Reel Talk: Selma vs. American Sniper—what’s with all the controversy?

posters By Sean van der Heijden '16

Staff Writer/Copy Editor

Ever since Oscar nominations were announced (see them here), there has been a ton of controversy surrounding two of the Best Picture nominees—Selma and American Sniper. The former was snubbed in a bunch of categories by almost every major awards ceremony outside of the Golden Globes, and the latter was embraced fully by Oscar voters.

Selma has gone on to offer free screenings around the country—including here in Saratoga. Meanwhile, American Sniper has become by far the highest-grossing January release ever. There are avid supporters and haters of each movie, so let me boil it down for you: Selma has become the left-wing poster boy while American Sniper is the right-wing one. And it all has to do with race issues and historical accuracy, sort of.

Selma portrays the historic civil rights march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery. It is directed masterfully by Ava DuVernay with commanding performances all around, especially from David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. So what’s the problem? Well, DuVernay and Oyelowo weren’t nominated for Oscars, leading many people to categorize the Academy as being racist. Additionally, the film’s portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson comes off as pretty villainous and self-motivated, when, according to tape recordings and historical testimony, he was actually much more invested in the civil rights movement.

As to this controversy, DuVernay has stated she “wasn't interested in making a white-savior movie” and wanted to focus on the people of Selma. And that’s where the controversy gets complicated. To purposefully portray a white character as antagonistic in order to make the African-American characters more heroic is just ridiculous. Why does it have to be a white savior movie? Why can’t it just be about a bunch of people doing the right thing and helping each other out, because that’s the right thing to do? That’s more historically accurate, too, so changing it seems unnecessary and, as many critics are pointing out, reverse-racist. And yet, the screenplay for Selma was actually written mainly by a white man, which everybody seems to be ignoring, and whites end up being “saviors” at the end, which the film even mentions. So the whole thing is just confusing.

American Sniper, on the other hand, portrays the life of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL credited with the most sniper kills in history who (spoiler alert if you don’t know the story) was tragically killed by a veteran who he was helping out after the war. Driven by the best performance of Bradley Cooper’s career—which, unlike Oyelowo’s, was Oscar-nominated—the movie is a searing critique of the hardships of war on and off the battlefield. Or is it?

I’ve read testimonies of ex-Navy SEALs, relatives of Chris Kyle, and those who served with him. Half of them say that this is the most accurate war movie ever made, and the other half say it’s nothing like the truth. Almost every critic viewing the movie has never been to war, so that controversy will basically go nowhere. The film is beefed up a bit in order to add action scenes and is only a condensed version of his life, but it seemed pretty accurate to me in terms of what someone might go through.

As an accurate representation of Chris Kyle, again there is controversy. Many are calling him an American hero, while others think he was a racist, trigger-happy pig who enjoyed killing Muslims. I didn’t know the guy, but that description seems excessive. Their tagline of “the most lethal sniper in US history” doesn’t help, but this honestly boils down to a race issue as well: yes, obviously not all Muslims are extremists. In fact, the overwhelming majority of them aren’t. But in a war, on the battlefield, when your life and others’ are on the line, what decisions would you make?

All the controversy around Chris Kyle is interesting because recent films such as The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty—all on the same war, at different stages—received a lot of controversy, but nothing like this. Was Chris Kyle racist? I have no idea, but I think it all comes down to all the on-screen deaths perpetrated by him. The film starts out with him shooting a child—was the child innocent? Again, no idea. But people can throw race at this movie because the “enemy” in this case is mostly, well, a different race.

Just as a comparison, I want to look at WWII movies such as Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, or—more recently, Valkyrie, War Horse, and Fury. Some of these movies portray every German and every Nazi as pure evil. Was that true? Honestly, as the other half of the movies portray, no. Not all Germans were Nazi’s, and not all Nazi’s were particularly happy about being Nazi’s. But in this case, everybody’s white and there aren’t any Nazi’s around who are going to do anything about it, so nobody cares. Also, the crimes perpetrated by the Nazi’s were horrific, so justifying anyone who belonged to that party is tricky.

PLEASE NOTE: I’m not equating the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with WWII, and I’m not equating Islamophobia with racism against blacks. What I’m essentially trying to say here is any form of racism is bad—against African Americans, Muslims, whites—literally anybody. Both of these films show racism differently, and they are each just one interpretation of events.

The Academy’s response to the films is not necessarily the display of racism that everyone wants it to be. Is the Academy racist? I don’t think so. Are they sexist? Absolutely. Did that impact this year’s race? Probably a bit—DuVernay definitely should have been nominated, but as for Oyelowo, I think he just got edged out. A ton of great performances—such as Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler or Ralph Fiennes in the Grand Budapest Hotel—simply got edged out. In the latter two cases, though, race can not be seen as a “cause” of them missing out on a nomination—in Oyelowo’s case, it can be, and so it is (something Oyelowo himself has called ridiculous).

People like to stand behind their causes, and these two films have come to represent huge social movements. With Selma, it’s basically that racism is still prevalent in out society; with American Sniper, it’s either “war is great” or “we should never have been there in the first place.” The movies are obviously very different, but if you go in with an open mind—they are, after all, only movies—both are well-done, well-acted, moving, and entertaining.

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