We must make sure some good comes out of Selma’s award snub

Colman Domingo, director Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo at the Berlin film festival. Jens Kalaene/EPA

The 2015 Golden Globe nominations for Selma (Best Actor, Best Picture and Best Director) seemed to signal that the film’s chances were high for being on all the nomination lists for the rest of the awards season. DuVernay’s nomination made her the first black woman to have been nominated for directing, a fact widely described as history making in itself and a potential precursor to further firsts.

But most of the other major awards (the Baftas, the Directors’ Guild of America, the Screen Actors’ Guild and the Producers’ Guild) then didn’t nominate Selma – for anything. The film did get a best picture nomination for the Oscars, but nothing for its director or its lead actor.

Consequently the usual awards season conversation has been altered by the snub to DuVernay, Oyelowo and the film itself and the way it has highlighted the lack of gender and racial diversity in the awards.

Excuses, excuses

The guilds’ lack of nominations has been explained by some by the industry as a result of Paramount not sending screening DVDs to their members in time. Awards season is a large marketing machine, and the studios play their roles by sending out screeners and campaigning for their films in the trade press.

Though paid less attention to by the public, the guild awards are peer group awards – directors voting for directors and actors voting for actors. They are often better predictors of the Oscars than the Golden Globes, whose 93 voters are members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. The voting members for the Baftas are 6,500 industry professionals from the UK and around the world. Its director has also said that Selma came too late.

Screener excuse or not, the snub cannot be batted away so easily. Wider criticism has been about that fact that most of the films recognised by the main awards have white male leads. Boyhood, Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, American Sniper, Whiplash… The obvious similarity amongst all these films is that they all feature white men at their centre. Selma’s inclusion in the Oscars Best Picture list, then, does stands out.

White middle-aged men

As has been widely noted, the Academy’s membership is 94% white, 76% men, and has an average age of 63. Membership is for life. In what some are describing as the whitest Oscars in nearly 20 years, the nominees reflect the make up of the voting members.

A response from insiders to the accusation that DuVernay and Oyelowo were snubbed has been to point to 2014’s nomination for 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen and the film’s Best Picture win. But since the early 1990s the Academy’s recognition of women and people of colour has been sporadic at best. Only four women have ever been nominated for Best Director, with only one win for Kathryn Bigelow, and only three black men have been nominated for Best Director – none have won. Each nomination is often hailed as evidence of progress, only for that progress to take two steps back in the following years.

And of course, the nearly all-white and absolutely all-male Best Picture nominees this year not only reflect the demographics of the voters but also those of the industry. In the last few years, a growing body of research has shown that women and people of colour are vastly underrepresented both on screen and behind the camera.

And so the fact that Selma has been left out of key awards lists, whatever the reason, matters in this context. The various film awards, though often not a reflection of what is popular, are arbiters of cultural value. They are the expression of industry professionals’ and professional critics’ views on what counts as artistic excellence and success.

But the films and film-makers they celebrate all look so very much the same and so very much like the voters themselves. Selma’s nominations at the Globes and its Oscar nomination are no more a sign of progress and change than the previous nominations for women and black directors were.

Selma may not receive many mainstream industry awards, but its lack of nominations has become a symbol of the homogeneity and lack of diversity in the film industry. And the critical conversation that this has provoked may matter more than an award win for change in the long run.