Selma (UK-US, 2014)

On the march

I’ve written about two high profile African-American films recently (Moonlight and Hidden Figures) both of which featured in this year’s Oscars. This was based on merit, however the Academy Awards don’t necessarily deal in merit as the literally scandalous neglect of Selma last year emphasised; it did receive a Best Picture nomination but David Oyelowo’s performance was widely thought to be worthy of at least a Best Actor nomination. I was delighted to catch up with this film that revealed a key moment in recent American history that had been ‘hidden’ from me.

While the events, in 1965, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, are enshrined in Civil Rights history it is a strength of commercial cinema that it can both inform, and remind, millions of people about key moments. I was certainly ignorant and so was enlightened having watching the film and experienced exasperated rage at the ridiculous and violent racism perpetrated against the protestors who simply wanted to be able to exercise their right to vote. Racism is not just in history, unfortunately, as the racist right returns to the fray; Marine Le Pen may be been resoundingly defeated in France but she still got 35% of the vote and in the UK the Conservative party is morphing into UKIP.

Oyelowo’s performance as Martin Luther King is the lynchpin of the film’s success. Entirely convincing as the non violent leader in both his actions and his words. Although director Ava DuVernay (Yes! A high profile African-American female director) had to rewrite King’s speeches for copyright reasons, I still found Oyelowo’s delivery stirring. He was excellent also in A United Kingdom (Czech Republic-UK-US, 2016) that similarly unearthed an anti-racist narrative.

I don’t know about the development history of the film; British scriptwriter Paul Webb had been touting the script for some time. Cloud 8 films is the lead producer, set up by Christian Colson who used to work at Celador, who also produced. Celador made Slumdog Millionaire. Cloud 8 has (assuming Wikipedia is up to date and accurate) a ‘first look’ deal with Pathe, who also produced. Brad Pitt’s Plan B and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films represent American involvement. Winfrey appears as Annie Lee Cooper who punched Sheriff Jim Clark in Selma. Winfrey’s obviously a high profile black ‘player’ in the industry and it’s good to see Pitt using his power to get important films made; Plan B was also involved in 12 Years a Slave.

Presumably getting American finance was difficult and British actors Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth (not forgetting Oyelowo) take on the major roles of President Johnson and Governor Wallace (both excellent). If making money is really the prime driver of Hollywood we should expect more African-American films especially given the success of Hidden Figures. Whilst the Fast and Furious franchise has been immensely successful in transcending the white hegemonic audience, very few films are following. Maybe racial politics trumps money.

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Hidden Figures (US, 2016)

Amazing women

I mentioned in the posting about Moonlight that the Academy’s guilt about last year’s blatant disrespect toward films focusing on African Americans has been addressed this year. Hidden Figures, and that must be the best pun in any film title from last year, uncovers (based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book) the role of African American women in NASA’s 1960s space programme. When I heard of the film I was gobsmacked that black, females had such an important role and I hadn’t heard of it. Then I woke up and remembered how discriminatory the ‘60s were.

The film’s to be celebrated in telling a great story, in a similar way to United Kingdom, uncovering historic challenges to racism that had been erased from mainstream history. The women’s fight is superbly told, easing much detail fluidly into a dynamic narrative; very Hollywood. Also Hollywood is its ‘based on a true story’ looseness with the facts. For example, the first black NASA supervisor attained the position in 1948 not the early ‘60s of the film. The ‘based on a true story’ statement during the credits is, as always, a warning we are not watching history. I’m relaxed about such ‘distortions’ as they don’t obscure an essential truth about the dual-struggle, as women and as part of an ethnic minority, these women experienced. However, although wonderfully dramatic, (spoiler ahead) the scene were the Al Harrison, essentially in charge of space travel calculations, smashes a ‘coloreds only’ toilet sign in disgust is apparently fictional. So what’s the purpose of that scene?

