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Duvernay’s Oscar Snub Draws Heavy Criticism

January 19, 2015

Of all the snubs from the 87th Academy Awards nominations, which were announced this past Thursday morning, none drew heavier criticism than the exclusion of up-and-coming director Ava Duvernay from the Best Director category.

Although her film Selma was nominated in the Best Picture and Best Original Song categories, Duvernay, who would have been the first African-American female nominee in Academy Award history, was completely overlooked. Instead, the Academy chose five male nominees: Richard Linklater, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Wes Anderson, Morten Tyldum, and Bennett Miller.

The Internet responded immediately, mostly with heavy criticism of the Academy’s omission of Duvernay and Selma’s star, David Oyelowo, who earned critical praise for his depiction of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Twitter erupted with the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, leading The Huffington Post to proclaim this year’s ceremony the whitest Oscars night since 1998. There were no people of color nominated in any of the acting categories, marking the first such instance in nearly 20 years.

After the nomination announcements ceased, Academy President Cheryl Boone-Issacs, an African-American, responded to the criticism by asserting that there was not an issue with Academy voters and rewarding people of color. “The good news is that the wealth of talent is there, and it’s being discussed, and it’s helpful so much for talent — whether in front of the camera or behind the camera — to have this recognition, to have this period of time where there is a lot of publicity, a lot of chitter-chatter.”

Regardless of Boone-Issacs’s comments, there is an inherent lack of diversity within the Academy. The statistics are fairly grim: the Academy’s voting body is 94% white and 77% male.

Moreover, only one African-American woman – Halle Berry – has ever won the Academy Award for Best Actress. Only six black women have ever won Best Supporting Actress, beginning with Hattie McDaniel in 1939. And only one woman has ever been nominated for Best Director and won: Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2009.

Besides initiating controversy over the portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson and his interactions with Dr. King, Selma went virtually unscathed since its first screening. But the alleged inaccuracies seem to have provoked the ire of the Academy’s predominant voting body: old white men.

Still, the thought that Selma might be remembered as the “movie that was mean to LBJ” is unacceptable. With the exception of Richard Linklater and Alejandro González Iñárritu, none of the nominees for Best Director attracted anywhere near the attention and praise Duvernay did. Selma retains a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, as well as an 89% on Metacritic.

In the wake of the national attention surrounded by the shootings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Duvernay’s exclusion matters. It signifies that the Academy – which is only 2% black – has unsurprisingly failed to recognize the talent and promise of a young director. Under an analytical lens, therefore, it is hard to shy away from concluding that her snub is more the result of her being black and a woman than that they are simply oblivious to her dazzling talent.

Sadly, this is a trend the Academy likes to stick to with African-American talents, the most obvious example being Spike Lee, who invited Duvernay to “join the club”. While his commercially and critically-lauded hood film Do The Right Thing (1989), now considered one of the best films ever made, was nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor at the 62nd Academy Awards, it was left out of both the Best Director and Best Picture categories. And although his career has been incredibly successful, Lee has never won an Oscar.

Some might point to Steve McQueen as an alternative example of the Academy rewarding black talent. After all, he won the Academy Award for Best Picture last year for 12 Years A Slave. But despite his nomination for Best Director, McQueen lost to Alfonso Cuarón. What’s more: his Best Picture award was shared with four other white producers.

The list of snubbed and/or unrecognized talents goes on and on: Angela Bassett, Viola Davis, Kathryn Bigelow, Cicely Tyson, Halle Berry, Oprah, Chadwick Boseman, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael B. Jordan, Don Cheadle. My point is not that the member of the Academy hate minorities, it is that they have failed over and over again to consistently recognize their work. Women and men of color just cannot seem to earn anywhere near the level of Oscars that white people do, at least not on a regular basis.

Although Duvernay is probably still thrilled that Selma received two nominations including Best Picture, she should have been included in the Best Director category. The Academy has completely dropped the ball on this one. We cannot ignore the fact that her gender and race have blocked them from realizing that her work on Selma – only her third film, actually – was absolutely stunning. It has already earned her three awards, along with coveted nominations for the Golden Globes and the Critic’s Choice Awards.

The conversation on Duvernay’s snub is ongoing, and it needs to continue. It is important that we constantly evaluate society’s arbitrary dismissal of sublimely talented individuals without reason.

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