Credit: Atsushi Nishijima

The Academy Awards are just days away—which means it’s time to buckle down and really get to know this year’s Best Picture contenders. Today’s deep-dive takes a look at Ava DuVernay’s portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the eve of the 1964 voting rights marches in Selma, Ala.

Name: Selma

Tweetable description: A group of civil rights activists march to protest that #BlackLivesMatter… in 1964

Movie Math: Selma = Malcolm X + (The Help – white savior complex) x (Lincoln + black agency)

Release date: Limited release: December 25, 2014; wide release: January 9, 2015

DVD release date: May 2015

Run time: 128 minutes

Box office: First weekend (wide): $11 million; total domestic (so far): $48.5 million

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%

What Chris Nashawaty said: “[DuVernay] makes the backroom drudgery of compromise, gamesmanship, and veiled threats burn with intimacy and intensity … Not only has she made one of the most powerful films of the year, she’s given us a necessary reminder of what King did for this country, and how much is left to be done.”

Best Line: “Those who have gone before us say ‘no more!’ No more! NO MORE! That means protest! That means march! That means disturb the peace! That means jail! That means risk! That is hard!”

Worst Line: “Get me J. Edgar Hoover.” Many interpreted this line as implying that President Lyndon B. Johnson directly ordered the FBI’s attempts to blackmail King into committing suicide; it’s fed much of the controversy over historical accuracy that has threatened to derail the movie’s Oscar chances.

Number of Oscar nods: Two: Best Picture and Best Original Song (John Legend and Common)

The movie’s Oscar history: Tom Wilkinson (who plays Johnson) has two Best Supporting Actor nominations for In the Bedroom and Michael Clayton. Tim Roth (George Wallace) has one nod for Rob Roy. Producer Oprah Winfrey was nominated in 1989 for her acting in The Color Purple. The film’s other three producers have impressive resumes as well: Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner won for their work on 12 Years a Slave, while Christian Colson has an Oscar for producing Slumdog Millionaire.

What it’s won thus far: Common and John Legend’s Ferguson-citing collaboration “Glory” picked up the Golden Globe for Best Song. That’s Selma’s only major award so far, since Paramount did not distribute screeners in time for guild awards contention.

Why it should win: Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the most important and beloved figures in American history. As a result, making a film about his life that satisfies everyone is a nearly impossible task. Merely producing a competent King biopic would be an impressive achievement in itself—but Selma is much more than “competent.” It’s intelligent, insightful, and often beautiful. It reminds us how relevant history can be to the present, while also questioning the hero worship that so often plagues historical biopics. Both King and Johnson are presented as complicated human beings rather than one-dimensional icons, and the scenes of activist meetings visualize the blood, sweat, and tears that went into making history.

An Oscar win for Selma would prove that the Academy is ready to recognize a complicated historical movie. More importantly, it would demonstrate the Academy’s willingness to reward black filmmakers for diverse work. 12 Years a Slave deserved its wins last year, but Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor were still playing slaves. It would’ve been a great change of pace to see David Oyelowo nominated this year for playing one of American history’s greatest leaders instead of a slave, butler, prostitute, or drug dealer. That ship has unfortunately sailed, but a Best Picture win for the movie would help make up for it.

Why it shouldn’t win: Selma is a subtle movie. Its entire point is how history is made by individual people struggling as hard as they can, day in and day out, against the everyday evils of oppression. This take is refreshing for a historical movie, but as a result it lacks the bombastic punch of most “social issue” Best Picture winners. Selma’s portrayal of Johnson is nuanced but debatable, as evidenced by the troubling J. Edgar Hoover dialogue described above. It’s come under heavy fire for this. Former Johnson aide Joseph A. Califano argued in the Washington Post back in December that Selma’s depiction of Johnson should bar it from awards contention. This silly argument ignores how historical movies always have to cut corners in service of the story they want to tell. However, if Academy members decide they suddenly want to be sticklers for “accuracy,” it could (and maybe already did) sink Selma.

Also, this movie didn’t take 12 years to make.

Vegas Odds: 33/1, according to Las Vegas Sports Betting.

  • Movie
  • 127 minutes