Hollywood has a tradition of filtering black emancipation narratives, such as Mississippi Burning (US, 1988), through a white perspective and although this film is resolutely from the women’s points of view, primarily Taraji P Henson’s Katherine G Johnson, the Harrison character offers a point of identity for those in the audience who cannot allow themselves simply to root for the women. The fact that he is charismatically played by Kevin Costner adds heft to white dispensed justice. Kirsten Dunst’s character, unremittingly polite and racist throughout, is also given a redeeming coda; as is the superbly cast Jim Parsons (of The Big Bang Theory). In the latter cases it could be argued that they represent how previously racist individuals, when they come into contact with African-Americans, learn the error of their ways.

The film occupies similar territory to The Help (US-India-UAE, 2011), which was filtered through a white protagonist, though that film was making the point that oppressed minorities need the help of majority members in their fight for justice. I’ve just noticed a viral video of straight men holding hands, in the Netherlands, as a statement against homophobia; a powerful way of marginalising hatred.

Hidden Figures, in the centrality of the black women, and the fact the story is true, is so powerful in its condemnation of racism that I’ll forgive the narrative transgression involving Harrison. It’s interesting that it was distributed via Fox 2000, the Hollywood major studio’s more ‘indie’ distributor. Clearly executives didn’t have a lot of faith in the film’s commercial prospects; I wonder if its $150m plus take in North America alone will alter their thinking about minority stories?

Lion (Aus-US-UK, 2016)

lionfilm17a

Lost

About half way through Lion, which tells the astonishing tale of how a foundling finds his mum despite being brought up in a different continent, I wondered what the film was going to say. It was brilliantly done: the direction from Garth Davis (his first feature) is highly promising and the young Saroo (who’s 5 years old ) gets an amazing performance from Sunny Pawar. But the film lacked a focus as it didn’t seem to adding anything to my understanding of the world. The last third of the film filled that absence and spoilers follow.

Davis, with the editor Alexandre de Franceschi, links the two worlds – of India and Tasmania – with great skill. Close ups of the protagonists in crowds emphasises the anonymity and massive populations of cities showing how miraculous it would be for Saroo to be reunited with his mother. When, as an adult, he is having a ‘nervous breakdown’ the editing serves to illustrate his memories with graphic (the composition in the frame) and content matches between where he is and the past he is remembering. For example, when he breaks with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara brilliant in a necessarily somewhat passive role of the female encouraging the man) Saroo walks across a bridge (a melodramatic emblem for transition in life) which is matched with a shot of the young Saroo on a bridge. It is a very effective way of dramatizing how memories, which he struggles to recover, can overwhelm  after they’d been triggered in a Proustian moment set off by food.

Although it is well done, Saroo’s breakdown did cause the narrative to sag and it struck me that this might be a consequence of the difficulties film has of dramatizing small events that encompass a lot of time. Conventionally, as it is here, montage is used to signify this however because screen time is inevitably much shorter than narrative time, it is difficult to emotionally understand the profound mental trauma Saroo, now in his late twenties, was experiencing. A paragraph in a book could convey this much better I suspect.

Despite this the film does convincingly demonstrate the strength of familial ties. Even though he’d only been five when he’d lost his family it is clear that Saroo will forever be missing a part of himself if he can’t find them again. Unsurprisingly the reunion is extremely emotional and Dev Patel and Priyanka Bose (mum) are exceptional in the scene.

Nicole Kidman must also be mentioned as she is at her brilliant best here as Saroo’s adoptive mum. It is difficult for a star with Kidman’s charisma to convincingly play an ‘ordinary person’ however she does it brilliantly and then we realise that Sue Brierley is anything but ordinary.

Walesa: Man of Hope (Walesa. Czlowiek z nadziei, Poland, 2013)

Man for the people

Man for the people

Andrzej Wajda died last year having directed some of the greatest films ever produced; Walesa: Man of Hope was the last he completed. Appropriately for his oeuvre it is historically informed: a biopic eulogising the leading force of Solidarność (Solidarity), the union that led to the downfall of the Soviet-backed government in Poland in the 1980s. It was a strange at the time to see mainstream media  celebrating a trade union instead of demonising them.

