The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences responded to actor David Oyelowo‘s claim that Academy members wouldn’t vote for the film “Selma” because the cast wore “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts to the New York premiere in 2014.
Ava DuVernay, who directed the film, backed what he said in a tweet by writing, “True story.”
“Six years ago, ‘Selma’ coincided with Eric Garner being murdered,” Oyelowo told Screen Daily. “That was the last time we were in a place of ‘I Can’t Breathe.’”
“I remember at the premiere of ‘Selma’ us wearing ‘I Can’t Breathe’ T-shirts in protest,” he continued. “Members of the Academy called in to the studio and our producers saying, ‘How dare they do that? Why are they stirring s–t?’ and ‘We are not going to vote for that film because we do not think it is their place to be doing that.’”
“I can’t breathe” was the phrase repeated by Eric Garner, a Black man who died in Staten Island, New York, in 2014 after now-fired NYPD cop Daniel Pantaleo put him in a chokehold during an arrest that was caught on video. Garner, who was accused of selling untaxed cigarettes at the time of his arrest, repeated those words as he futilely tried to get Pantaleo to release his hold.
Garner’s death sparked protests in the United States and around the world, with people calling for justice and the end to police brutality. It was much like the current nationwide protests for George Floyd, another Black man who died in police custody on Memorial Day after saying he couldn’t breathe. Former Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for well over eight minutes.
Released in 2014, “Selma” was nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Song and won the latter category for the song “Glory.” Some said that Oyelowo was robbed for a Best Actor nomination and DuVernay should’ve received a Best Director nod.
That was the same year the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite began trending, since all of the people who were up for acting awards were white. “Selma” is based on the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches. Oyelowo portrayed Martin Luther King Jr.
“It’s part of why that film didn’t get everything that people think it should’ve got and it birthed #OscarsSoWhite,” Oyelowo explained. “They used their privilege to deny a film on the basis of what they valued in the world.”
In 2015 a female Academy member who wouldn’t give her name told the Hollywood Reporter that she was offended by the “Selma” cast wearing the ‘I Can’t Breathe” shirts, proving Oyelowo’s claim.
“I’ve got to tell you, having the cast show up in T-shirts saying ‘I can’t breathe,’ I thought that stuff was offensive,” said the academy member. “Did they want to be known for making the best movie of the year or for stirring up s–t?”
The Academy responded to Oyelowo’s interview and DuVernay’s tweet and promised to do better.
“Ava & David, we hear you. Unacceptable. We’re committed to progress,” the message read.