David Oyelowo got snubbed for his role in Selma. We know that, but not many people realize that he wasn't the only one. Another actor of color who got snubbed by the Academy this year? Oscar Isaac (born Oscar Isaac Hernandez). Isaac gives a remarkable performance in A Most Violent Year as Abel Morales, a hardworking immigrant who went from being an oil truck driver to owning his own fleet.
But I’m not surprised Isaac didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for his role in A Most Violent Year; films portraying people of color in uplifting roles rarely do. David Oyelowo pointed this out during an appearance at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival a few weeks ago. He was discussing how people were up in arms about his and director Ava Duvernay's Oscar snubs (Selma was nominated for Best Picture but neither its actors nor its director made the cut in their respective categories). The British actor held no punches, saying:
"No, look, historically—this is truly my feeling; I felt this before the situation we're talking about and I feel it now—generally speaking, we, as black people, have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings or being at the center of our own narrative."
He also spoke about the narrative of white guilt, referencing Kevin Costner's roles in two films that tell that narrative: Black or White and McFarland, USA:
"So you have a very nice white person who holds black people's hands through their own narrative. We don't want to see that pain again, so you don't even go into what that pain was in an authentic way. Both of those things are patronizing to the audience. You can't have people curating culture in this way when we need to see things in order to reform from them."
Black and brown people go to the movies too, but are seldom represented in positions of power or in uplifting narratives. We can’t even be superheroes without motherfuckers getting all bent out shape. A black Storm Trooper? What the fuck, J.J.? The dude made out of fire wasn’t black in the comics. Fuck you, Marvel! Fuck Michael B. Jordan! God forbid, right? Black actors usually play the same roles: servants or villains—and they are rewarded for them. The same can be said about Latino actors, but, unlike black actors, we’re also cast as white characters because of our features.
Sometimes I wonder if the characters are that deep that giving them a Spanish name will ruin the plot.
Sometimes I wonder: Are the white characters played by Latino actors so deep that giving them a Spanish name will ruin the plot? A Most Violent Year throws this notion out the window, proving that a film can work with a Latino actor playing a Latino character. (Even if the Academy doesn't recognize its success.)
Last year, Oscar Isaac played the title role in Inside Llewyn Davis. Although I’m happy he got an opportunity in a critically-acclaimed film, I’m more impressed by J. C. Chandor’s courage to cast a Latino as a lead in a movie about a Latino immigrant in A Most Violent Year.
A Most Violent Year is set in 1981 and centered around the cutthroat heating oil business. When I started the movie, I assumed Isaac was playing an Italian until I heard a character call him Mr. Morales, and I was pleasantly surprised. Call me petty, but it immediately became my favorite movie of the year just because I was able to identify with the character.
People of color go to the movies too and we should be represented in these films as real people instead of these lazy stereotypes of hoods, pimps, villains, etc.
A Most Violent Year tells another side of the Latino-American experience, one that doesn't involve drug-trafficking or gang life. It tells one of hard work and perseverance. Abel Morales spent his entire life trying to shake stereotypes. He built Standard Oil with his bare hands, paid loans on time, tried to expand his business without cutting corners, but everything he worked for is on the verge of falling apart because his trucks keep getting hijacked by armed thugs. On the other hand, his father-in-law was a gangster, and his wife (Jessica Chastain) advises a reluctant Abel to fight fire with fire because the robberies are crippling the business.
The mood of the film plays as much a part as the characters do, something cinematographer Bradford Young accomplished well. It’s dark, and gritty, just like 1980’s New York. Young is also the cinematographer behind Selma, and his lens work in both films is nothing short of astonishing, yet he wasn't nominated for an Oscar for either movie. I'm pretty sure he would disagree with that "no art in Selma" comment.
But the cinematographer is not the only thing A Most Violent Year and Selma have in common. Selma's leading man, David Oyelowo, plays a supporting role in AMVY as Lawrence, an Assistant District Attorney in charge of cleaning up the oil heating industry. Throughout the movie, he and the Guatemalan-born Oscar Isaac cross paths and bump heads. Beyond the people who were part of the films, both movies tackle the American experience in different ways with people of color in starring roles.
Selma told one of the most important stories in American history. The direction, cinematography, and Oyelowo's performance were outstanding. It felt like you right there on the frontlines instead of watching from afar. Being nominated for Best Picture, and not for any of the actor or camera work categories seems almost like a backhanded compliment.
A Most Violent Year is about a man trying to achieve success by doing the right thing, until capitalism forces him to take matters into his own hands. It’s about how America’s economic system slowly kills the working man. For many people of color, that’s our experience living in this country. We worked hard to build this nation, and deserve to be recognized for it. Instead, we're patronized with things like Black and Hispanic History Months and movies that tell our story through white guilt’s perspective.
Hollywood needs to stop being scared to bankroll these kinds of movies. People of color go to the movies too and we should be represented in these films as real people instead of these lazy stereotypes of hoods, pimps, villains, etc. It’s time for Hollywood to come to grips with that. It's time for the Academy to recognize these type of films. It’s like Denzel winning for Training Day instead of for Malcolm X all over again. We are as American as apple pie.
Angel Diaz is a staff writer for Complex Media. Follow him @ADiaz456.