room. Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.’ And I would like to encourage everyone in this room to please speak up.”
That’s funny because we all know what that means apart from what King meant originally. It means that “we all need to tell the conservative, sentimental fuddy-duds to back off and reconsider because this is right effing now and we need to nominate and celebrate films like Selma because that Norman Jewison world all you grandpas grew up with is no more.”
Yes, agreed, of course. And I trust I don’t need to prove to anyone that nobody despises the Academy fuddy-duds more than myself. But that still doesn’t mean Selma is anything more than a good, sturdy capturing of a noble, tumultuous struggle. Y’all need to calm down.
I almost fell out of my chair this morning when I read the following sentence by Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir: “You can certainly defend, in the abstract, the idea that movie awards should be entirely about the art and craft of cinema, not about who made the movies.” Really? We’re allowed to say such a thing? But if we do, won’t we get ourselves into trouble?
Hollywood’s p.c. community wants Selma celebrated because it says the right things with the right kind of somber, reverent brushstrokes. What they’re really saying is that it should be Oscar-nominated even if it’s not all that mesmerizing as cinema. Selma is a good film, but it doesn’t wow as much as placate and assure and pay appropriate respect. A few weeks ago I more or less said that Alan Parker‘s all but discredited Mississippi Burning, which lies and fantasizes and ignores and actually denigrates the efforts of black activists in the mid ’60s South, is a better film than Selma, and it is…if you ignore what it’s saying.
Unlike the p.c. crowd, I can do that. I can recognize and enjoy a flavorful, on-target, slam-bang film even if it’s politically and historically full of crap. The p.c. crowd wants films to say and embody the right things first and foremost, and then, once that requirement has been satisfied, they’ll evaluate how good the cinematic chops are. But saying the right thing counts for an awful lot.
“The primary mission of the Oscars is to burnish the public image of the American film industry, and on that front the voters have screwed the proverbial pooch,” O’Hehir said.
“A year after awarding its biggest prize to 12 Years A Slave, a confrontational film about the most painful aspects of America’s racial history, Oscar voters appear to have retreated into their collective comfort zone. No doubt Ava DuVernay’s potent civil-rights drama Selma, the most obvious casualty of this retreat, was undermined in part by the controversy over its depiction of Lyndon B. Johnson. But I feel like the LBJ issue was used as a mask for issue fatigue, an unexpressed and not-quite-conscious feeling that We gave it to a ‘black movie’ last year, dammit.”