Straying From the Party Line

Straying from the Party Line: Black-ish

So what checklist questions does “Black-ish” not check off? 
  • It doesn’t bring different economic classes together. We’ve seen this before on the show’s ABC neighbor “Modern Family”, but it’s less of a problem here. On that show, our heroes are very concerned with social justice issues but seem totally unaware of their extreme economic privilege, making the show hard to watch. Dre and his family, by contrast, are very aware of their privilege, and how precious and precarious it is. One recurring gag will be Dre encouraging his son to make poor friends and failing.
  • There are no secrets or escalations or twists: This show is a real throwback to an earlier era of gentler pilots. There is no sword of Damocles here. There aren’t even any potential romances for the kids yet. It’s a low conflict show. This brings us to…
  • Trouble won’t walk in the door: This is often a concern for family shows and also for shows about advertising executives (which is to say, “Mad Men”). Dre lives a fairly drama-free life: He’s only in danger of ennui. But the show has now gone for 150 episodes, so that’s turned out to be enough of a driver. But this brings us back to what we discussed last time, when Dre was hurt by something that would only hurt Dre. Dre’s life will be fairly easy, but he’s a volatile character on the inside. He’s a tinderbox, so we never know what he’ll perceive as trouble that we (especially blithe white viewers such as I) wouldn’t regard as a problem. He may not break bad like Walter White, but he, too, has suffered a life of big and small humiliations that have keyed him up, creating enough potential drama to sustain a series.

Straying from the Party Line: The “Passive” Protagonist of The Farewell

There were many Western ways for The Farewell to end: 
  • Billi can’t take it anymore and confronts her Nai Nai with the truth.
  • Billi agrees to go along with the deception, but someone else unexpectedly snaps and confesses.
  • Billi agrees to go along with the deception but the truth comes out accidentally.
  • Nai Nai figures out something’s going and gets the truth through interrogation.
In each case, this would happen around the ¾ point, and the fallout from the lie coming out would supply the drama for the final quarter of the film. I was fairly sure that one of these would happen. But I thought of one more possibility:
  • Billi agrees to go along with the deception, but as they say good bye, Nai Nai slyly hints that she knew all along and appreciates that nobody told her.
As we moved along, I started to think that was the most likely.

But then we get to the actual ending: Billi agrees to go along with the deception, and leaves without the truth ever coming out, and Nai Nai never gives any real hint that she knows the truth. The ending card implies that Nai Nai never found out and survived because of that.

This totally breaks our western rules of “big lie” storytelling. Big lies must come out! Once the rock has been rolled uphill, it must be released, come barreling back down and knock everybody flat.

Wang is defiantly refusing to give us what we expect and demand. This is the same conflict Billi has with her family. Wang is saying to us, “That’s the confrontational American way of doing things and you’re sure that it’s the only way, but there’s a gentler Chinese way, and our way can work better than your way, if you just learn to go with the flow.” No confrontation, no narrative climax, no release.

But, crucially, Wang knows she is defying our expectations. She’s not just saying, “Oh, did I create a passive protagonist? Whoops, I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to do that.” She is creating tension by pointedly defying our expectations in every scene and that tension is powering her movie.

And the scene at the climax where Billi must run across town to forge a new medical report before the end of the wedding is absolutely crucial. Suddenly, she must improvise and actively participate in the plan to do nothing. She must act to maintain her lack of action. The ending would feel like a much bigger fizzle if she had not been forced into action like that, showing that she’d switched sides definitively.

Rulebook Casefile: Physical Vulnerability in The Farewell

I say in my checklist that characters should be both emotionally and physically vulnerable, but is that true in The Farewell

Billi is very emotionally vulnerable, but physical vulnerability barely comes into the story. But there is just one brief, odd moment that injects a hint of physical vulnerability. We see Billi come home to her New York apartment and jump for her life when she faces every New Yorker’s greatest fear: Hearing someone inside their apartment. Then she realizes the “intruder” is a bird …but there’s no window open, so how did a bird get in her apartment? She can’t figure it out. She opens a window and shoos it out, and the mystery is never solved. But later, in her Chinese hotel room, it happens again with another bird.

