Selma's Oscar Snub Doesn't Matter

Films that are meant to be controversial don’t always become so for the reasons the filmmakers intended. Ava DuVernay, David Oyelowo and the other major players of Selma, t­he first film ever to have Martin Luther King as its protagonist, ­probably did not expect most of their conversations following the film’s release to focus on, first, the portrayal of President Lyndon Bird Johnson as resistant to voting rights and, subsequently, the experience of Oscar snub victimhood.                

The outrage that both developments inspired suggests a larger myopia in how we discuss the impact of art and popular culture, at least in the short term. Instead of making any attempt to genuinely assess this impact, or even find a framework for doing so, national conversations focus on tired­, old platitudes and short term indignation.  

In every discussion of the LBJ portrayal by historians and former white house staff, there is one familiar refrain: the film is another attempt by Hollywood to subvert the efforts of the real truth ­tellers for the sake of entertainment. (Joseph Califano, LBJ’s top domestic affairs aide, began his op­-ed with “What’s wrong with Hollywood?” before ridiculously implying that the Selma episode was LBJ’s plan and MLK was just one of his foot soldiers). Historian Julian Zelizer claims,

"[Johnson’s] totally committed to doing this but the big debate for him was when to do it. He was scared that he had all these bills he was trying to get— many of which he thought were important for African Americans like education assistance and funding for his poverty program — and that if he pushed for voting rights too soon ... voting rights wouldn’t even pass...he was still fearful and worried that the power he finally had was very limited and would be fleeting. I don’t think the movie captures that at all."

I don’t think Zelizer watched the right movie. The central tension that Johnson endures throughout the film is exactly what Zelizer articulates ­ as the pressure for voting rights intensifies: how can he balance it alongside his other priorities? This drives his arguments with Oyelowo’s MLK and haunts him in quieter moments, such as one scene in which he scans the newspaper photos of beaten black children while simultaneously listening to George Wallace’s racist vitriol on the radio. In the end, he comes out heroic, resisting the pressures of his party’s racist wing and, in his last scene, expropriating the civil rights movement’s theme ­ “We shall overcome” ­ in his speech sending the Voting Rights Act to Congress. So not only does the film portray Johnson as a fundamentally moral figure, it does so while giving us a sense of the basic struggle he endured that summer.                        

Granted, the response may have been far quieter if not for the film’s false suggestion that J. Edgar Hoover’s wiretapping of King came from Johnson’s orders; but, the need to fall back into indignation over “Hollywood’s” incomplete depiction of history ignores the fact that the film offers a window into how the figures involved experienced these events. When Johnson tells King, “You’re an activist, I’m a politician. You’ve got one issue, I’ve got a hundred and one,” he instantly summarizes the myriad books and documents that attempt to explain their relationship.

So perhaps what drew the ire of the keepers of Johnson’s legacy was the concept of the film itself: the telling of the Selma episode through MLK, the one man who was at the center of the many events surrounding the march. They didn’t know how to square their image of Johnson as a driver of events with the film’s depiction of him as a reactive participant.

Those who were outraged at Selma's limited presence among the Oscar nominees would make a similar claim about Academy voters—they are put off by films that have black people as the drivers of their own narrative. At the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Oyelowo was asked about being the subject of “Oscar snub outrage,” to which he responded, “We as black people are celebrated more when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings...” He went on to point out that “Until The Butler and 12 Years a Slave did well at the box office, films like this were told through white protagonists because there is a fear of white guilt; so a nice, white person holds black people’s hands through their own narrative.” (Coincidently, this is quite similar to Califano’s interpretation of history—LBJ carrying MLK through the Civil Rights narrative).

While Oyelowo is doubtlessly right about the reason films like Selma have had trouble getting made, he overstates the implications of the Oscar snub. In the same interview he asked the audience what movie they believed won Sidney Poitier his Oscar. When they almost unanimously responded “In the Heat of the Night,” Oyelowo revealed that it was in fact Lilies of the Field,  in which Poitier played a handyman on a farm run by Eastern European nuns. But without intending to, Oyelowo corroborated a point that DuVernay made when asked about the Oscar snub: “In a year from now, we’re not going to be thinking of anything but the film. Film is forever...we’re still watching films that were made a hundred years ago. If I asked an Oscar watcher now who won best supporting actor three years ago, you could not tell me.” (For the record, it was Christopher Plummer for Beginnings.)  

