When the cast of the 2014 movie “Selma” wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts in honor of Eric Garner, whom New York police officers brutally killed that year, the simple but powerful act offended voting members of the Academy and contributed to the film’s lack of recognition at the Oscars, according to star David Oyelowo.
“I remember at the premiere of ‘Selma,’ us wearing ‘I Can’t Breathe’ T-shirts in protest. And members of the Academy called into the studio and our producers, saying, ‘How dare they do that? Why are they stirring s-h-i-t?’ and ‘We are not going to vote for that film because we do not think it’s their place to be doing that.’” the actor said in an interview Thursday with Screen International in the U.K. “That literally happened.”
“It’s part of why that film didn’t get everything that people feel it should have got, and it birthed #OscarsSoWhite,” he continued, referring to activist April Reign’s 2015 hashtag that launched a movement urging greater diversity and inclusion in Hollywood. “They used their privilege to deny a film on the basis of what they valued in the world.”
The film’s director, Ava DuVernay, confirmed the story later Thursday.
Representatives for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars, responded in a subsequent tweet, saying they were “committed to progress.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise the film’s cast was punished for speaking truth to power. Four years later, the Academy — despite its incremental efforts to diversify its membership in the years since Oscars So White — awarded Best Picture to “Green Book,” an anodyne, inaccurate, saccharine and regressive portrayal of race in America.
When it was released in 2014, “Selma” — which depicts Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama — was one of the year’s most critically acclaimed films and considered a major Oscar contender.
But some opponents of the film launched a campaign against DuVernay, claiming the film was too negative toward President Lyndon B. Johnson. While the film received a Best Picture nomination and won Best Original Song at the 2015 Oscars, it was glaringly not nominated in other major categories, like Best Director for DuVernay and Best Actor for Oyelowo, who played King.
That year and the next, all 20 of the acting nominees were white performers. While the number of Black nominees, as well as nominees of color generally, has ebbed and flowed since, there is little evidence of any lasting progress.
At the most recent Oscars in February, all but one acting nominee was white. The only actor of color nominated was Cynthia Erivo for playing Harriet Tubman — among many Black actors who have been nominated only for playing slaves, maids or other roles perpetuating Black stereotypes.
In the history of the Oscars, no Black director has ever won Best Director, no Black women have ever been nominated, and only two films by Black directors have won Best Picture: Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” and Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight.”
Film industry leaders have often pointed to those recent films to pat themselves on the back, despite having a long way to go toward demonstrating that they fully value Black filmmakers and stories.
“The audience has already changed,” Oyelowo said Thursday, noting that the onus is on the film industry’s awards bodies, like the Academy, “to catch up.”