Is there still hope for “Selma” in the Best Picture Oscar race? The critically acclaimed Dr. Martin Luther King biopic was surprisingly left out of most of the major categories when Academy Award nominations were revealed Thursday, leaving fans and critics frantic. But the road to victory may not be closed from the Ava DuVernay film.
As history has taught us, snubs on Oscar nomination day can sometimes boost a Best Picture nominee’s prospects. It’s called the “Argo effect.”
Think back to Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013. There was no Hollywood star shining brighter than Ben Affleck’s. The man who was famously dubbed “the world’s most over-exposed actor” was in the midst of a major career rejuvenation. “Argo,” a film based on a true story of the the Iranian hostage crisis of the late 1970s that he directed, produced, and starred in, not only emerged as a critical darling but also had delivered strong box office revenue to match.
Prior to this second-coming, Affleck’s film career had long been overshadowed by his tabloid-friendly personal life, which included a stint in rehab for substance abuse and an ill-fated relationship with pop star Jennifer Lopez. Later, in an infamous “Saturday Night Live” appearance, the actor joked about “the slow-motion train wreck I like to call my life.”
But then a couple of well-received turns in the director’s chair (“Gone Baby Gone” in 2007, “The Town” in 2010) helped redeem Affleck’s persona. And the warm critical reception of “Argo” made Affleck seem like shoo-in for a Best Director nomination. Instead, when the nominations were rolled out he was conspicuously absent, drawing gasps and an audible “wow” from the crowd who had gathered to hear Emma Stone and Seth MacFarlane make the big announcements.
The backlash to Affleck’s snub would be swift and unyielding. Newly nominated for his performance in “Silver Linings Playbook,” Bradley Cooper called in to the “The Today Show” to share his reaction to being named one of the best actors of the year. He had been on the phone for less than a minute when he brought his interview to a halt.
“I do have to say real quick … Ben Affleck got robbed,” Cooper commented.
Even Scott Foley, the ex-husband of Affleck’s now wife Jennifer Garner, also couldn’t hold back.
“Travesty and injustice? A bit dramatic. But Affleck getting overlooked for a best director nod is just plain silly. That’s right, silly,” Foley tweeted that morning. A theme began to coalesce among Hollywood’s elite: One of its own had been wronged.
“There’s a surge to embrace Ben Affleck in the aftermath of his Oscar snub. It seems like such an outrage that his film is benefiting from it as a result,” GoldDerby.com Editor Tom O’Neil said to the Associated Press during the 2013 awards season. “It really is a pro-‘Argo’ movement … Hollywood is rallying around one of their wounded own.”
And so, a mere three days after losing out on a chance to win the Oscar, Affleck would win the Golden Globe for Best Director. That moment was the beginning of a chain reaction; the collective film industry banded together to correct a perceived injustice. “Argo” next won top honors from the acting, directing, producing, and writing guilds, and ultimately, Best Picture at the Oscars (from first lady Michelle Obama, no less).
The odds were once stacked against “Argo,” and its ultimate success over the likely front-runner, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” defied conventional logic. Before Affleck was named the year’s best filmmaker by his peers in the Directors Guild of America (DGA), only six others had won the same award without also being nominated for an Oscar. And before “Argo” won best picture at the Academy Awards, no film had won that honor without its director being nominated since “Driving Miss Daisy” in 1989 and before that, 1932.
Still, there are two things that Hollywood loves: an underdog and a good dose of patriotism. “Argo” had both, and so does “Selma.”
“Selma,” while much weightier than the feel-good “Argo,” it is also a story of American triumph. At its core, it is the tale of the brave individuals of all ages, colors, and creeds who marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in order to secure passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Now that its director DuVernay and star David Oyelowo have been ignored, the movie has come to stand for something much bigger, and it has started a nationwide discussion about the lack of diversity in Hollywood.
All five of the Academy’s directing nominees were men, and all 20 of its newly anointed acting nominees were white, prompting a massive public backlash. Twitter users immediately began sharing their collective outrage with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, and by Friday morning, the trending term had more than 60,000 mentions.
At Thursday’s Critics’ Choice Awards actress Jessica Chastain, who was awarded the group’s first MVP award, ended her acceptance speech by referencing the irony that a list of Oscar nominees so thin on diversity has been announced on Dr. King’s birthday.
“It got me thinking about our need to build the strength of diversity in our industry and to stand together against homophobic, sexist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic and racist agendas,” Chastain said. “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.”
As much progress as America has made since the events portrayed in ‘Selma,” it has yet to turn the page on all of the injustices that people of color endure. For instance, the Oscar nominations themselves show the startling lack of opportunity for people of color in the film industry. Since Thursday’s snub, numerous news outlets have increasingly reported on the Oscar voter demographics: 94% white, 77% male and their average age is 63 years old.
As unprecedented voter ID laws being passed in states across the country are disproportionately affecting minority access to the polls, and racial tensions among communities of color and police playing out across the U.S., the film industry has the chance to both chose the underdog and make a stand for the more inclusive America that King dreamed of, one that provides equal opportunities for all.