Oscar Talk: Selma, Whiplash and the High Price of Achievement

E:  Back in high school I had a good friend who was determined to compete as an athlete despite her asthma.  It was nearly a weekly occurrence to see her taken off the field hockey pitch in an ambulance; when she ran track in the spring,  a teammate was apparently assigned to catch her at the end of each race.  Though I respected the bravery involved, and her commitment to her team, and her desire to be the best she could, there came a point where I and many others started to wonder: how much of this can be good for her?  When does pushing your body become punishing it?  How much suffering is worth that goal?

And that, in turn, made me think about the lives of martyrs and various great men and women throughout history. Chances are good that they were similarly unreasonable.  Would sacrifices like my friend’s seem more worthwhile given a greater end game than just winning a high school meet – a college scholarship, perhaps, or a professional athletic career?  Or something even loftier, the pursuit of art, scientific breakthrough, the defense of one’s principles or religion or country?  How many of us, given the choice between a normal, rational life, and a great one, would rush past that societal norm to reach the goals only we can imagine?

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, that old friend and all her ambulance rides and the way she made me question the mixed messages society sends its children; strive for excellence, but not so much that you hurt yourself doing so. And maybe it’s because I saw Selma and Whiplash two days in a row, but they speak to me together on this same subject, that push past the reasonable into achievement.  On the surface we can all see their dissimilarities; one, the story of a civil rights tragedy turned to triumph, and the other the story of an abusive teacher/student relationship.  But a closer look reveals similar questions about the cost of human endeavor. At what price greatness?

The most obvious parallel to my friend’s situation, of course, is Whiplash.  When Miles Teller’s Andrew arrives at a Julliard-like music conservatory, it’s with one goal in mind; to be the best jazz drummer that ever lived, to be immortalized through his playing.  He goes so far as to tell his family that he covets Charlie Parker’s career even if it meant dying alone at 34 from alcohol abuse as Parker did. His overwhelming desire blossoms into danger when Andrew comes under the influence of a brutally demanding band leader, J. K. Simmon’s thick-armed perfectionist Fletcher, who believes that only emotional and physical violence can drive artists to find the genius within themselves.

What makes the story the most interesting, really, is its level of moral complexity.  Most of Andrew’s suffering is self-imposed.  He chooses a career his family doesn’t understand.  He distances himself from the charming girl he’s dating to prevent later heartbreak and divided focus.  He practices until his hands bleed, and then plunges them into an ice bath and goes back for more.  He’s the one who comes back, again and again, to Fletcher’s elite band, after the humiliations and violence and condemnations, the deliberate indignities.  The film asks us to question our instinctive reaction to Fletcher’s methods; like the famous Tiger Mother, is he right in saying that our propensity to overpraise our children keeps them from achieving their potential?  If Andrew actually can become great under Fletcher’s tutelage, which is his deepest wish, will it all be worth it?  It’s something I ask myself every time I see an ad for the appalling Dance Moms: are those methods necessary to produce such a result?

Perhaps it is less obvious to connect protest drama Selma to this theme, but the common threads are clear.  Our picture of MLK today is rosy, fueled by the beautiful words we know so well; only love can drive out hate, we remember.  Yet his legacy is not passive, even if it is pacifist.  Nobel laureate Martin Luther King, Jr. and his band of pastors committed to uncompromising non-violent action journey to the small city of Selma, Alabama to march and protest the systematic exclusion of black Americans from the voting rolls.  They’ve chosen this city not merely because the abuse there has been egregious, but because local sheriff Jim Clark and flamboyantly racist governor George Wallace promise the best possible chance of a showy encounter.  In short, they travel to Selma explicitly to create conditions where racism will boil over into violence against them, in the hopes that this response will force the ugliness of on-going injustices out in from of cameras and the press.  They seek to expose a system that tries to hide itself in KKK night raids or under the guise of the rule of law, but in doing so, know that they will be endangering their own lives and the lives of the people who flock to their cause.

As we’re told early in the story, voting rights are the key to all civil rights.  Without voting rights, how can African Americans be truly represented by elected officials? Where is their seat at the table, their opportunity to redress the wrongs perpetrated against them?  Though the 15th Amendment had given all black Americans the right to vote, this right was curtailed by county clerks in the South who institutionalized  discrimination, making absurd demands of applicants (number and then name all sitting county judges, etc).  While sympathetic to their cause, President Johnson wasn’t ready to act on it, and so Dr. King forces the issue.

