David Oyelowo Says Oscar Voters Blacklisted Selma Over "I Can't Breathe" T-Shirts

Christopher Luu

The death of Eric Garner, a Black man who was killed in Staten Island by a police officer who put him in a chokehold, sparked outrage back in 2014 and with Black Lives Matter protests taking place across the globe, Selma star David Oyelowo revealed that the cast's decision to wear "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts to the film's premiere essentially blacklisted it from the Academy Awards. The shirts were a reference to Garner saying "I can't breathe" 11 times before he went unconscious. 

"Selma coincided with Eric Garner being murdered," Oyelowo said during an appearance on Screen Daily's Screen Talks. "That was the last time we were in a place of 'I Can't Breathe.'" He played Martin Luther King Jr. in the film, which documented King's march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. 

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Oyelowo went on to say that the cast did face backlash for its decision, with members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences complaining to the studio and the film's producers, claiming that the cast was "stirring shit." Oyelowo adds that some indiviruals even went as far as saying that they wouldn't vote for the film.

"I remember at the premiere of Selma us wearing 'I Can't Breathe' T-shirts in protest," Oyelowo said. "Members of the Academy called in to the studio and our producers saying, 'How dare they do that?' 'Why are they stirring shit?' and 'We are not going to vote for that film because we do not think it is their place to be doing that.' It's part of why that film didn't get everything that people think it should've got and it birthed #OscarsSoWhite. They used their privilege to deny a film on the basis of what they valued in the world."

Director Ava DuVernay confirmed Oyelowo statements, tweeting "true story" as she shared his story.

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The Academy responded, as well, tweeting, "Ava & David, we hear you. Unacceptable. We're committed to progress."

Entertainment Weekly notes that Selma did win the Best Original Song Oscar in 2015 for "Glory," a song by Common and John Legend. The film did not earn any nominations for directing, writing, or acting. It didn't receive any nominations in the technical categories, either. DuVernay and Oyelowo earned nominations for Best Director and Best Actor in a Drama at that year's Golden Globes. 

After Oyelowo's statements, Paramount released Selma for free on U.S. streaming services through the month of June. 

"We've gotta understand where we've been to strategize where we're going," DuVernay wrote alongside the announcement. "History helps us create the blueprint. Onward."

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