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.

13th (US, 2016)

Black voices matter

Black voices matter

13th refers to the 13th amendment that abolished slavery and, at the same time, stripped criminals of their rights. An improvement you might assume but as Ava DuVernay’s brilliant documentary shows the inhumanity of slavery is now enacted upon those who are incarcerated (and not necessarily guilty of a crime). Disproportionately the criminal population of America is made up of African-Americans and the first striking thing about this documentary is the preponderance of talking heads ‘of colour’. The fact it is striking emphasises the white hegemony of mainstream media.

DuVernay’s history of prisons in US shows how they have increasingly become profit centres and how lobbying groups have been successful in creating government policy to facilitate their money-making. It’s a judicious mix of library footage and interviews, including some right-wing pundits, culminating in the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign that was created from a reaction against police violence against African-Americans (the actuality footage is truly distressing). Included is the Fruitvale Station shooting.

This is a Netflix original that received some cinema showings and so qualified for an Oscar nomination; I hope it wins.

 

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.

I, Daniel Blake (UK-France-Belguim, 2016)

21st century penury

21st century penury

I was aroused from my film stupor by Ken Loach’s latest socialist message which is as devastating as Cathy Come Home (UK, 1966). The latter was a TV play which was apparently watched by 12 million people (there were only three channels to choose from) and led to the Britain taking the homelessness seriously. Although I, Daniel Blake is doing good business for a Loach film, in the UK (he’s more popular in France), nowhere near as many people will see this masterpiece.

It has rattled the right wing though. In attempt to discredit the truth of what’s happening to the benefits system influential idiot, Toby Young, has picked (health warning: the following link takes you to the Daily Mailflaws in the film, ably taken down by Mark Steel.

It’s a typical Loachian (and scriptwriter Paul Laverty) melodrama that focuses on individuals rather than the system. But who can watch the film and not realise we are turning the clock back to the Victorian values of penury for the poor? Young and his ilk choose not to believe it is happening. Others are happy for the working class Other to be degraded. We are living in an increasing divided society; we are living in an increasingly divided world.

Fruitvale Station (US, 2013)

#BlackLivesMatter

#BlackLivesMatter

It’s quite extraordinary how many black people are being killed by law enforcement officers in America and getting away with it. Racism is so institutionalised that even when Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year old, was shot in the back by a vigilante, George Zimmermann, the latter was found ‘not guilty’. Clearly it is open season on people of colour. The UK is not without its problems, Mark Duggan for example, but we can’t compare to America.

Fruitvale Station, which recounts the last hours of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan, brilliant in the role) before he was shot in the back whilst being arrested lying facedown, was released around the same time of the Trayvon Martin verdict. Its $16m North American box office was indicative of the film’s topicality as well as its quality.

As further evidence of the racial divide of America some commentators sought to attack the film because of its inaccuracies. For example, Grant is seen tending to a dog, victim of a hit and run, as it died. Although this never occurred, writer-director Ryan Coogler is clearly using the dog a melodramatic emblem of the way African-Americans are treated. The dog’s bloodied mouth mirrors that of Grant’s after he has been shot. So Kyle Smith’s attack on the film, in Forbes, is more interesting for what it says about Smith than the film. Spike Lee has been the subject of similar attacks when the dares to confront racism in America.  Do the Right Thing (1989) was particularly vilified by critics (see here) who suggested that the representations of the subordinate position of African-Americans was designed to stir up trouble. As Ed Guerrero says:

When a commercial film depicting a social issue or perspective challenges Hollywood’s strategies of ideological containment, that film usually comes under attack for inflaming and exacerbating the very problem that it seeks to expose, engage or change. (Guerrero, 2001: 18–19)

Although these films are dramatizing the social problem, right wing critics characterise them as being part of the problem. Unlike Zimmermann, the transport policeman was found guilty and sentenced to… two years (served 11 months). His defence was he thought he was firing his taser. The video footage, filmed by numerous onlookers (it was the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2009), may have helped get the conviction though this is doubtful as it didn’t help Rodney King get justice. The film starts with this ‘confused’ footage and then reconstructs Grant’s last hours, using a realist handheld camera style and shooting on Super 16 to avoid any slickness.

The film reminded me, as we followed Grant’s fairly ordinary last day, of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (US, 1977) as it focuses on ordinary people’s lives who happened to be black. It is strikingly rare to see such representations of ethnic minorities in cinema. Fruitvale Station was produced by Forest Whitaker’s Significant Productions, also responsible for the recently released Dope; presumably Whitaker is taking it upon himself to get the ‘African-American’ voice into film as Hollywood won’t do it.

I found the film compelling, not only because of the excruciating climax which is superbly staged, but also because of the performances: Melanie Diaz and Octavia Spencer, as Grant’s girlfriend and mother, are both standout. Ashley Clark’s perceptive review, in Sight & Sound, finishes with a quote from James Baldwin’s The Devil Has Work:

“The root of the white man’s hatred [for black men] is terror, a bottomless and nameless terror, which focuses on the black, surfacing, and concentrating on this dread figure, an entity which lives only in his mind.”

It seems, for many law enforcement officers, the only way to combat this terror is to shoot it.

Guerrero, E. (ed.) (2001) Do The Right Thing, London: British Film Institute.

Rabbit Proof Fence (Australia, 2002)

Crimes against humanity

Crimes against humanity

This ‘cry from the heart’ rattled Australia, apart from right-wing apologists, as it dramatised the racist treatment that ‘mixed race’ (‘half-caste’ in the words of the time) children suffered. The true story, set in the 1930s, of three young girls who rebelled against their treatment is intensely shot, Chris Doyle’s cinematography is as ‘out of this world’ as the story, and brilliantly performed. The three youngsters seem naturals for the camera and Kenneth Branagh is suitably stuffed as the ‘Protector’ of the Aborigines.

Director Philip Noyce, who made his name with some great films made during the renaissance of Australian cinema in the 1970s, frames the action with striking compositions. He’s equally at home with the drama of action and the necessary slow pace of the girls’ journey.

I’ve said very little about the narrative because it is barely believable: an extraordinary tale. The ending is particularly devastating. I’ve seen the film four times now and it improves with age.

The Riot Club (UK, 2014)

The state of things

The state of things

I hesitated to see this as I knew the antics of the ‘Bullingdon Club’ toffs would make me sick. Laura Wade adapted her play and Lone Scherfig directed what appears to be the ‘cream of British’ young male talent in this worthwhile film. The acting talent is very good: I don’t know their backgrounds but recent complaints, by the likes of David Morrissey among others, that unless you’re posh you’re not getting opportunities to join the acting profession, suggest maybe they know ‘posh’ behaviour intimately. Being ‘posh’ has always bequeathed an unfair advantage but after the increasing meritocracy we enjoyed in the post-war period, the pendulum has swung against the people since Thatcherism.

The Daily Telegraph reviewer thought the film to be humorous, whilst The Observer (not Kermode) felt we identified with the toffs too much to condemn their behaviour. There are accusations that the media is a ‘closed shop’, like acting, and it’s hard to square either of these responses with the film which is not funny and the ‘Riot Club’ boys, with one exception, are all scumbags.

I’m not sure my time was well spent as the film portrayed the British Establishment for what I know it is: corrupt and exploitative. Some might suggest it confirmed my prejudices but in a society where the poor are blamed for their poverty, whilst the rich wallow in their wealth, it is clear that we are fiddling whilst the planet burns.