President Obama, his family, and guests will watch the movie “Selma” tonight at the White House. Officials announced the screening shortly after the acclaimed Martin Luther King Jr. biopic was largely shut out of Academy Award nominations, though it did gain a spot on the “Best Picture” short list.
Did Mr. Obama order up the film fare as a means to quietly comment on “Selma” missing out on Best Director and Best Actor nominations? After all, this year’s overall list of nominees has been criticized as lacking in racial diversity. This trend launched the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite on Thursday, which trended in the United States for much of the day.
It’s unlikely that played into the White House entertainment decision. Officials say the screening has been planned for some time. That makes sense – the “Selma” cast and crew are invited, and presumably they had advance notice to arrange transportation. It’s the beginning of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, so what better time to screen a movie that shows one of his triumphant efforts? And Obama has made a point of showing big pictures that touch on big racial themes. In the past the White House has hosted showings of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” “Lincoln,” and “42,” a biopic about pioneering African-American baseball player Jackie Robinson.
Obama did not see last year’s Best Picture winner “12 Years a Slave” prior to its triumph. The film’s producers griped about this, saying (anonymously) that “Mandela” got the White House nod instead because it was produced by Obama donor Harvey Weinstein.
Officials denied this charge. The moral there is that pretty much every movie choice presidents make gets somebody mad, so they might as well see what they want.
So why didn’t “Selma” get more nominations? Race could be part of the story – Academy members are overwhelmingly white. But timing might be an issue as well. The film was released late in the year, perhaps too late to gain enough favorable notice.
“Despite having all the dressings of an awards-friendly film, the momentum never got going,” writes Associated Press film writer Lindsey Bahr.
“Selma” has also been criticized for its portrayal of former President Lyndon Johnson. He’s shown as reluctant to press for civil rights legislation. That was far from the case in real life, argued LBJ’s proponents. Former Johnson aide Joseph Califano wrote a scathing opinion piece to this effect in The Washington Post.
One of LBJ’s most loyal assistants, Jack Valenti, headed the Motion Picture Association of America for 38 years following his time in the White House. He was Hollywood’s lobbyist in Washington for a generation and was instrumental in the establishment of the current age-based film rating system.
Coincidence? Yes, probably. But it’s still interesting.