Wajda’s first four films, including the famous ‘war trilogy’ (see Ashes and Diamonds), focused on the Second World War but he didn’t always deal in history – his Innocent Sorcerers tells a charming tale of ‘first love’. In my Innocent Sorcerers post I complained about the lack of availability of Wajda’s films in the UK; I particularly would like to see Landscape After Battle (Krajobraz po bitwie, Poland, 1971) again if only for its hallucinatory opening sequence. I’ll try not to bang on again about how the BBC is abnegating its Public Service responsibility by virtually ignoring film culture. Although I saw Walesa on BBC4, where’s the career retrospective and documentary on one of the great artists in cinema history!?

I really enjoyed Walesa partly because it reminded me of my introduction to Wajda’s films, Man of Marble (Czlowiek z marmuru, Poland, 1977) and its sequel – that dealt with the same events as this film – Man of Iron (Czlowiek z zelaza, Poland, 1981). It’s a sign of my age that these events, which were gripping viewing via television news at the time, are now history and no doubt part of Walesa‘s purpose is to educate young Poles about their recent past. Focusing solely on the figurehead Walesa necessarily limits the focus and it may be difficult to completely follow the story if you had no knowledge of the events of the time. However, the film brilliantly brings to life the historical moment through the fabulous performance of Robert Wieckiewicz as Walesa, an ordinary man of great strength and charisma. Wadja, however, does not neglect Walesa’s wife, Danuta (Agnieszka Grochowska), who might have been simply a domestic adjunct to the hero. In fact, the last shot of the film is of her suggesting that Walesa would not have succeeded without her support.

Come on BBC, where’re the retrospectives of Wadja’s films? Although we have more films available to us, including the more obscure, than ever a curated free-to-air presentation of cinema history is required or many people will never come across the gems of the past.

American Gangster (US-UK, 2007)

Mean streets

Mean streets

It was fortuitous that I caught up with American Gangster only a week after watching The French Connection as it covers some of the same time and territory. Indeed, the latter’s protagonists are name checked and the overhead railway of the car chase makes two appearances. Clearly scriptwriter Steve Zaillian is paying homage to the earlier classic and American Gangster doesn’t do too badly in comparison. Like much of the early ’70s ‘New Hollywood’ there’s a political angle, though safely ‘buried’ in the past, regarding the racism and corruption of NYPD. The mean streets of New York, where Denzil Washington’s Frank Lucas (the film’s based on a true story) imports heroin direct from Vietnam, look shabby despite Ridley Scott’s predilection for sumptuous images. If overlong, at two and a half hours, the climax is suitably satisfying, referencing another early ’70s classic, The Godfather (1972), by inter-cutting events with the protagonist in church; there’s  also shades of another cracking film of the era, Serpico (1973), with Russell Crowe taking the incorruptible cop role that Al Pacino inhabited.

Certainly the film pays homage to the ’70s, and you have to work to keep up with the narrative exposition too, but stands on its own as an intelligent high budget, star driven Hollywood (through Scott Free Prods) vehicle. Despite a budget of $100m, the film probably just about scraped into profit with its $267m worldwide gross; a testament to Washington and Crowe’s star power.

Women are mostly absent but that’s gangster films for you and the cliche-ridden broken marriage of Crowe’s Richie Roberts probably didn’t need to be so prominent; then again, women would have been even more absent if it wasn’t. The narrative device (presumably true too) that leads Roberts to realise the black Lucas was Mr Big (his ethnicity, in the racism of the times, meant he escaped suspicion) is brilliant.