What does the bird represent? The symbolism is thankfully left vague. (The bird is death? Her conscience? Her fear of not fitting in?  Her grandmother?) But I think the main thing it accomplishes is giving the heroine just a moment of fear and physical vulnerability, which increases our bond.

Even if your story takes place almost entirely on the emotional level, it’s good to include at least a little moment where the heroine feels physically vulnerable, just to ground things.

When I give people notes, I often worry that they’ll hit a note too hard.  Sometimes I give a second set of notes on a project and I see that they have.  If you read something like my checklist and think, “Oh, yeah, that does sort of feel like it’s missing, I could add a moment like that,” see if you can find the subtlest possible way to add that element. Just a hint goes a long way.

Straying from the Party Line: Chris’s Lack of Metaphor Family, Argument Tactic, Strong Motivation, Goals, Insistence, and Decision-Making Ability in “Get Out”

So according to our checklist, Chris seems like a rather deficient hero in Get Out. Let’s look at at all the character tests he fails:

Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Just very slightly.  He talks a little blacker to Rod than he does to her (“Yo, you at work?”) but for the most part he speaks rather generically.  He’s code-switching, and around white people he’s studiously generic in his metaphor family.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Not really, and he loses every argument he has in the movie.  He’ll try things like, “That was a dollar, you just threw a dollar out the window” when she throws away his cigarette, but it’s a halfhearted attempt and fails.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
His motivation is that Rose is all he has in the world (other than his dog and Rod) but we don’t understand that until halfway through.  Before he admits that, we wonder why he’s putting up with this.
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
He’s not very goal oriented.  In retrospect, we can figure that he might have seen this as an opportunity to have a family again, but he mainly just pastes on a smile in the first half and doesn’t try hard to impress.  He’s very polite but not eager to please.   
And is the hero willing to let others know that they lack his most valuable quality, subtly or directly?
He gently points out to Rose her seeming naivete, but mainly just reacts to everyone with pointedly-quizzical looks.  He laughs off Rod.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
Absolutely none, as Dean jokingly points out.  And she drove, so he can’t leave without her approval. 
In the commentary, Peele points out something interesting:

  • “I could talk all day about how amazing Daniel [Kaluuya, who plays Chris,] is. I mean, at some point we realized, y’know, Chris doesn’t have very many lines in this. And it’s true. His role is to just kinda get out of here without the shit hitting the fan. You know even in these scenes here [taking abuse from Jeremy at dinner] he’s just trying to minimize the awkwardness and make it through the weekend and get out, so that’s why he’s not gonna pop off, and of course, he’s in love, so we understand why you’re on your best behavior at your love’s parents’ house.”

Chris is told by Dean early on that his role as boyfriend is to say “She’s right, I’m wrong,” as often as possible, but of course there’s a racial component to that as well. Chris is expected to say that to every white person. When the cop arrives, the black man is in deadly peril, but the white girl has power over the cop, which she happily flexes.

As I say above, Chris shows more personality in his brief conversations with Rod than with anyone else. Long before he gets sent to the sunken place, Chris is hiding inside himself, and we understand that, so we still find him compelling in spite of his lack of some of the surface traits we crave. He’s somewhat self-less (but not selfless) and generic, but we sense more under the surface of Kaluuya’s performance, so we don’t reject him.
And it’s essential that we see his great photography at the beginning: the ultimate way to show the soul of the voiceless.

Straying from the Party Line (Except for the Deleted Scenes): Chris Never Gets His Hopes Up in “Get Out”

As I watch movies for this blog, I find that most movies meet most steps of the structure I expect them to have. Sometimes, when they don’t, I find that they actually did at the script stage, and even in the shooting stage, but the scene got deleted from the final edit. Think of how Star Wars once started from Luke’s point of view, or The Terminator once had a shift to the proactive.

