Selma star David Oyelowo has been honoured with an OBE for services to drama

This article was originally published by The Telegraph on February 7 2015

The Academy Awards bore me rigid, but this year there was an absence in the Best Actor nominations that made me sit up and take notice. For heaven's sake, why no David Oyelowo?

I wasn't looking forward to Selma; I assumed it was going to be a plodding, earnest hagiopic of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, featuring by-the-book helpings of injustice, righteousness and triumph. But this account of a pivotal 1965 episode in the struggle for black voting rights turns out to be a thrilling, absorbing spectacle that strikes a deft balance between the personal and the political, skilfully mapping out the action, reaction and counteraction required for any sort of social and political change. It gives us the big picture, but never loses sight of the characters and emotions involved.

In short, Selma knocks it out of the park. Ava DuVernay's directing and Paul Webb's screenplay remind us that King was human, even as they show his tactical genius in uniting so many separate personalities and agendas under one banner, just as Oyelowo playing King holds the film together by providing it with a solid centre. It's a formidable performance and, when I saw it last December, seemed a top contender for every award going.

Credit: Photo credit: Atsushi Nishijima,

This is an actor who has been bubbling under, as they say, for some years now. He served up an unforgettable final scene as Danny Hunter in BBC One's Spooks, and eye-catching supporting performances in films like The Last King of Scotland ("Tell the world the truth about Amin. They will believe you; you are a white man"); Rise of the Planet of the Apes (pushed off the Golden Gate Bridge in a helicopter!); The Paperboy (an American reporter pretending to be a British one!); Jack Reacher (cattle-prodding Rosamund Pike in a lift!); The Butler (the son whose presence at every single black activist flashpoint of the 1960s makes you think of Forrest Gump); and as an ambitious district attorney in A Most Violent Year. The man has done the legwork. Surely his time has come.

And yet, apart from a single Golden Globe nomination, nothing. The Screen Actors Guild and the Academy have ignored Oyelowo. He was even overlooked by the Baftas and the London Critics' Circle Awards, which you would have thought might have favoured a familiar British face.

I can understand the honours heaped onMichael Keaton, whose performance in Birdman is a quicksilver tour de force, running the gamut from exuberant to melancholic and all the other emotions in between. And Steve Carell inFoxcatcher is acting in a fake nose, something to which the Academy has always been partial (see also Nicole Kidman in The Hours and Sean Penn in Milk).

I can also see why Academy voters nominated Eddie Redmayne, who is not only playing a real-life genius but a real-life genius in a wheelchair! And Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game – not only playing a real-life genius, but a real-life genius tormented by his sexuality! Both actors give entertaining performances with lots of actorly gurning, but next to Oyelowo's effortless projection of quiet authority, unwavering spirituality and tactical shrewdness – tempered with fatigue and self-doubt – they seem almost like amateurs.

But Oyelowo too is playing a real-life genius, a civil rights leader and a legendary historical figure. If you can't get an Academy Award nomination for playing Martin Luther King, when can you get one? What went wrong?

1) Perhaps Oyelowo should have played Martin Luther King as a twitchy closet homosexual, in a wheelchair, with a wig, a prosthetic nose, and a more obvious accent. That would have got the Academy's attention. Look! He's ACTING!

Credit: Photo credit: Atsushi Nishijima,

2) Selma has drawn criticism for what has been perceived as an inaccurate portrayal of Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose supporters (primarily one of LBJ's former aides, and the director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum) are upset that the president's role in the struggle for black voting rights has been downplayed, while his opposition to King is exaggerated for dramatic purposes.

The character in the film, as played by Tom Wilkinson, struck me as a man negotiating a political and social minefield to the best of his ability, and I didn't find the portrayal unsympathetic, but if LBJ's fans are disgruntled perhaps they should make their own movie, with the president re-cast as the hero of the civil rights movement. Though oddly enough, I don't recall anyone getting het up back in 1983 when he was portrayed in The Right Stuff as a boorish, publicity-mad buffoon.

Then again, Selma isn't the only movie based on real events to have been castigated for perceived inaccuracies. The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher and American Sniper have all drawn fire from the sort of folk who seem never to be able to grasp the fundamental differences between drama and documentary. And yet it doesn't appear to have harmed the Oscar chances of the actors in those films.

3) It's possible that Academy voters (94 per cent of whom are white) consider they filled some sort of quota last year by bestowing nine nominations on 12 Years a Slave. This year, Selma gets a Best Picture nod (as it should), but its directing, screenwriting, acting and Bradford Young’s cinematography have all been ignored.

4) The most likely reason for Oyelowo's absence from award nominations is that the final cut of Selma wasn't ready until December, and screeners (discs sent out to voters unwilling or unable to get to a cinema to see the film) were sent out relatively late.

There is always an overabundance of films to watch in the run-up to awards season. It could be that voters shared my early fears about Selma, and accordingly relegated it to the bottom of their viewing pile. Because I find it hard to believe that anyone who had actually seen the film wouldn't include Oyelowo’s performance as one of the year’s best.