Awards Season Movies

What Happened to Fruitvale Station and The Butler at the Oscars This Year?

This morning, the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences announced the nominations for this year’s Academy Awards. A lot of the nominations were pretty expected (American Hustle and Gravity scored ten) and some were big surprises (where did Nebraska come from?)

In terms of snubs, a lot of people are talking about Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson, which are some big omissions. However, there are two films missing that will surely raise some serious questions: Fruitvale Station and Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

Both films received heaps of critical acclaim in the run up to the awards season. Fruitvale Station was the belle of the ball at the Sundance Film Festival, and a number of critics awards were given to the film and it’s lead Michael B. Jordan. The Butler was a smash success with critics and audiences, grossing well over $100 million in the US alone. Oprah Winfrey, in her first major role in over a decade, was considered a shoo-in for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, buoyed by her Screen Actors Guild nomination (she was, however, shut out of the Golden Globes).

It’s quite mind-boggling that two films considered two of the year’s best by critics would be completely ignored by the Academy. So what happened?

Here’s what I think, and it’s not pretty.

What’s worth noting is that Fruitvale Station and The Butler, as well as Oscar-nominated 12 Years a Slave, were all led by black actors and dealt with very difficult (and that’s putting it mildly) racial topics such as racial profiling, segregation, and of course, slavery. 12 Years, with nine Oscar  nominations, has received almost universal declarations as a must-see cinematic classic. What might have happened was that 12 Years simply overshadowed the other two movies in the consciousnesses of Academy voters, considered their related, although very different, content and themes about African Americans.

That, however, is problematic: why couldn’t three films helmed by black filmmakers succeed at the Academy Awards? Even if The Butler wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, where was Oprah’s nomination for Best Supporting Actress? The Screen Actors Guild Awards are typically a precursor to the Oscars, and Oprah’s nomination there should’ve guaranteed her a slot. Instead, Sally Hawkins of Blue Jasmine was nominated instead (all of the other women who were nominated at the SAGs were nominated for Oscars). The same goes for Forrest Whitaker, although I honestly wasn’t expecting a nomination for him. I was really hoping a nod would be passed Michael B. Jordan’s way for a star-making turn in Fruitvale, but Leonardio DiCaprio for Wolf of Wall Street and Christian Bale for American Hustle were slotted in. I was honestly troubled when the Golden Globe nominations came out and neither film was to be found. However, I figured that the HFPA, made up of foreign journalists, just couldn’t relate to mostly American-specific racial issues. I hoped that the Oscars would correct that mistake and both films would get their due.

Of course, it is entirely possible that this isn’t about race at all, and that those nominated simply turned in better performances and films. There are some things I would consider before writing off these concerns. Racial tensions have been very high in the past twelve months, so it’s fair for people, myself included, to jump to race as a possible reason for the Oscar snubs. Also, black actors and films are still grossly under-represented in both Oscar nominations and wins (remember, the first black woman to win a Best Actress Oscar was thirteen years ago). It would’ve been a very powerful statement if three films featuring primarily Black filmmakers were present at this year’s ceremony. Alas, 12 Years a Slave will be the only film representing black cinema at the ceremony, and will probably take home a few awards.

Unless the Academy pulls a The Color Purple and the film goes home empty handed.

Please feel free to share your thoughts about the films and the 2014 Academy Awards in the comments.

1 comment on “What Happened to Fruitvale Station and The Butler at the Oscars This Year?

  1. I do think you’re correct that there is only so much space (in the minds of academy voters) to consider racially themed movies. One other factor might be that audiences’ memories seem to be getting shorter. None of the heavily nominated movies premiered any earlier than October. Both Fruitvale Station and The Butler were summer releases.

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