Do you remember when Fruitvale Station was going to win, or at least be nominated, for all the major Oscar awards? Do you remember when Michael B. Jordan was going to win Best Actor, or when Ryan Coogler was a top contender for Best Director and maybe even Best Original Screenplay? Do you remember when 2013 was declared the year of the black movie? If you do, then you're obviously not a member of the Academy.
Fruitvale Station wasn't just snubbed, it's been completely forgotten, to the point that critics have to be reminded to be upset that it was snubbed:
.@davekarger I'd add Fruitvale to that list; expectations were high given last year's big Sundance success, Beasts of the Southern Wild,— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) January 16, 2014
So what happened to all those high expectations? We have some theories.
The Academy's memory doesn't go back that far
Fruitvale Station was released in theaters in July of 2013, after premiering at Sundance in January. As you can see from this Google Trends chart, July is when the movie's popularity peaked:
Same for Michael B. Jordan:
And Ryan Coogler:
That's basic Academy Awards game theory. You don't want to get lost in rush by opening in December, but you also don't want release an Oscar movie six months before you need people to be obsessed with it. Maybe Coogler wasn't thinking about the Academy Awards, but Fruitvale's distributor — The Weinstein Company — certainly was. "Few Oscar campaigners are better than Harvey at turning indie recognition into big-time awards success," our own Joe Reid argued regarding Fruitvale's Oscar chances. Of course, Weinstein was also pushing The Butler (another film that went empty-handed on Oscar day), August: Osage County, and Philomena. And while Oscar Grant's story is emotional enough to tempt Weinstein's award campaign sensibilities, so is the real-life story of Philomena Lee.
The "Sundance Effect" is unreliable
But what about Beasts of the Southern Wild? It was the favorite at Sundance, as was Fruitvale, and went on to gain four Oscar nominations. So early buzz isn't necessarily a bad thing. The Hollywood Reporter, in yet another overly optimistic Fruitvale article, argued that Fruitvale was "poised to make waves" back in July:
Every year, it seems, one independent movie breaks out from the Sundance Film Festival in January and manages to make a splash during awards season. Last year it was Beasts of the Southern Wild. In 2010, it was Winter’s Bone. This year that movie is Fruitvale Station.
But the problem there, as Jon Weisman at Variety argued in July, is that Beasts was better Oscar bait. He wrote:
Whatever your thoughts about the film (I liked it, Metacritic was at 78 as of Wednesday), its straightforward narrative might work against it in a best picture race filled with dynamic works. “Beasts” was an underdog throughout 2012, but ultimately made the cut thanks in large part to how original and multifaceted it seemed. “Fruitvale” doesn’t have the same attributes.
An 84-minute running time also doesn’t help the cause of “Fruitvale” with an Academy that tends to expect more heft.
Just because Fruitvale isn't good Oscar bait doesn't mean it's not a good film. Its Metacritic rating went up to 85 as of today, whereas Beasts is currently at 86. Best Picture nominee Captain Phillips is at an 83, Dallas Buyers Club is at 84, Philomena is at 76 and The Wolf of Wall Street is at 75. The other Best Picture nominees have higher Metacritic scores. We know Metacritic shouldn't determine which movies are awarded, but it's a good indication of which movies were the most critically praised. Fruitvale is somewhere in the middle of the pack.
The Academy just wasn't into it
The Academy is mostly white, mostly male, and generally pretty old, as the Los Angeles Times found in December. They are trying to diversify, but the older members continue getting older as new members come in. And the new members are a bit older, too. The classes of 2012 and 2013 were, on average, 50 and 49 years old, respectively. Academy voters may be more likely to enjoy a film about delightful British people (Philomena) played by familiar faces, than the last day of an inner city man killed by police officers, with a fresh faced new star and a rookie director. In fact, Francis Ha and Short Term 12 probably suffered for the same reasons.
This isn't The Year of Black Movies
In December, James Wolcott at Vanity Fair argued that 2013 would be the year of black movies, because there were some movies with black people in them this year:
With the release of Fruitvale Station, 12 Years a Slave (a sensation at the Toronto International Film Festival), Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, The Butler, 42, Blue Caprice, and the upcoming Black Nativity, 2013 may go down in the scriptures as the greatest year for black actors, directors, and themes in Hollywood history.
Other than 12 Years a Slave's nine nominations and Mandela's Best Original Song nomination, none of those movies received any Academy Award recognition. Anyone hoping that this year the Academy Award nominees (and maybe even winners) would better reflect the full spectrum of the country's experiences is kind of out of luck. On the bright side, this isn't really the first breakout year of black film. As Buzzfeed's Shani O. Hilton pointed out, that was 2005. And before that, 1992. And before that 1985. Everyone just seems to have forgotten that.