One beat that Get Out doesn’t have in its final version is the one I would expect to find right before the midpoint disaster: “the hero has a little fun and gets excited about the possibility of success.”

But if you look at the deleted scenes on the DVD you’ll see that such a scene did once happen in that spot. There is still a scene at that spot in the movie where Chris meets Jim the blind art dealer, who apologizes for the racism of the other guests and praises Chris’s photography. But originally the scene went further: As Rose’s brother Jeremy tried to call Chris away for badminton, Jim went so far as to offer Chris a show in his gallery in the coming weeks. Chris is very happy to hear that:

  • Jeremy: Yo Chris, can we borrow you? I need to kick someone’s ass in badminton.
  • Chris to Jim: Nice to meet you man
  • Jim: Stop by the gallery, it’s about time you had a solo show.
  • Chris: Really?
  • Jim: Mm-Hm
  • Chris: Wow, okay, that’d be…that’d be a gamechanger!
  • Jim: We’ll get together sometime.

Emotionally, for the audience, this is just the right beat: We want to go on an emotional rollercoaster with the hero. We want his efforts in “the easy way” to seemingly be rewarded. We want to get our hopes up, right along with him, and then share his agony when it all comes crashing down at the midpoint (more like the 2/3 point in this movie)

So why was this cut? In his commentary on the deleted scenes, Peele doesn’t address this dialogue exchange, because he’s already talking about how the unnecessary badminton sequence had to go. I got the impression that the only reason this exchange was cut was because it overlapped with that sequence.

But it can go. After all, why would Jim say this to Chris? Whether or not Jim wins the auction, he knows Chris isn’t going to live through the weekend. Possibly he would say it just to keep Chris happy until the auction is over and he can be seized, but that’s a bit of a stretch.

Ultimately, this beat just existed to increase the emotional gutpunch of the midpoint disaster for the audience, but once the movie was firing on cylinders, it wasn’t necessary. The movie was impactful enough without it. But it’s telling that Peele did feel it was necessary to hit this expected beat in the script stage, before he knew his movie wouldn’t need it.

Straying from the Party Line: The Abundance of Adjectives and Adverbs in “The God of Small Things”

You may have noticed that in each of my annotations I’ve praised opening sentences for having no adjectives or adverbs, and in our last post I was especially critical of two adjectives together that require a comma. Well let’s look at the opening sentence of Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things”:

  • May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month

The dreaded stumbling-block comma! Indeed this first chapter is an avalanche of adjectives, with sentences like this one to be found later:

  • She heard (on Sophie Mol’s behalf) the soft sounds of the red mud and the hard sounds of the orange laterite that spoiled the shining coffin polish.

Five adjectives in one sentence! But let’s go back and look at the rest of that opening paragraphs to figure out how Roy gets away with using so many adjectives without trying the reader’s patience:

  • The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.

Ten more adjectives and, what’s worse, two adverbs! Yet it’s a glorious opening paragraph, is it not? So what is she doing?

  • First of all, it’s intriguingly odd how she imputes human emotions to nature: “Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously.” She’s not really describing what we would see, she’s generating a strange world we would never see if we didn’t see it through her eyes. Simply saying “bluebottles hum” wouldn’t do that job.
  • She’s using fresh adjectives of her own invention: We get the first of many portmanteaus with “dustgreen”. Later we’ll get “wetgreen” and “thunderdarkness”. When the mom passes away, Roy will point out that 31 is “a viable die-able age” (Roy knows she’s got a great, pithy phrase there, and so she reuses it four times in the book!)
  • Her adjectives create conflict: Black crows (death) gorge (a violent verb) on bright mangos (life).  “Dustgreen” is death and life in one word.  She’s not just painting a pretty tableau, she’s imbuing nature with life so that it can fight itself. Her adjectives clash.  

Ultimately, she will justify her non-leanness, her abundance of detail, with the book’s title. Who is the God of Small Things? It’s Roy herself. The whole idea is that tragedies can only be remembered as, and are perhaps best understood as, an accumulation of small things. Why does Sophie (and the book’s actual victim of injustice, Velutha) die? What is the one cause? There isn’t one, because there are hundreds of small things that added up to it.

