'Selma's David Oyelowo Highlights Hollywood's Refusal To Make People Of Color The Center Of Their Own Narrative
I keep waiting for the cast of Selma to stop saying or doing things that I find so on point, but apparently today is not going to be that day. On Sunday, during the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, David Oyelowo was asked about Selma's Oscars snub and the outrage that followed from it. (You know, like the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag on Twitter and the multiple celebrities who have come forward to speak out about the need for diversity in Hollywood.) However, instead of simply speaking about that alone, Oyelowo went in-depth about why he feels that Selma was snubbed this particular award season — and his theory is one that has been unfortunately reflected time and time again in the Hollywood system.
"No, look, historically — this is truly my feeling, I felt this before the situation we're talking about and I feel it now — generally speaking, we, as black people, have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings or being at the center of our own narrative," said Oyelowo at the festival, pointing to the fact that Denzel Washington and Sidney Poitier were passed over for Malcolm X and Heat of the Night but won awards for Glory and Lilies of the Field respectively. "...We have been slaves, we have been domestic servants, we have been criminals, we have been all of those things. But we have been leaders, we have been kings, we have been those who changed the world."
And, the thing is, Oyelowo isn't wrong. It's exactly that kind of system that allows for films like Exodus , which can be set in Egypt and feature solely Caucasian actors except in the slave or servant roles, the kind of system that allows for films like The Help, which stars Emma Stone as the Caucasian protagonist through whose eyes the narrative of African-American slaves is being told, that allows for films like 12 Years a Slave to receive accolades while films like Selma are unable to match it in awards acclaim. It does seem apparent, even before Selma's Oscars snub, that black actors are either celebrated for their roles as servants or slaves or outright erased in narratives that should feature them as leaders. (I'm still looking at you, Exodus.)
In addition, he pointed out that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 50 years ago and "there has been no film where Dr. King has been the center of his own narrative up until now. That's because up until 12 Years a Slave and The Butler did so well, both critically and at the box-office, films like this were told through the eyes of white protagonists because there is a fear of white guilt." In fact, Oyelowo even reveals that Paramount Pictures greenlit Selma to be made because of the success of 12 Years a Slave and The Butler — as before their success it would have been too big of a gamble for film studios to take the chance on telling these stories that need to be told.
What it all comes down to, time and time again, is that diversity in Hollywood is stunted by the reliance on old formulas to create a box office smash exactly like X or Y. Sure, it's just good business sense to make a thousand films taking place during the time of slavery with a white protagonist the audience can relate to when you consider how many films of that exact same type have been wild successes, but it sends a bad message to children of color. It says that their stories are only worth telling if eyes through which it is being told aren't theirs. It says that their stories don't matter or, when they do, will have to fight for years to ever reach a wider audience. Worse, it says that when their stories do reach that audience, it won't be to wide acclaim or recognition.
And as a child of color who had to grow up on Disney movies featuring mostly white protagonists until the first black princess, The Princess and the Frog, joined the lineup when I was 19 years old, as a woman of color who had to watch 12 Years a Slave get all of the awards and Selma get none of them, the message hits particularly hard. Films and TV shows are supposed to reflect the current landscape and issues of the time, are supposed to be what media students will be studying in the future to get a good idea of the pop culture atmosphere in our time. Isn't it way beyond time that films start reflecting as diverse and broad a human experience as TV shows do?
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