And the Oscar Goes To … Spearheaders of Smear Campaigns

Every film fan, myself included, has had a split reaction to the Oscar nominations when they’re announced each year. The snubs, surprises and generally expected nominees generate worldwide debate, in addition to lighting up the internet with comment wars galore.

However in the midst of this year’s nominations, there is one snubbed movie that matters more in a socio-political lens rather than the general “that movie got robbed!” reaction. The film is “Selma”: a biopic about Dr. Martin Luther King and his inspiring involvement in leading the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. The march ultimately led to  President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the penultimate Voting Rights Act, which ended discrimination in the right to vote, especially benefiting racial minorities in the South the most.

The film’s late 2014 release to qualify for the Oscars opened the door for potential controversy, given that nearly all biopics display historical inaccuracies to varying degrees. When these issues are found, the smearing begins to try and tarnish the film’s reputation for not getting everything right.

The main controversy at hand for “Selma” is the inaccurate portrayal of then President Lyndon B. Johnson’s stance on civil rights at the time when MLK and his fellow activists were trying to organize the march. Once various historians dug up the dirt, the smear campaigns were perfectly timed and soon began to hurt the film’s chances at earning awards of high prestige. Furthermore, the addition of a rushed awards campaign by the film’s distributor, Paramount Pictures and the stale demographics of the Academy members (94% white, 77% male and a median age of 63), the stirring of the pot for controversy started to boil at the max.

Once the Oscar nominations were announced, “Selma” earned only two for Best Picture and Original Song. Notably left out in the dust were actor David Oyelowo, who marvelously played MLK, and director Ava DuVernay, who would’ve been the first female African-American filmmaker to be nominated for Best Director in Oscar history. Worse enough, most of the conquered smearing was unjustly aimed at DuVernay for letting the film’s perceived historical inaccuracies make it onto screen, all of which wrongfully fuel the fire of the sporadically ongoing sexism and racial prejudice in Hollywood.

“Selma” however is certainly not the first film Academy Award-hopeful film to be the face of a smear campaign for historical inaccuracies. Ben Affleck’s “Argo” drew heat for omitting the role of the Canadian embassy in rescuing six U.S. diplomats during the 1979-1981 Iran Hostage Crisis. Nonetheless, the film went on to win Best Picture.

A more important case though, which draws a few similarities to the fate of “Selma’s” smearing of wrongfully retelling history, was 2012’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” which was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who a few years before became the first female to win the Best Director Oscar for “The Hurt Locker.” The film was already controversial because it detailed the decade-long hunt to capture Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, but it drew significant heat for its enhanced interrogation scenes that supposedly gained important information to eventually finding bin Laden.

Despite the immense critical and commercial success the film achieved, it was lambasted by some as pro-torture propaganda and even the acting CIA director at the time said the impression of the success gained from obtaining information from the enhanced interrogation scenes were false. Like the smearing tactics used against “Selma,” director Bigelow and even her “Hurt Locker” writer Mark Boal were slammed for their handling of the material. “Zero Dark Thirty” still earned several Oscar nominations, but not Bigelow for Best Director.

With all these factors placed into one large ball, it’s difficult to pick which side is the largest to blame for when these smear campaigns happen. Usually the Academy members would be singled out first because of their unchanging politics, but for me, all of this begins with the smear campaigns.

Lets all think long and hard of one true story movie that won Best Picture and got all of its history correct, okay? Answer: there isn’t one.

Seriously, both the process and almost too exact timing of smear campaigns against historical dramas contending for awards needs to come to an end. All these things do is label filmmakers with unwanted and sometimes very insensitive comments of racial prejudice, gender discrimination or being completely ignorant of history. Furthermore, they motivate the already fragmented politics of Academy members where they’ll nominate a movie for various categories, but exclude the director from a Best Director nomination because they’re perceived as the main blame for a film’s historical inaccuracies.

The scandal surrounding “Selma” has shown smearing at its worst, because it affected one of the best movies of 2014, made by a very talented and passionate predominant African American cast and crew. Most of all, it has potentially lowered the offering of future projects for its visionary black female director.

Ultimately, the main lesson we can all learn from this is how the politics of Hollywood will never be consistent. We’re one year removed from where “12 Years a Slave” won Best Picture at last year’s Oscars, however the full measure the Academy took to honor the film with more prestigious nominations that included Director and Actor for African Americans Steve McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofor, was not even replicated in close to a half measure for “Selma” this year.

Hollywood is an industry where people have the power to rewrite parts of history. Therefore, if we’ve become so accustomed to movies doing this, it’s shouldn’t always be necessary to smear their reputation and make it known more as a movie that got some facts wrong. Historically-based movies are best based on a director’s subjective vision of an event in history, and their film(s) should ultimately be  remembered the most for the critical and commercial success they achieved.

 

Tyler Christian is a fourth-year film & media studies major. He can be reached at tmchrist@uci.edu