This week marks our nation’s annual celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. day. As we honor a truly great American icon we keep in mind two parallel and pertinent events that are occurring in America. One is the increasing awareness of the epidemic of police killings of black men (and black women too, though not as frequently). “The Root” enumerates 20 unarmed African Americans and the stories surrounding their killings by police.
The killing of Tamir Rice, is particularly troubling. Tamir, 12, was killed by a Cleveland cop as he waved a toy gun around in a park – this very officer had been fired from a suburban Cleveland police force for being too impulsive and lacking in good judgment. The Cleveland police department hired him without doing a background check.
As protests have sprung up across the country, with proclamations like “Black Lives Matter,” surely King would have led the marchers across America to protest these terrible killings and seek solutions.
The second event revolves around the movie “Selma.” The film, currently in theaters and directed by a black woman, stars a black actor and focuses on MLK’s campaign for voting rights in America.
While the reviews are positive, neither the director – an African American woman – nor the actor who vividly portrays Dr. King’s struggle to achieve the right to vote for African Americans – have received an Oscar nomination.
In the movie, King’s political skills are in sharp relief: he refused to be cowed by President Lyndon Johnson. He led his followers through a phalanx of dangerously racist cops and locals wielding nightsticks nail studded clubs, whips and guns. These scenes are depicted so graphically I could hardly watch.
The tense phone conversations between King and LBJ have viewers on pins and needles. LBJ capitulates and eventually passes the Voting Rights Act, because he has to. He accuses King of reckless opportunism, but the civil rights leader triumphs because he makes the case that without voting rights, blacks are denied power to throw out white office holders who deny them the right to vote, the right to march, the right to be free of harassment and discrimination. Martin Luther King, a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, wins the day,
There’s something else – something troubling - being played out on another totally different stage: neither the African American female director nor the actor playing King were nominated for Academy Awards.
So how important is an Oscar nomination anyway? Very important, and for a variety of reasons. Over the weekend CNN featured two men debating whether the Academy was racist. The white commentator said no, absolutely not, The Help and 12 Years A Slave, the first about black maids in the South as the civil rights movement unfolded and the latter, about a free black man in the 1850s kidnapped and sold into slavery, both won major awards in the last few years . The African American commentator laughed. “I thought you were kidding. The Academy is only comfortable acknowledging black actors playing servants or slaves. But in a film like Selma, black actors and directors don’t get any recognition.”
The director of “Selma,” Ava DuVernay, is a black woman who for years sought studio backing to make the movie. And, as David Carr wrote in the New York Times this week, “No club in the United States — over the last several years, the academy has been around 93 percent white, 76 percent male and an average of 63 years old — is in more need of new blood than Hollywood.”
Carr further argues for the importance of Oscar recognition. He says the Oscars, “convey recognition at the highest level of a craft that is seen by millions.”
These two seemingly vastly different issues are not so different after all. They are both focused on the value of African American life in America and African American contributions, social, political, and cultural. Yes, we have an African American president and that is a milestone, but America still suffers from the ugly legacy of slavery and I fear that we continue to minimize the value of African American life and African American achievement in America.
2015 is a historic year - it marks the 50th anniversary of both the Selma marches and the Voting Rights Act. We could recognize these events by acknowledging the risk black men face every day at the hands of the police – and that police officers have a hard job – and supporting campaigns like “Black Lives Matter.” We need also to recognize the talent and achievement of black directors, actors and producers at the Oscars. Martin Luther King would have been very proud, I think, of Selma, and especially its directors, actors, and producers. Happy MLK celebration to all.