3 Other Reasons Why Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” Oscar Snub Matters

As soon as Oscar nominations were announced this morning, Twitter strained to the point of breaking under the weight of thousands of bloggers, saddled with white guilt, who took up microblogging arms to announce the injustice of Ava DuVernay, director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic “Selma,” being left off the nomination list for Best Director. And while it is an injustice, people just as quickly wheeled around to the inevitable (and not untrue) conclusion that the Academy Awards are ultimately tantamount to a high school student council election with friends voting for their friends, and that real change would come 10-15 years from now when the older white Academy members have died out.

All of these are true things. They are! I even snarkily tweeted earlier today that another round of thinkpieces on the lack of Oscar diversity would ultimately be meaningless. But the more I sat with it, the more I realized that there are other takeaways from the DuVernay snub, aside from the overt and obvious casual racism and misogyny that’s trenchant in Hollywood. Here are a few other issues that we also need to focus on, and keep fighting against, that come from DuVernay being overlooked.

1. Hollywood isn’t welcoming to newcomers.

In addition the race and gender implications, the greatest sadness to me of DuVernay’s snub was that it reminded people that outsiders are rarely going to get any real love in Hollywood. The most fantastic part of DuVernay’s story to me isn’t that she’s black or a woman — those were both characteristics she was born into, not choices she made. It’s that she’s a fledgling filmmaker, who had only directed three small films prior to “Selma.” New York magazine did an excellent profile on DuVernay last December, and focused heavily on her path to becoming a first-time director at 36, despite having no prior filmmaking experience. DuVernay was a film publicist for 12+ years, and harbored no secret short film/web series aspirations before making the switch. She is representative of the stories and the creators that the Academy should be clamoring to celebrate — the people who innately are able to make a great movie, even if they didn’t grow up devouring reel upon reel of film.

2. Not all biopics are created equal.

And to that end, not all controversies are created equal. This year may have been the year of the biopic (“The Theory of Everything,” “The Imitation Game,” “Foxcatcher,” even “Birdman”to a degree — sorry, but it’s true, Michael Keaton), but the thing that all those biopics had in common? Their controversies, if there were any to begin with, have long since been over. Sure Alan Turing’s legacy in “The Imitation Game” was problematic, but ultimately, we’re not taking to the streets marching over the complicated parts of the groundbreaking computer scientist’s personal life. But we are in the middle of what is arguably a new civil rights movement in America with #BlackLivesMatter, and that’s where things get complicated. A vote for a movie suddenly isn’t just a vote for a movie, it’s voting for whether you stand with the police, or stand with a marginalized community. It’s picking sides, and that’s a good thing! Oscar voters seem to forget that they can make a choice with their Oscar nomination votes and still be complete and abject pussies in the face of social justice publicly. At the very worst, a movie that might move the public needle will get some fanfare, and they can continue to share stories at the Brentwood Country Club of how they had a very nice lunch with a black man once, but still secretly vote Republican. Democracy!

3. Ava DuVernay doesn’t fit Hollywood’s narrative of what a successful Black filmmaker should look like.

We’ve seen this time and again. There are Black actors and actresses and Black filmmakers who always get trotted out as antidotes to claims of lack of diversity: Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Spike Lee, Tyler Perry, even directors Steve McQueen and Lee Daniels now. And the same people keep working, but the field is never really getting any bigger for Black actors and filmmakers. The gains are marginal when they even exist. But DuVernay doesn’t fit that narrative. A relative outsider (as outside as a feature film publicist can be, to be fair), DuVernay came in and rescued a movie that was languishing in turnaround — the film graveyard for movies that fail to launch — based on a man whose legacy was known across cultural borders. It wasn’t just a middle finger to the white male architects of the current Hollywood climate, it was also a shot at the people of color who Hollywood had deemed acceptable. The status quo wasn’t ready to add a new poster child, especially not one who — hate to say it — looked so Black. DuVernay is a woman with braids, she didn’t cut her filmmaking teeth for years to earn the positions that Lee or Perry have. The narrative wasn’t ready for her to be the poster child, and for a Black filmmaker or actor to really make it right now, they have to fit in the small bubble of what an “acceptable” Black person should be like.

To be sure, many of these problems aren’t endemic to DuVernay simply because she’s a Black woman. Katheryn Bigelow’s directing snub for “Zero Dark Thirty” in 2013 received similar outrage, as it should have, because female filmmakers are simply never given their due in Hollywood. For “American Sniper” to win a nomination this year, and “Zero Dark Thirty,” with all its critical acclaim and box office success, to not even be invited to the dance is a travesty. But by focusing simply on the struggles for women and minority filmmakers we’re taking a myopic view of the problems in Hollywood.

To at least a certain degree, race and gender issues will slowly dissipate over time, as the old guard of the Academy passes on and its newer members reflect the evolving attitudes of the larger culture (though we shouldn’t take a passive role in that evolution, of course). But the inclusionary politics? We’re seeing that more and more every day (just look at how Hollywood heavy hitters closed rank in decrying the media for reporting on the hacked Sony emails), without further extrapolation as to how it might impact the stories that are being told by Hollywood at the same time, and how those stories are being portrayed. Instead of letting those doors stay open just a crack, hoping to sneak in and launch a grassroots campaign one Oscar snub at a time, the time has come to start rattling the Hollywood cages. Rattle ‘em hard, rattle ‘em loud, because there’s so much more to be upset about past race and gender.

[Image via Getty]