This is a memory book (though the book is third-person and not entirely limited to Rahel’s firsthand memories). Rahel is trying to piece it all back together and sifting through portentous images and impressions that she accumulated that week, which she and Roy are now re-examining in great detail. Fine-grained descriptions are the whole point. Somewhere in these small things, there is a god who will tell us why these people had to die.

Straying from the Party Line: The Big Motivation Hole (And Big Coincidence) in “Killing Floor”

Lee Child insists that he doesn’t research, doesn’t outline, and doesn’t revise. He just sits down and writes, and the most he ever deletes is seven words, which he finds painful to do because “it’s inefficient.” He is, almost certainly, lying. Writers are strongly encouraged to lie about such things by their publishers. It creates the impression that the voice of the muses flows through the author’s pen directly onto the page, perfect and immutable. The reader is communing with the heavens. This is not a product that someone has clumsily constructed at great effort, tweaked and calibrated to manipulate our emotions.

But at times, Child’s claim is somewhat convincing, because “Killing Floor” sure could have used more revision than it got. This was Child’s first novel, and he seems to have fallen into a classic beginner’s trap: The motivation hole. We begin with a neat set-up. Jack Reacher is a former MP who decided to drop off the grid and become a hobo. His only living relative is a brother he hasn’t seen in years, but the last time her heard from him, his brother mentioned that he’d passed through a town in Georgia and heard some rumors about a Depression-era blues guitarist they both like. One day Reacher is on a greyhound bus that passes a few miles away from the town and impulsive gets off and walks into town. But an unidentified corpse is found nearby and the cops decide that the drifter must be the killer. And then we’re off to the races.

This is a neat set up for a book: A falsely-accused drifter in a small town has to clear his name. We haven’t seen that a lot before. It’s more compelling than just a cop on the job. And it’s fun to root for a homeless guy for once.

But then we run into the motivation hole, because after about 100 pages, Reacher has convinced the local detective Finlay he couldn’t have done it (the bus driver alibied him). Normally, at this point, our hero could have decided to keep helping with the murder because he’s intrigued, or out of civic duty, and maybe that was the original plan, but Child, to his credit, seems to have listened to his hero, who told him that he didn’t really care. Reacher was free to go, and he was inclined to do so, so the book was over without the crime being solved.

To keep him there, Child pulls out the world’s biggest coincidence: before Reacher can leave town, the corpse is identified as his brother. True, his brother had told him about the town, but it’s sheer coincidence that Reacher showed up an hour after his brother was killed, especially because, as far as Reacher knew, his brother had just passed through once, months ago.

Obviously, this gives Reacher the secondary motivation he needs to get through the rest of the book: revenge, resulting in a far more clichéd book.

But how do we deal with that massive coincidence? Child simply has Reacher marvel over it for a minute:

  • I leaned up against his warm metal flank and thought.
  • The United States is a giant country. Millions of square miles. Best part of three hundred million people. I hadn’t seen Joe for seven years, and he hadn’t seen me, but we’d ended up in exactly the same tiny spot, eight hours apart. I’d walked within fifty yards of where his body had been lying. That was one hell of a big coincidence. It was almost unbelievable. So Finlay was doing me a big favor by treating it like a coincidence. He should be trying to tear my alibi apart. Maybe he already was. Maybe he was already on the phone to Tampa, checking again.
  • But he wouldn’t find anything, because it was a coincidence. No point going over and over it. I was only in Margrave because of a crazy last-minute whim. If I’d taken a minute longer looking at the guy’s map, the bus would have been past the cloverleaf and I’d have forgotten all about Margrave. I’d have gone on up to Atlanta and never known anything about Joe. It might have taken another seven years before the news caught up with me. So there was no point getting all stirred up about the coincidence. The only thing I had to do was to decide what the hell I was going to do about it.

Got that, reader? “No point going over and over it.” “No point getting all stirred up about the coincidence.” We’re moving on.