It’s impossible to watch Selma and not see the devastating price paid by Dr. King and his colleagues ; black and white, they’re beaten, abused and murdered before our eyes, bugged and tracked by the FBI and persecuted by local police.  Dr. King’s family is threatened in myriad ways in the hope that this would force him to shut down his work. At the center of the film lies a choice: like a general, Dr. King deploys his troops, putting them in harm’s way with the expectation that by provoking police atrocities he can use the media to soften the hearts of a nation which had turned away from tales of brutality and subjugation.  Is he responsible for sending friends and allies to their deaths?  Though his is not the hand that holds the gun, his is the choice to march or stand down.  Though he doesn’t make the fist, he lets others take the blows.  So when is it worth putting yourself before that fist?  When is it worth braving men on horseback with billyclubs?  This is the heart of Selma.  When does a man or woman say, this is enough, and I can stand no more?  When do you say, the harm that may come to me today is canceled by the future we seek to build together if we are brave enough, and trust enough, in the inherent decency of human kind?

Because it is not natural or easy to do any of these things; both the personal Whiplash and the epic Selma show us that cost in exacting detail.  It’s easier to keep your head down. It’s easier to walk away.

Whiplash is nominated for 5 Oscars: best picture, sound mixing, editing, adapted screenplay and its one assured win, supporting actor for veteran J.K. Simmons.  The overwhelming favorite, Simmons will cap off years of work as a character actor  (Juno, Spiderman, last year’s failed sitcom Growing Up Fisher, Farmers Insurance commercials playing on someone’s television this very moment) with his first nomination and win for the role he was born to play.  There’s a power in him here that we’ve never seen, a terrifying confidence and intensity.  There is no competition.  This one’s as easy as they come.

Due to the unexpected snubbing of favorite Gillian Flynn from the adapted screenplay race, Damien Chazelle may be able to best his atypically quiet competition in that usually overstuffed race.  Because of its rather extreme adherence to the concept of adaptation, the Academy decided that Chazelle’s work didn’t qualify as an original screenplay because he’d made a short film using some of the scenes from Whiplash as a fundraising tool to get the entire film made.  When supporters and his publicity team found the work in an unexpected spot on the nominating ballot, they went on the offensive, and their media campaign blasting the Academy’s nitpicking rule-Nazi indifference was enough not just to push Whiplash into the top five in that category, but likely aiding in its higher than expected nomination total.

Selma, on the other hand, was nominated for a criminally paltry two awards, best picture and song.  I hope we can blame the film’s poor awards showing on a dreadful media campaign and not on antipathy to the very timely subject matter; late opening films typically send screeners (i.e., dvds) to members of the major voting bodies, since they vote before the films are actually released in theaters.  We know that the pr team behind Selma failed to send screeners to the the Screen Actors, the Producers and I think the Directors’ Guilds, a costly mistake in terms of prestige and the box office bump it produces.  In addition, as we often see this time of year, there was a smear campaign against Selma‘s historical accuracy, with various media outlets trotting out LBJ staffers to claim that the movie unfairly portrayed the president as a reluctant and not leading partner in the civl rights movement.  Though other high-profile critics came to the movie’s defense, the damage had been done, just as it was last year to Saving Mr. Banks and 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty. Each year the short-memoried media falls for new claims of questionable provenance, without remembering that the claim of historical inaccuracy has become a staple of the modern Oscar season.

This situation is more than a little depressing for anyone who longs for an Academy Awards that truly reflects that best in filmmaking, not to mention anyone who’s seen this very brilliant, thought-provoking film.  It is arguably the biggest Big Ideas film among the nominees and in 2014, for both the scope of its story telling and the importance of its message.  Either way, both of these films are very much worth your seeking out and mulling over, looking for  truth and for understanding.  There’s a lot of both on offer here, and not just for someone thinking about an old school friend.  How do you measure the cost when only victory can redeem your suffering, especially when it’s a victory you may never enjoy or see?

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3 comments on “Oscar Talk: Selma, Whiplash and the High Price of Achievement

  1. mitchteemley says:

    Very much enjoyed Selma. Crime that it’s not nominated for Best Director. Looking forward to Whiplash. Nice insights!

  2. Great write up. I am a big fan of Whiplash. So much so that I think it should–though it won’t–win best picture. You’re right about the moral complexities and the final question you ask at the end. Movies that leave you with these feelings and thoughts hanging in the air have accomplished something difficult, necessary, and great.

  3. […] You know the post I just wrote about the price of greatness, and the how the cause of our suffering has to be worthy […]

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