Ava DuVernay Recalls When Oscar Voters Disapproved of 'Selma' Cast's Eric Garner Tribute

Academy members were offended that the cast wore "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts commemorating Eric Garner, who died from police brutality, to the film's premiere.

"selma" new york premiere inside arrivals
(Image credit: Monica Schipper)
  • Director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo recently recalled a time when members from the Oscars' governing body threatened not to vote for their film Selma after the cast wore "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts to the premiere as an homage to Eric Garner, a victim of police brutality.
  • In an interview, Oyelowo said members of the Academy complained to their studio and producers, and DuVernay confirmed the events with a tweet.
  • DuVernay and Oyelowo were both snubbed for directing and acting awards at the Oscars that year.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the governing body of the Oscars, actively tried to shut out Selma from nominations after the film's cast members and crew wore T-shirts honoring Eric Garner, a victim of police brutality, at the premiere, according to star David Oyelowo and director Ava DuVernay.

The film, which focused on Martin Luther King Jr.'s (Oyelowo) march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, debuted in December 2014—five months after Garner died from being forcefully choked by police in New York. In the video of his struggle with authorities, he repeatedly tells the officers, "I can't breathe," which became a rallying cry in the Black Lives Matter Movement, much like it is again now, six years later, following the police killing of George Floyd.

The Selma premiere took place the day after a major protest in Manhattan, where demonstrators denounced a Staten Island grand jury's decision to not indict police officer involved in Garner's death, Buzzfeed News reported. So for the event, Oyelowo, DuVernay, and stars like Tessa Thompson, Stephan James, and Wendell Pierce wore black T-shirts reading "I CAN'T BREATHE" over their formalwear.

Speaking to Screen Daily this week, Oyelowo recalled backlash from Oscar voters at the time. "Members of the Academy called in to the studio and our producers saying, ‘How dare they do that? Why are they stirring S-H-I-T?’ and ‘We are not going to vote for that film because we do not think it is their place to be doing that.’"

DuVernay confirmed the Academy's disapproval in a tweet. "True story," she said, posting Oyelowo's interview.

The voter backlash is "part of why that film didn’t get everything that people think it should’ve got and it birthed #OscarsSoWhite,” Oyelowo continued in his interview. “They used their privilege to deny a film on the basis of what they valued in the world.” Indeed, Oyelowo and DuVernay were glaringly snubbed for acting and directing awards at the 2015 ceremony. Selma did take home one Oscar that night: Best Original Song for John Legend and Common's power ballad "Glory."

The Academy later apologized to DuVernay and Oyelowo with a brief tweet: "Ava & David, we hear you. Unacceptable. We’re committed to progress."

But after years of repeated #OscarsSoWhite controversies, we wonder what that progress will actually look like.

Selma is available to rent for free across all digital platforms for the month. Watch Now

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Erica Gonzales

Erica Gonzales is the Senior Culture Editor at ELLE.com, where she oversees coverage on TV, movies, music, books, and more. She was previously an editor at HarpersBAZAAR.com. There is a 75 percent chance she's listening to Lorde right now.