Now John August has a rule of coincidences which states that you can get away with one big coincidence in each story as long as it hurts the hero instead of helping him. And this seems to fit at first: The victim being Reacher’s brother makes no sense in the current narrative, but it makes perfect sense if Reacher came to town to kill his estranged brother. So he should be back in the detective’s crosshairs.

But he’s not. The detective just accepts the coincidence. Moving on. It’s absurd.

This fits what I said last time: Novel readers love voice, and its close cousin, character. At this point, we love Reacher, and we’ll go anywhere with him, even into absurdity. We’re glad he didn’t stick around out of civic duty, because this is a fully-realized character who wouldn’t do that, so we accept the coincidence so that the book can keep going.

Don’t get me wrong: We’re annoyed, and we wish Child had revised to avoid creating a motivation hole that could only be patched by a big coincidence. We’re a little alienated by that, but ultimately, we go with it, because we like this guy and we like this case and we want to see how he kicks everybody’s ass (and shoots a lot of them in the head.)

Next time: Another thing that should have been revised!

Straying from the Party Line: The Unsustainability of “The Good Place”

I don’t want to talk about it much, for fear of ruining this amazing first season for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, but suffice it to say that the season finale (episode 13) ends with a twist that completely blows up the concept of “The Good Place”. Season 2 is an entirely different show which also ends with a finale that blows everything up, and season 3 began last week, starting over from scratch. It certainly seems impossible that this show will last for 125 episodes like “Parks and Recreation” did.

Why do this? Schur seems to be tired of stretching things out for “six seasons and a movie” on his previous shows and now he’s ready to just blow his wad on a jaw-dropping, mind-bending thrill ride, one with no interest in creating familiar comforts, week after week and year after year. And the result is certainly amazing to watch.

The show’s biggest twist arrived at the end of episode 13, but there were little twist-cliffhangers at the end of every episode, which is part of what made it so bingeable. Many of these twists seemed juicy enough to sustain multiple episodes, but Schur and his writers wrung each of them dry one episode at a time, almost willfully. The show never had romance foremost on its mind, though of course that’s a classic slow-burn show sustainer, but this show had one episode (ep 10, iirc) where it quickly tried out and dismissed every possible pairing, then moved on. (Some would be revisited in season 2, and I got the feeling they wished they hadn’t already dismissed them in season 1)

But the second season, while great, is not as great as the first, which begs the question, could they have sustained the original premise if they had wanted to? Could Eleanor’s quest to prove she belonged in heaven by becoming a better person every week have gone on for a syndication-friendly 100 episodes? How many different ways are there to try to be a better person? For that matter, could the mystery of how she got there have unspooled much more slowly?

Maybe? The number one strength that used to be prized in sitcom writers was the ability to create the illusion of growth and change without ever upsetting the status quo. If the show had stuck with its original premise, it could have easily gotten dreadful, or perhaps it could have gotten richer as it progressed far more gradually. We’ll never know.

Let’s look at more checklist boxes this show doesn’t check:
Will trouble walk in the door on a regular basis?
No, it’s not really a strong plot engine.
Does the hero feel that this flaw cannot be resolved until it’s time to abandon the world of the show?
Just the opposite.
Does the end of the pilot leave the thematic dilemma wide open and irresolvable?
No, it does seem resolvable: It’s better (but harder) to become better than to be yourself.
These would have had to be tweaked. There would have to be a more episodic plot engine, where Eleanor, could, perhaps, have interacted with one new arrival in every episode. Eleanor’s flaw would have needed more of an upside: The others in heaven would have had to find her cynicism more charming (like Hawkeye on “MASH”). The thematic dilemma (be yourself or be a better person) would have had to be tilted less heavily to one side, which is to say that she can’t have been so resolutely awful and irredeemable in her previous life. We would have to think “Maybe she should just be herself”, which is something we never think on the actual show.

