Never in all my years as a BAFTA member — 32, to be precise — have I been so astonished on the day the nominations were announced. My shock was compounded by the Oscar line-up.
My favourite films of the year — and I hasten to add not entirely because they were directed by women — were Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay; Belle, directed by Amma Asante; and Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie.
Selma is a loving memoir of a time that was both horrible and hopeful. I am old enough to remember the civil rights movement. In the 1930s, my late mother worked for the Department of Public Assistance in Philadelphia, trying to better the appalling conditions suffered by black Americans living in deprived neighbourhoods. How could one forget the image she described of local butchers barking at her that they would give her only rotting meat for her caseload because “they’re animals — they don’t know the difference.” During World War II, my mother served in the U.S. Army at Camp Pickett, Virginia, and was nearly given a dishonourable discharge for insubordination when she protested to her superior officer the treatment of black GIs and WACs. She told my sister and me that the Italian and German POWs were given the run of the camp, but not the African-American soldiers; when the WACs marched, some white locals jeered at the “Waccoons.” My London play A Room at Camp Pickett arose from this.
So fast-forward to the civil rights movement. I remember the fire hoses being turned on demonstrators. I remember all of us at home — including our home-help, Josephine — being made by my indomitable mom to sit down on Aug. 28, 1963 to hear Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech. After the Watts riots, I remember her saying, “Nine million people concentrated with fury and frustration cannot long be contained behind barricades.”
Selma, the movie, is a brilliant piece of cinema that gets to the guts of the movement. David Oyelowo’s measured performance made me feel I was in the room with Martin Luther King. This was a Best Actor certainty for me. It is truly beyond belief he is not top of the running. Ava DuVernay took a mammoth story and created a great film in its own right whilst expressing the vital message about race in America then and now. Here we are in 2015, dealing with the ugliness of Ferguson, of Trayvon Martin and of Michael Brown, of Eric Garner. To many it seems like Groundhog Day — plus ca change.
But films like Selma, with outstanding performances from even the briefest of cameos, are essential for a wide, new, young audience knowing nothing about the hideous legacy of Jim Crow. It occurred to me when British friends asked me, “But who is Selma? Thelma?” that the word simply did not resonate with people outside the U.S., hence BAFTA’s shunning of the production. They simply could not relate to the iconic story. I have lived in the UK for nearly 40 years but was shaken to the core by Selma. But Oscar? How could the American Academy shut this out? It is gratifying that the song by John Legend and Common is nominated, but nothing else?
This is the first year in which I have been at a total loss as to where to place my final votes. I wanted to vote for Selma in every category, including one for Lady O. I wanted to vote for the beautiful costumes and sets of Belle and, most gorgeous of all, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, its lead actress. She was nominated in the BAFTA Rising Star category (it was won by Jack O’Connell), but she and the film ought to have been in major running, including the superb direction by Amma Asante. Oscar has also ignored this stunning film about a West Indian girl adopted by a British nobleman who eventually presides over a case that inspires the anti-slavery movement. The first UK picture to be shot in true 4K, using Sony’s F65 CineAlta digital production camera, it was British to the core with a fine score by Rachel Portman, so all the more mystified am I by its absence from the final BAFTA voting.
What does this mean? I agonised over my votes for Best Picture and other categories, wanting so much to vote for Selma, Belle and Unbroken. I did not find Boyhood, Whiplash, Birdman or The Grand Budapest Hotel in any remote way as important to the world as the great films of Amma Asante, Ava DuVernay and Angelina Jolie.
As a woman I am angry, as a film creative I am bewildered, and as a white American I am embittered, truly embittered.