American Sniper vs Selma: Is the Academy Racist?

By Kat Lawson

Since the Academy Award nominees were announced last month, there has been much debate about the names and titles being celebrated, not only in the film world but also across many different facets of society, as well as outrage and confusion. Every year there is debate about which films are nominated and subsequently win at the Oscars; which film was better, who deserved it more, etc. It is one of the great things about society: Everyone has a different opinion. But this year the debate has been slightly different. Whilst there has been a group of films that have been recognised across the board this awards season – The Theory of Everything, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Whiplash, to name three – these have been overshadowed in terms of Oscar nominee discussion as the films that have dominated so much of the discussion since the Academy Award nominees were announced have been Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper and Ava DuVerney’s Selma.

Both films are based on the real life stories of American public figures and both had a limited release on Christmas Day 2014, but that’s where the similarities end.

Selma tells the story of Martin Luther King, one of the most famous civil rights activists who has ever lived, a man whose story is taught in classrooms the world over; whose words, beliefs and ideals still mean so much to so many people, not just in the USA but in every corner of the planet more than 45 years after his death.

American Sniper, on the other hand, re-counts the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle – deadliest sniper in the history of the American Military with 160 confirmed kills during his four tours of Iraq before being discharged in 2009 – and has gone on to become the highest grossing war film in North America, only a month after its wide release.

So, two films have come out at the same time depicting the lives of two men very influential in American society, albeit in completely different ways. So, what’s the big deal? Why so much drama off screen?

Well, for starters, both films tackle very important contemporary issues, the Civil Rights Movement that we associate Martin Luther King with may be over done with in the sense that racial segregation is now banned and the laws have changed to allow people of colour the same rights as white people. However, if 2014 proved anything it is that racism is still very much alive, armed and dangerous, as white supremacy and police brutality against people of colour dominated the headlines last year. “#BlackLivesMatter” and “#ICantBreath” are still active tags on most social media platforms, as debate rages on about everything from gun laws to police training and weapons, as well as the proposed “Mike Brown Law” which would see police officers fitted with body cameras being heavily campaigned for as Michael Brown’s killer Darren Wilson walks free.

The war in Iraq, The War on Terror, Terrorism, Violence in the Middle East, 9/11, the Taliban, Islamic State, all are very evocative words/phrases and all very contentious issues at the moment, as they have been for the past 13 years.  Terrorist attacks are on our news screens virtually every day, from suicide bombers blowing up town centres to prisoners being burned alive inside metal cages, but so too is Islamophobia – the Chapel Hill shootings less than two weeks ago being blamed on the victims being “in the wrong place at the wrong time” (the wrong place being inside their own home) are proof of that. A quick search on Twitter for reactions to American Sniper brought me across well thought out balanced opinions on the film, both positive and negative, but also a barrage of people claiming it has inspired them to buy a gun to go out and shoot the “savages”/”ragheads”.

There is no denying it, the issues dealt with in both films are important and very relevant to modern society, but what has got everyone talking is how differently the two films have been treated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Whilst both films are nominated for Best Picture, Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay – who has become the first black female director to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture – only received one other nomination from the Academy; the Academy Award for Best Original Song: “Glory”. Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper on the other hand was nominated for six awards. Along with Best Picture, the film received nominations for: Best Actor (Bradley Cooper), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing.

The lack of recognition given to Selma, a film which depicts a struggle so many people across the world are still facing, compared to that given to American Sniper, a film which can be seen to glamorise war and has people becoming increasingly concerned for the safety of Iraqis and people of Arabic descent in the West, has lead to a lot of discussion over whether or not the Academy is racist.

Whilst many have said it is a simple case of one film being better than the other and the Academy knowing what they are talking about when it comes to good cinema, this isn’t the first time the Academy has been accused of being racist.

One such incident took place in March 1973 at the 45th Academy Awards Hollywood legend Marlon Brando was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. In recent years, Brando had become involved with the American Indian Movement (AIM) and chose to boycott the event in protest of both the ongoing “Incident at Wounded Knee” as well as the treatment and representation of Native Americans by the mainstream American media. In his place Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather, a Native American civil rights activist of Apache, Yaqui and Pueblo ancestry, with a 15 page speech for her to give at the awards ceremony. However, before the event when she met with the producer he threatened to have her physically removed and/or arrested if she spoke for more than 60 seconds on stage. Her comments therefore were improvised and Brando’s full speech was instead given backstage in front of the press. Following the ceremony, the Academy came under fire for its treatment of Sacheen Littlefeather at the awards and the treatment of Native Americans in Hollywood.

So, the Academy has a history discrimination against people of colour – as does Hollywood in general – with non-white characters often reduced to nothing more plot devices or punch lines. American Sniper itself has come under criticism, with later publications of Chris Kyle’s original memoir – upon which the film is based – having had a chapter removed (“Punching Out Scruff Face”) after it was revealed the incident described in the chapter was falsified. So too has it been criticised by a number of American Military vets, many claiming that Chris Kyle’s experience in Iraq was nothing like their experiences in Iraq. One of those who has spoken out against the film is Cavalry Scout Sniper Garett Reppenhagen who served in Iraq at the same time as Chris Kyle. Reppenhagen explains his experiences with the Iraqi people were not with the savages American Sniper portrays but some of the most welcoming and hospitable people he ever met. It is worth noting also that Reppenhagen says that no one person has the definitive view on the war in Iraq, neither his nor Kyle’s view of Iraq is the absolute view and that is something worth remembering whilst watching American Sniper.

This all leads us back to the original question, is the Academy racist? Or is it that American Sniper is just a better film than Selma? It would be easy just to say that American Sniper is the better film of the two, but when comparing the amount of nominations and awards received by Selma from other outlets to the amount received by American Sniper and the accuracy of Selma being questioned much less than American Sniper, the evidence would suggest that Selma is in fact the better of the two and that the Academy along with Hollywood in general is carrying on a long standing tradition of discrimination.