I came up with this checklist on the assumption that every show needs to last for at least 100 episodes to be syndicatable and make its money back, which was the old rule. But the rules are changing. I have no idea how much money this show made from Netflix binges, but maybe that money gave it a reason to be less like weekly comfort food and more of an intentionally unsatiating binge fest. Maybe Bell and Danson didn’t want to sign 7 year contracts, so the show never intended to last very long?

So should this change how you write pilots? That’s up to you. Do you want to show that you can create a classically satisfying and sustainable show, or that you’re here to do something new, even if that means burning it all down?

Straying from the Party Line: The Pros and Cons of the Very High Concept

When you’re just starting out, it’s hard to get noticed, but one way to do it is with a very-high-concept pilot. I’ve said before that it’s good if there’s something bold, weird, and/or never-before-seen about the concept of your spec pilot. “The Good Place” qualifies in spades.

(Of course, the rules are different when you’re trying to get noticed vs. when you’re actually trying to get something on the air. A script like “The Good Place” is actually a very hard sell to a network, and NBC seems to have only reluctantly aired it, because Schur had made them a lot of money and because the script attracted Bell and Danson.)

But this script also shows how hard it is to write a very-high-concept pilot that satisfies traditional audience expectations. Let’s look at some of the checklist items it didn’t check:
Does the concept satisfy the urges that get people to love and recommend this type of series?
 Well, the execution does, because it’s very funny and the leads are very appealing, so everybody who sees it loves it and recommends it to others.  But the concept is a hard sell.  What was it the Talking Heads said: Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens?   It’s hard to see how the show would work until you see it. 
Does the pilot contain all of the entertainment value inherent in the premise (rather than just setting everything up and promising that the fun will start next week)?
Not really.  There’s an awful lot of set-up here and Eleanor won’t really start trying to be a better person until next week.
If this is a premise pilot, is the basic premise established by the midpoint, leaving time for a foreshortened typical episode story in the second half?
No.  There’s a lot of set-up and Eleanor won’t really try to start becoming a better person until next week. 
Does the pilot provide at least one satisfactory stand-alone story (even if that story is just the accomplishment of a mini-goal)?
Not really.  She doesn’t achieve any goals.   Her accomplishment is to find a co-conspirator
By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
Not really.  Lots of plot in this episode.
Does the series fit within one genre (or compatible sub-genres)?
No, it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before, so its not comfortable to watch.  We don't say, Ah yes, the familiar comforts of this genre!
Does the series have authentic things to say about this type of setting?
It’s too weird to say.
It simply takes a long time to establish this never-seen-before setting. We spend the entire teaser and first act just learning the rules before we find out anything about our hero. There’s even an orientation video that we and Eleanor have to stop and watch to help us understand. Normally, power points are a bad sign, especially if we don’t care about the hero yet, but in this case, the show gets away with it, because the world is so interesting (and Danson is so appealing).

The downside of this long set-up is that it takes a long time to meet our hero and the real plot driver for the series is not established until the final minutes, leaving no time for a foreshortened example of a typical plot, which viewers crave before they commit to the show. We don’t get to see Chidi helping her yet.

But this show was not a big hit on first airing. It was only when it appeared on Netflix and people could binge the first season that it caught on, to the extent that it has. This wasn’t made by Netflix, it’s still sort of a “Netflix show”, paced more for a binge than for watching week to week, and I think that’s becoming more of the norm, so maybe you can get away with it more now. Or at least Schur can. For a spec premise pilot by an unknown writer, you’d probably still want to have a foreshortened plot taking up the second half, to show that the show will work, which means that your pilot maybe can’t be this super-high-concept.

Don’t get me wrong: In this case, the big risk pays off beautifully.  Your jaw is on the floor the whole time in a delighted way.  As the above still shows, the rules are actually fun to figure out, and the break from sitcom routine is very refreshing.  Schur’s other sitcom on the air now, “Brooklyn 9-9” has what could be called an overly-familiar TV setting, which is a limitation that show must overcome.  This show, to put it mildly, doesn’t have that issue.  Yes, it doesn’t meet all of our expectations, but it teaches us to rewrite our expectations, and once we realize how appealing it is, we’re more than willing to do that.


