27 Jan Kat’s Korner: Oscar Who? SELMA Already Won
In his 1926 essay, “The Negro and the Racial Mountain”, Langston Hughes expounds on the importance of Black artists representing themselves honestly. He calls out a Negro poet who says, “I want to be a poet–not a Negro poet.” For Hughes, this poet essentially wants to be white and as a result there is no compassion for said poet, only dismissal. Hughes goes on to state that Black artists will find that not everyone is interested in their truth and the racial mountain is something with which all must contend if they are to be true artists. It will not be an easy road, and feelings may be hurt along the way but as Black artists it is our duty to scale the mountain, never giving up. One of my favorite moments in the essay, is when Hughes writes, “If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either.”
This is what I think of when I read articles that rage against the so-called Oscar snubs of the brilliantly crafted movie Selma directed by Ava Duvernay. In the end, it does not matter. I write this knowing that for some it does. I write this also knowing that acknowledgement, especially by one’s peers is important in all walks of life. I get it, but from where I sit the fact is quite simply this: The Oscars does not regard Black actors, directors, screenwriters etc, as peers and the Academy has never been interested in Black stories that extol some of the virtues exhibited in Selma.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. played beautifully by David Oyelowo humanizes the Civil Rights icon and asks the audience to see King in a more compassionate light. King at times is insecure, angry and yes even fearful as he navigates his way through the cesspool that is racial politics in America. He goes toe to toe with President Lyndon B.Johnson who I think is also believably human and troubled, while ensconced in his white privilege as leader of the “land of the free and home of the brave”.
In Selma there are no “victims” in the heavy-handed manner we often see play out in films like Monster’s Ball and The Help. Instead we witness a community, at times at odds within itself, at times unsure, but ready and willing to fight for their rights as citizens. We see women and men in organized resistance as they face down a racist regime that is maintained and supported legally, historically and socially. The movement grows and no one is excluded from the tyranny of white supremacy that says very plainly, you are either with us or against us.
The truth of the matter is that in the larger scheme of her calling, Ava Duvernay has already won. The film has done well financially with numbers almost doubling its budget, has sparked a movement to make sure school-age children see the film and had a special White House screening. She has successfully directed the first-ever feature film with Dr. King at its center in such a way that the bar is set high for anyone following her lead. One New York Times article argued that without an Oscar nomination, in addition to already being black and a woman, Duvernay may find project offers hard to come by. I find this concern laughable and a testament to the white privilege with which Black artists are constantly embattled–whatever the discipline.
Duvernay will keep getting work and telling stories because that is her calling. The freedom from the pressurized awards game, allows her to create in peace. Even as I write this, I hope that she sees it as such because her brilliance cannot be denied. Duvernay is an excellent storyteller and she is now in esteemed company that time and time again shows just how often Oscar gets it wrong. There are no snubs here. This is just business as usual.
For those that see it as such, I respect your indignation and the fervor with which you present your cases, but I do not think it matters. What does matter is the continued support of Duvernay and others like her who are focused on telling Black stories with truth and compassion. There is still much too do, so as we create let’s scale continue to scale the racial mountain and heed the call from Langston Hughes when he writes, “We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”