REVIEW: Selma

7 01 2015

Selma” is not a Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic.

Or, I should say, “Selma” is not just a Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic.  It is so much more than just the story of one man.

Director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb create their “Lincoln,” a film concerning the premier orator of his era set in the twentieth century’s ’65.  This man, standing with little more than ideology and conscience, must work against a political establishment stacked against them.  What is right, in the minds of these officials, must take a backseat to what the voting public is ready to accept.

But DuVernay, thankfully, disposes of Spielberg’s hagiography of Honest Abe that reeked of cinematic mothballs.  She opts for a portrayal of Dr. King that focuses on who he was and what that allowed him to accomplish.  In a way, not receiving the rights to use King’s actual speeches makes “Selma” a stronger movie.  Whether organically or out of necessity, he becomes so much more than a collection of recognizable catchphrases that trigger memories of a high school civics class.

“Selma” certainly does not shy away from some character details that the history books often elide, such as his vehement opposition to the Vietnam War and his marital infidelities.  Dr. King, as portrayed by David Oyelowo, does not always don his shining armor, either.  The film’s most powerful display of racially motivated violence takes place when hundreds of protesters attempt to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, only to be brutally attacked by a cabal of police and townsmen alike.  King is not there with them.  He is at home, trying to smooth over a marital rough patch with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo).

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REVIEW: The Butler

17 08 2013

ButlerBased on the trailer for Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” I had prepared myself for “Forrest Gump: Civil Rights Edition.”  It looked to be in a filmmaking tradition of heavy-handed, cloying, and over the top shenanigans designed to easily trigger emotion.  As it turns out, I didn’t even have to resist because the film was not any of these things.

It was just a plain, bad movie.  “The Butler” is poorly written, unevenly directed, and meagerly acted.  It vastly oversimplifies history, both that of our nation’s struggle for civil rights and also the remarkable life of one man who served many Presidents with honor and dignity.  And in spite of its golden hues and stirring score stressing the importance of every moment, the film just fell flat the entire time.

Screenwriter Danny Strong writes the story of Cecil Gaines, Forest Whitaker’s titular character, into a parade of presidential caricatures – leaving out Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter since they apparently never grappled with civil rights.  (I’m ok with a narrowed portrait of history, just not a narrowed portrait of the people who made that history.)  Each man is a waxwork figure, a set of immediately recognizable traits tied up in a bow by a crucial civil rights decision, that happens to be served tea by the same man.

And every president is somehow swayed by the mere presence of Cecil, who will make a passing remark to each.  He’s apparently the perpetual Greek chorus of the White House or even the nation’s most influential civil rights adviser.  It’s a little ridiculous to infer causality here, even with a generous suspension of disbelief.  This trick worked in Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump” because it was done with a wink and a sense of humor.  It fails in “The Butler” because no one can seriously believe Cecil was an actual policy influencer.

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