Straying From the Party Line: Is King Humanized Enough in Selma?

We’ve talked about grievances harbored by Selma critics, but let’s move on to one harbored by the movie’s fans: Why didn’t David Oyelowo get an Oscar nomination for playing MLK? And they’re right: It’s bullshit. It’s an amazing, deeply nuanced performance. Let’s look at some reasons it was skipped over:

  • First of all, we have to deal with the most obvious: racism from the mostly white Academy. DuVernay didn’t get a nomination either, which is even crazier. As seen in the Maureen Dowd piece I cited last week, a lot of the white reaction to this movie, even from liberals, was nakedly racist. The Academy later tried to make its voting base more diverse.
  • Whenever black people are excluded from anything there’s always the Catch-22 argument: “They just haven’t paid their dues!” DuVernay pointed out that she knew that she wouldn’t get a nomination because she didn’t even know anybody in the DGA. As for Oyelowo, before I saw this, I only knew him as the underwritten sidekick from the British “24”-knock-off “Spooks” (called “MI-5” in America), where he didn’t set off any “future Oscar winner” alarm bells. Neither was “overdue” for an Oscar.
  • But there’s also a far more practical reason: Paramount didn’t send out any awards screeners of the movie. Every movie that has the slightest chance of winning anything sends these out, and the voting body (most of whom are retired) relies on them. Indeed, I had a newborn at the time and I was entirely relying on screeners that year, and I inevitably resented that Selma was the one contender I had to get off my ass and pay for (though I knew I was an jerk for feeling that way.) But of course the real question is, why didn’t Paramount send any out? Was it because they were dismissive towards their own movie for racial reasons? Were they throwing their weight behind another (white?) movie they liked better? I never saw anybody investigate this and I lacked the wherewithal to do it myself (I had a newborn!)

But of course, the movie itself did get a nomination, so enough people got out to see it, so DuVernay and Oyelowo should have gotten their well-deserved nominations. All three of the controversies we discussed last week might have sabotaged DuVernay, but none of them should have affected Oyelowo.

But that leaves the question: Was there anything in the writing that hurt Oyelowo’s chances? Did King go on enough of a journey to satisfy the Academy?

In a piece from the time, I talked about how Hollywood had traditionally told civil rights stories through white eyes, not just for racist and economic reasons, but also because these stories were more naturally ironic: These characters switched sides, which is a longer, more ironic journey.

King, in the movie, definitely uses ironic tactics (trying to trigger violence through non-violence), and he does have a small shift in those tactics when he reverses the second march (after a literal “come to Jesus” moment), but he never switches sides or decides that he was all wrong at the beginning. He’s always in the right morally, and always basically on the right track tactically. We’re hardwired not to like those stories or heroes as much, and not award them as much.

But there’s one last question: Could or should the movie have humanized King more? Should it have brought him down to our level more? I was looking for the opening scene’s “moment of humanity” and the closest I could find was when he’s futzing with his ascot and says “Wait till the brothers back home see me like this, they’ll get a good laugh.” This humanizes him enough for us to care about him, but we never really have a moment of “Oh, he’s just a normal guy like us” The movie never really pierces that historical-figure-gravity. He never comically trips and falls down the stairs. We never see him practice how a scene will go and then get flustered when it goes the opposite way. He never gets embarrassed when he thinks someone is waving at him but they’re actually waving at someone else.

Should they have done this? Probably not.

The film certainly shows that King was no saint (showing his adultery), but he’s still undeniably great. Except for in that one tape scene, he’s always heroic, a brilliant strategist, justifiably righteous, and just…weighty. Important. He’s Martin Luther King. It’s amazing and overdue that DuVernay and Oyelowo brought that majesty to the screen, but Academy voters prefer heroes that are a little more humble…and humbled.

They decide they just won’t bring King down to our level. It’s an understandable choice, but I wonder if it hurt the movie’s appeal to audiences and cost Oyelowo his nomination.