With its Christmas Day opening fast approaching, Paramount’s acclaimed racial drama Selma finally had its official West Coast Academy screening Saturday afternoon at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in their Beverly Hills headquarters. Reportedly about 250 attendees showed, a slow turnout for the pre-holiday screening (later that night Into The Woods had about double the number) even though director Ava DuVernay, star David Oyelowo and others were advertised for the post- Q&A.
The DVD screener of the film had landed in Oscar voter mailboxes the day before so that could have held back attendance. I am told applause at the end was enthusiastic and strong, as it has been for most screenings of this very fine film since its stirring debut at AFI Fest in November.
Selma ranks high on many pundits lists for key Oscar nominations so there was interest in how it would actually play with the largely white, male-dominated Academy, which now numbers 6,124 voting members. Although it failed to score any SAG nominations, the film has won numerous Golden Globe and Critics Choice noms in addition to a place on the AFI Top Movies Of The Year list. Clearly it is on a fast track for Oscar attention.
One Academy member who was at yesterday’s screening predicts six to seven nominations but cautions that the overt politicizing of the movie, which has hit the zeitgeist in turns of timeliness, might not be the best way to win over Academy voters who like to make up their own minds.
I was wondering that myself after seeing 13 key cast members including Oyelowo as well as director DuVernay staging a very high-profile photo op at last Sunday’s New York premiere of the film, where they protested the highly controversial death of Eric Garner by wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts and posing with their hands up.
Of course, African-American Garner famously said those words as he was wrestled to the ground by white policemen. Coming on the heels of all the unrest and riots in Ferguson, Mo., the timing for the film – which depicts the 1964 Martin Luther King-led march on Selma – is extraordinarily uncanny and has made the picture one that could ride to awards season glory on the increasing importance of its message.
Paramount this week even urged press members to sign up for their website tie in called #MARCHON, which when I checked had more than 17,000 “marchers” spouting their own messages about numerous things that could be construed as political in nature. At that NY premiere Oyelowo told a Hollywood trade, “Thankfully, we’re seeing a lot of the same good sides of protests happening with these protests, i.e., that they are nonviolent, and that we are now seeing black and white and everything in between coming together against injustice. I think that the next step (is) for us to be able to really articulate our demands. What is it we want out of this? In Selma, it was voting rights, and now it’s police reform.”
Before a Q&A for the film that I moderated three weeks ago, Oyelowo told me it was important to get the film’s message across, but that it was also important that they are careful about not over-exploiting these current events in doing that.
DuVernay, who was a publicist before turning into a filmmaker, has not been shy about jumping into the conversation and comparing her film directly to events that are happening now. During that same Q&A – as protests were heating up again in Ferguson after the grand jury decision not to indict a white officer in the killing of Michael Brown, but before the grand jury decision not to indict in the Garner case – DuVernay told a packed, and rapt, industry crowd at the DGA that the film is really part of a continuum.
“I’ve said before that Selma is a mirror of Ferguson, and Ferguson is a mirror of Selma, and it’s time to really look in the mirror,” DuVernay said. “I mean, we wear black today in solidarity for the people who are protesting around the world about this decision. And so whatever you think about it politically, I think it’s about the voice of people, and we all as Americans, have the right to speak our peace. And when we are not allowed to do that, that’s when frustrations happen, and tensions rise. So I really hope this film is a conversation starter for folks, and certainly just reminding people that nothing that we’re experiencing now is new at all.”
But could thrusting Selma directly into that conversation, where events can quickly change the message, be a risky move for a movie just opening, and an Oscar campaign that seems to be going very well? Saturday’s ambush murder of two NYC police officers at the hands of a clearly disturbed African-American man, who indicated on social media the killings were payback for the deaths of Garner and Brown, could heat up passions on the other side. Staging visible protests at a movie premiere could be at cross purposes, putting the film smack in the middle of a debate that takes away from the powerful, and powerfully told, story of the movie itself .
One veteran industry observer told me today that if this is a strategy, it might not be well advised.
“It seems once you conflate a movie non-organically with current events, that you’re diminishing the film as film, and casting it instead in sociopolitical terms, before the public and the press do it for you,” the observer told me. “It seems messaged and contrived the way they’re doing it.”
The strongest weapon Paramount has in its cannon is this film itself. The fact that the film, rather incredibly, represents only the first time that King has been the key figure in a theatrical feature gives it a gravitas all its own. If people see it the way it was meant to be seen when it was made, and not completely submerged by current events beyond its control, there’s probably no doubt this Selma will also be #Marchingon to the Dolby Theatre come Feb. 22.