In other words, it does not matter that Poitier was not even nominated for In the Heat of the Night cause it is the role for which he is still most collectively treasured. Those outraged over Selma’ Oscar snub should rest easy because not only will it be remembered as a great film, it has set the standard for all future cinematic depictions of MLK and his stories.   

Moreover, as Oyelowo indicated, the film is part of a trend that has seen more films that show black characters determining their own narrative finding critical and financial success ­ among them 12 Years a Slave, the Butler, Fruitvale Station, and, of course, Selma. A look at the history of film shows that with just a few exceptions there has never been a successful movie that did not have a self­-absorbed white man as its subject. So, if Selma advances the counter­trend, it will not only diminish the caricatures around which black characters have been constructed, but instead broaden the array of stories that filmmakers can tell without great distributional risks. No volume of awards could alter such an enriching contribution to the medium.

Ultimately, national conversation over an important film was overclouded by two claims that easily falter under inspection. In a sense, this was inevitable because there is no framework for assessing the impact of works of art and popular culture. 

Take The Daily Show for example. For nearly the entirety of its run, it has been depicted as a driver of political change despite a lack of evidence to support this view. Just four months before announcing his departure as host, Jon Stewart argued that the show had done nothing to change the political world and compared people who believe it has to those who believe Bob Dylan’s songs changed the world in the 1960s. Stewart had been making the same claim even before Stephen Colbert became his successor on the cable line up—reminding pundits who took him too seriously that his show preceded one about “Puppets making prank phone calls.” 

The fact that Stewart has had to engage in this dispute for so long is indicative of the same trend that dominated the coverage of Selma. While it is true that the broader implications of works of art can only be properly assessed in the long term, the lack of any framework for doing so in the short term leaves us with platitudes and weak, sporadic arguments that consistently resurface. This insults our collective memory and robs us of any genuine, educational public conversation.

[sources: billmoyers.com, Washington Post, Salon, NYMag, grantland.com]


by Sam Harwood '15
sharwood@gm.slc.edu

SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.

Picus explores the interconnected Marvel Universe

illustration by Thomas Ordway '17

illustration by Thomas Ordway '17

Almost any moviegoer these days knows about the massive Marvel Studios project, The Avengers.  Most probably know about Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, who have all had their own independent blockbusters.  The Avengers franchise is the third highest grossing series in film history, behind only the James Bond and Harry Potter franchises. Some of the biggest names in Hollywood play characters in the series, and these roles have only made even bigger names out of them.  Robert Downey Jr. is synonymous now with Iron Man, as are Chris Hemsworth with Thor, and Chris Evans with Captain America. These are some of the most engaging superhero movies ever made; watching them is unlike watching any other series. What about this series’ structure has made this so?

The Avengers project started in 2008 with the release of The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man. Not many people remember The Incredible Hulk because it was a critical flop, it did not earn any sequels, and the title character has since been recast. After Hulk’s false start, Iron Man was the true beginning of the series. The film was a smash, largely due to Robert Downey Jr.’s charismatic performance. It is a near-unanimous opinion that the Iron Man films would not be of nearly the same caliber if somebody else were to play the lead. 

In 2010, we saw Iron Man 2, the movie that really began to build the premise for the 2012 release of The Avengers (the film that ultimately brought each lead hero together), as it introduced Nick Fury and Scarlet Widow, characters from other realms of the Marvel universe. In 2011, we were introduced to Thor, in (of course) Thor, and Captain America in The First Avenger. It became clearer with each passing film that these stories were not intended as standalone pieces, but that they were going to be part of something even larger. 

The series has proved captivating to millions of people worldwide.  People are constantly wondering what is going to happen in the next movie, who is going to be the next villain, which celebrity is going to play which legendary character, and how the next movie going to fit into the overarching Avengers plot. By interweaving each Avengers-related release, Marvel has constructed a franchise where each piece heightens and complicates the other. Walking into the theater, even for a run-of-the-mill, single-superhero affair, audiences are delighted to wonder which other Avenger will make a surprise appearance.

A series constructed in this way is compelling for so many reasons. These films are made so that audiences wait after the credits to watch a short bonus clip, foreshadowing the next movie in the series. Sometimes these short clips can be comedic, and other times, they show us some major event that is going to happen in the next installment. If you go see any of these movies, you absolutely must keep watching throughout the credits. Some major elements to the overall story are introduced in these clips. 

