Despite my best intentions, I haven’t yet seen Selma, a film on which I was counting to freshen my memories of the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King’s central role in preaching the gospel of non-violent resistance. It’s been many years since we UCLA students were lucky enough to see and hear Dr. King in person. On a beautiful sunny day, he spoke at an outdoor rally attended by thousands of campus folk. He galvanized us then, and I’ve been looking forward to seeing David Oyelowo (so surprisingly snubbed by Oscar voters) in this historic role.
Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the bestowers of Oscars, generally dote on heroes, of which Dr. King must be considered a shining modern example. But more and more, lately, they’ve also been giving Oscar kudos to men who play real-life figures with severe flaws, whether physical or mental. Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking, Steve Carell as John du Pont: all earned Oscar nominations for tormented roles. Bradley Cooper too has been honored for taking on a biographical part, that of sharpshooter Chris Kyle in American Sniper. Though I know the backstory, I haven’t seen that potential blockbuster, so I’m not clear on whether the heroic aspects of Kyle’s character outweigh the darkness of his life and death. Which leaves Michael Keaton, who in Birdman fascinatingly negotiates the distance between superhero and actor with feet of clay.
I hardly blame African-American movie fans for feeling upset that a bona fide hero from their community has been overlooked. There’s an unfortunate assumption in this country that black men mostly confine their heroics to sports arenas and musical performance venues. While on the treadmill at my gym, I was watching the lead-up to Sunday’s big football play-off games. (Hey, while exercising I’ll watch just about anything, the better to distract my mind from the sweat equity I’m trying to build.) Football, at its best, inspires a lovely camaraderie between black and white, both on the field and in the broadcast booth. I saw articulate African-American pundits, many of them former sports heroes in their own right, oohing and ahing over the abilities of young African-American tackles and running backs. As a player, if you can play well and refrain from mauling lesser mortals during your down-time, a hero’s welcome awaits you.
At the movies, most biopics starring African-American leading men focus on athletes and musicians. In 2014 alone, there was a Jimi Hendrix biopic (Jimi: All is By My Side), and one featuring the hardest working man in showbiz, James Brown (Get on Up). Having recently read Inside the Godfather, a compilation of anecdotes by Brown’s son Daryl and Michael P. Chabries, I know that the very talented Brown led a life chockfull of torment. Oscar, anyone? But though there has been high critical praise for the lead performance of Chadwick Boseman (who’d also played Jackie Robinson in 42), the film did not soar.
Not many big-budget films dealing with black history feature someone known for his mind, rather than his muscle or his musical chops. In 2013, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom was also pretty much ignored by Oscar voters. The star of that film, Idris Elba, is a powerful and attractive actor. He’s also British (as so many of today’s top black actors seem to be), and I have a hunch he could step into James Bond’s wingtips in a few years. It’s good to see black actors starring in heroic biopics, but there’s no reason they can’t be our fantasy heroes as well.