As the Academy Awards swiftly approach, much debate has surfaced around which movie deserves to take home Best Picture. While respectably brilliant films like Whiplash and Grand Budapest Hotel have earned critical acclaim for stellar cinematography and great storylines, the standout competitors in the public eye appear to be Ava Duvernay's Selma and Clint Eastwood's American Sniper.
One is an incredibly depicted patriotic melodrama, vividly recounting the frontline experiences of Chris Kyle, a dignified Navy Seal who became the most lethal sniper in U.S. history. For just over two hours, viewers take an intense tour through the turmoil, triumph and trauma that plague a battle-tested war veteran. Knowing the picture is told from the perspective of Kyle adds an intangible element of appreciation and merit for his bravery, stripping assumptions of such heroes being heartless enforcers in the name of freedom. Even as the fight against war continues finding fuel for its ever-burning fire, there's a level of human connection with the character that makes this timely movie digestible for all.
The other film is a masterfully crafted transport into the racially charged south, offering a rare look at the transformative leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he empowered African Americans to take action against segregation for their right to vote. From start to finish, the emotional film embodies a compelling combination of courage, class, honesty and integrity. Through telling the timeless story of the march on Selma, viewers were able to clearly observe the sheer passion, intelligence and upstanding character that defined the civil rights movement. More than being beautifully shot and exceptionally written, the film more notably showed black people conquering the malice of hatred with an unspeakable tact, forcefully challenging history, yet non-confrontational to white America. It purposefully raised important questions, addressed relevant topics surrounding race, and sparked necessary conversations about where we stand as a nation amidst massive civil unrest.
With both presumed favorites earning equal praise in their own right, what underlying factor is dividing votes? How people understand the value and purpose of art.
As we've recently seen in the case of Kanye West defending Beyoncé at The Grammy's, insisting Beck forfeit his Album of the Year victory, the perception of art is a subtle, yet very common point of conflict amongst opinions. From its form, function and delivery -- artistry, as a term, seems to dodge singular definition, maintaining the limitless complexities that make it both disruptive and progressive. However, it also personifies the feeling of peace and reflection, sending individuals into moments introspection. To put it simply: art is tangibly indescribable, yet emotional detectable.
What shapes our concept of art is personal experience. What expands our concept of art is exploration, adventure and curiosity -- stepping outside of our comfort zone to see and feel more. This matters, because the things we're exposed to develop ultimately develop our viewpoint of the world around us. This includes our struggles, successes and everything in between. Further, as it's been throughout history, the most powerful and effective means of expressing this perception is through art -- singing, dancing, writing, painting and the like. The beauty of art is that it's not about being right or wrong, it's about sharing personal perspective. The more people who identify with or share a particular perspective, the more who will champion it.
When the Hollywood Reporter unveiled their first installment of the "Brutally Honest Oscar Ballot," publishing the unfiltered opinions of voting Academy Members on this year's nominations and picks to win, this disparity in perspective was evident. A longtime member of the Academy's 378-member branch public relations branch made the following comments about both films:
I'm tired of all this talk about 'snubs' - I thought every one of [the snubs] there was a justifiable reason. What no one wants to say out loud is that Selma is a well-crafted movie, but there's no art to it. If the movie had been directed by a 60-year-old white make, I don't think that people would have been carrying on about it to the level that they were.
On American Sniper:
American Sniper is the winner of the year, whether or not it gets a single statuette, because for all of us in the movie industry -- I don't care what your politics are -- it is literally the answer to a prayer... it shows that a movie can galvanize America and shows that people will go if you put something out they want to see.
These comments don't exhibit disrespect more than they reveal a sobering truth -- art is being judged. Not by a simulated machine, nor raffle or random selection. Artistry is being judged by people -- with their own unique perspectives and experiences. As the consequence of an institutional history, coupled with low voting participation by minority members of the industry, the staggering majority who vote are older white men and women. Therefore, the idea of a "snub", in many cases, isn't a byproduct of being black, but not having your voice included in the dialogue that determines an outcome. As a result, a very narrow scope is represented, causing a possibly less popular or favorable work to win.
While the seemingly obvious and common reaction is to call out the war between black and white, it seems more productive to discuss best methods to shift the lens. What can today's enlightened class of creators, thinkers and fans of the art do to bridge the gap of understanding on both sides? What progressive systems or structures can be established to evolve the way people perceive entertainment as artistry? Until these and other questions are answers, proverbial snubs will continue, moments will be missed, and bitterness will prevail.