Another compelling layer to the series’ construction is the novelty found in viewing the post-Avengers films in order of their release, regardless of which superhero is the lead. This might sound weird for some of you. One might expect to be able to catch up on the Avengers series on a hero-by-hero basis, but a scene at the end of Iron Man 2 that introduced Thor to the rest of the Avengers universe changed the rules. Now, each of the subsequent movies reaches across its individual brand and builds on the other, often teasing the story for the sequel to The Avengers (the film)To further complicate matters, each of the new films includes a new leap forward in the Avengers storyline, rendering the solo-hero films integral to fans of the super-group film. You have to see every piece of the puzzle; you will be lost otherwise.

Because of the Avengers series’ interweaving aspects, and the way they are epitomized in the supergroup blockbuster, The Avengers, this series makes for an awesome movie marathon.  As it continues, I suspect that The Avengers will become the highest grossing movie series in history, eventually beating out the Harry Potter movies (sorry fans).  The interconnectivity in this project was and is an ingenious marketing plan: audiences are always going to want more. The form of the series invites audiences to binge-watch it, much like a Netflix series. Get your popcorn ready and get comfortable in front of your TV or computer; you are going to be awake for a while.

by Matthew Picus '16
mpicus@gm.slc.edu

Cohen reviews Jonze' latest Academy Award-winning film

Spike_Jonze_-_Her.jpg

Spike Jonze' makes his debut as a screenwriter in his new film Her, the first he has directed since 2009's Where the Wild Things Are. Her offers a plausible, thought-provoking vision of what our increasingly technology driven culture may look like in the near future, anchored by an intensely felt romance between a recently divorced, heartbroken man and an artificial intelligence. In this sense, Her qualifies as science fiction, but the futuristic setting is secondary to the emotion. At its core, Her is a love story about how and why we love and what happens in the moments in between when we're still figuring it all out.

In the case of Theodore Twombly, wonderfully played by Joaquin Phoenix, figuring it out means finding a way to move on from a devastating break-up. A year after his wife leaves him, and still refusing to sign divorce papers, Theodore works in an office where he writes moving, heartfelt letters for people who want to send letters to loved ones but do not possess his unique way with words. His ability to speak into his computer and watch as the words appear instantly on the screen is one of many small details included in the film that help us to and believe and feel immersed in this futuristic world. For example, Theodore comes home from work depressed and mouths "melancholy song" into what looks like thin air. But then all of a sudden, "Off You" by The Breeders, a suitably melancholy choice, starts playing, instantly triggered by his request. Her is filled with moments like this that emphasize the relationship between humans and machines and how machines have completely adapted to our everyday emotional needs.

It's all surprisingly believable. The film's central plot point is the relationship between Theodore and Samantha, a first-of-its-kind artificial intelligence brought to life by the voice of Scarlett Johansson. Their romance works because their relationship evolves in much the same way a real relationship would. Samantha and Theodore's love grows as they learn from one another; she discovers the complexities of human connection while he rediscovers his capacity to love and to be loved.  

Her_Premier_NYFF_2013_(cropped).jpg

Of course, there is always the nagging suspicion that Samantha is nothing more than a series of complex algorithms, therefore their relationship cannot be real in the same way that a relationship between two humans can. This is addressed by the film and handled with care. There are no clear-cut answers, though the ending of the film, best left unspoiled, provides a subtle insight into the filmmaker's intentions. This is one of those films whose ending will leave you contemplating what it all means for days after you have left the theater.

Cast of 'Her' from left to right: Joaquin Phoenix, Director Spike Jonze, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde

Cast of 'Her' from left to right: Joaquin Phoenix, Director Spike Jonze, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde

Ultimately, Her provides no easy answers, but it does raise a number of important questions about the nature of love. It is uncompromisingly honest in its depiction of the messiness of love; the pain and sorrow that accompany the joy. It embraces it all, tackling the subjects of intimacy and love with a sensitivity that only someone who has ever felt such emotions could have conjured. Audiences will recognize this and appreciate this compassionate, thoughtful and unflinchingly honest film for the powerful feelings it evokes. The film is incredibly moving at times, and hilarious at others. It's gorgeously shot and scored, and the performances are sublime. Much like love, it's an emotional roller coaster not for the feint of heart, but in the end, Her is well worth the journey. 

by Anthony Verone '17
acohen1@gm.slc.edu