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A static view of Martin Luther King

Why the awards haven’t gone to “Selma”

Nicholas Barber | February 4th 2015

Why hasn’t David Oyelowo been nominated for an Oscar or a BAFTA? As the star of the new Martin Luther King film, “Selma”, Oyelowo was tipped to win on both sides of the Atlantic, and his exclusion from the shortlists has prompted lots of outraged commentary—including from Oyelowo himself—much of it accusing the American and British film academies of racism. This seems unfair. “12 Years a Slave” cleaned up at last year’s awards, after all, so it is more likely that Oyelowo has been a victim of bad timing. Amanda Berry, BAFTA’s chief executive, noted that “Selma” wasn’t screened in Britain until the end of November, and that many BAFTA voters didn’t get around to seeing it. But there may be another reason for the dearth of acting nominations. It could be that the film simply doesn’t let Oyelowo go to the emotional and physical extremes that awards voters are looking for.

“Selma” isn’t a cradle-to-grave biopic, but a drama which, like Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”, concentrates on a brief, pivotal episode in its subject’s life. It encompasses just a few weeks in 1965, when King takes his civil-rights campaign to a redneck Alabama town, and proposes a march to Montgomery, the state capital, 50 miles away. As wise as it was of the film’s director, Ava DuVernay, to narrow her focus in this way, she doesn’t give her protagonist much space in which to grow and change: he is already a Nobel laureate when the narrative begins. Compare that with the characters played by Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything”, Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game” and Julianne Moore in “Still Alice”. They all plunge from the heights of health to the depths of disability. But, in “Selma”, King is wearily noble from start to finish.

The film itself (which has been nominated for an Oscar in the Best Picture category) is good rather than great. It’s a thoughtful and all-too-topical argument for the power of non-violent protest, and it includes some police brutality which makes you flinch. But many of its scenes consist of two men sitting opposite each other and spelling out their political positions: at times, the film is so small-scale and static that it feels like a radio play with pictures. And this lack of brio extends to its stolid characterisation of the ever-dignified King.

When he fusses with his ascot in the film’s opening scene, it’s not because he is vain or nervous, it’s because he is pondering the symbolic impact of his neckwear. When his wife mentions his adultery, his response is so solemn that it only adds to his gravitas. And when he halts a protest march just when it is getting under way, he offers his frustrated supporters a single gnomic sentence of explanation. Unsmiling and uncompromising, he always speaks as if he were standing at a lectern or in a pulpit, profoundly aware of his historical significance.

This isn’t to belittle Oyelowo’s achievement in embodying a magnetic and credible King. But he is too cool, calm and collected to have an “Oscar clip”; that is, he doesn’t have any of those grandstanding scenes that get viewers reaching for their hankies and their awards-voting slips. That kind of sequence would have required DuVernay to see King as a vulnerable human being rather than a towering icon, and she isn’t prepared to do so. That’s the trouble with “Selma”. Oyelowo’s performance may be pretty much flawless, but the character DuVernay gives him is pretty much flawless, too.

Selma British release February 6th. Out now in America

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