The Imitation Game (UK-US, 2014)

Genius hero

Genius hero

Alan Turing wasn’t diagnosed as ‘Asperger’s’ but Benedict Cumberbatch plays him, entirely reasonably, as if he had the syndrome. It is a quite extraordinary performance, not far from his Sherlock but more nuanced. The story of the Enigma code breakers is a great one and the script, which has been criticised in some quarters, marshals the history well to give a gripping account of how World War II was, at the least, shortened. I found the brief representations of wartime Britain, such as the evacuation of children, particularly effective in showing a nation under siege and on the brink. Into the breech steps the ill-fitting ‘nerds’ who, while struggling to decode social niceties, are happy solving puzzles, whether word or number based.

The wartime narrative is framed by Turing’s arrest in the early ’50s and so emphasises the shameful treatment of male homosexuals by the British state before decriminalisation in late 1960s. The final scene where his one time fiancee, well played by Keira Knightley, tries to help him is extremely moving.

Code cracking isn’t cinematic gold but the film remains gripping throughout; a Guardian reviewer suggested the film struggled to engage because we know the outcome. I think this is just daft; how often don’t we know the outcome of a mainstream film? Better from the Guardian is Ben Walter‘s suggestion that it is the queerest film to hit the multiplexes in years. The queerness he refers to isn’t simply Turing’s sexuality, his difference from the norm in terms of his social behaviour is also queer and celebrated rather than simply used to signify some kind of perversion. At the least most viewers of the film will find themselves sympathising with an outcast and maybe recognise that difference is actually good.

My one criticism is, Knightley’s Joan Clarke apart, women’s role in the code breaking seems underplayed; it’s not even entirely clear what Clarke’s contribution was. A minor blemish on a major triumph. Cumberbatch could win an Oscar for this as the Academy like portrayals of mental illness; but, of course, as the film shows, neither Asperger’s nor homosexuality is an illness.

12 Years a Slave (US-UK, 2013)

A living hell

A living hell

It’s interesting to consider the different box office performance of this film in North America to the UK. At the time of writing it’s grossed $47 there and £15m in the UK. As a rule of thumb the UK equivalence of $47m would be £4.7m, which shows (even before we consider that the film was released much earlier in the US) that 12 Years a Slave is massively outperforming the US in the UK. One reason may be the fact the film’s holding up an uncomfortable mirror to Americans. We can watch 12 Years feeling superior due to the British national myth that focuses on our role in abolition rather than being slavers, neatly forgetting how we were as exploitative as any initially.

A second possibility is that British audiences, this year, seem particularly receptive to ‘awards films’ with Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle (which I thought was dreadful) also posting excellent box office. Last weekend Dallas Buyers Club debuted with, what Charles Gant calls, a ‘sensational’ £1.9m.

Thirdly there’s the high profile British talent in the film. Actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbinder (Irish-German) and Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s TV series Sherlock has cemented him as a star in UK eyes at least, and director Steve McQueen. I doubt, though, that McQueen had much of an impact outside the ‘art house’ crowd. Whatever the reason it was heartening to see, in a multiplex, an early evening (Saturday) viewing nearly full with an audience aged 15-70 for a film that is anything but a Hollywood sugar rush.

Most (all?) of you will be aware of the critical acclaim the film as received and I’ll simply endorse that. The performances are fabulous; I’ll highlight Fassbinder, he’s shaping up to be a ‘great’. McQueen’s reigned in his use of the long take, compared to his previous films, although I loved the lingering on the protagonist, Solomon’s, burnt letter. The shot remained until the last glow of red had disappeared (along with his hopes). Some thought might, however, be given to CGI-ing the immaculate ‘whiter-than-white’ teeth most actors seem to sport. I’m sure the dental hygiene of slaves was not quite how it was portrayed in the film.

This is highly likely to be on my ‘best film’ lists but I must remember not to go to the Vue, in Halifax, as the moment the words, explaining what happened to Solomon subsequent to the film, faded the lights came up breaking the spell. The person in front of me grabbed their phone, obviously requiring a fix, and a Despicable Me minion looked at me from the screen. Back to reality.