Selma

Cast: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Andre Holland, Tessa Thompson, Wendell Pierce, Common, Giovanni Ribisi, Lorraine Toussaint, Cuba Gooding Jr., Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey, Martin Sheen

Director: Ava DurVernay

Writer: Paul Webb, Ava DuVernay


It is always tough for a film to capture the spirit of a person or an event. It is even tougher for a film to capture an idea. This is what Selma sets out to do as it tells the story of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Selma marches of 1965 and, on a greater level, of the struggle against racism in America. The campaign for equal rights has been a long and difficult fight and it is one that still rages on even today. It is astonishing to see how a film about an event that took place fifty years ago can deliver a message that still rings true and is still relevant. It takes a powerful film to deliver a powerful message and Selma delivers all of the passion, all of the vivacity and all of the resoluteness that Dr. King showed on the day that he walked into Montgomery.

The film opens with Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) being presented with the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite the recognition and the prestige that this accolade brings, the Human Rights Campaign is still far from over. Over in Alabama we see four African-American girls get killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church explosion and we see Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) applying for voting registration only to be unjustly rejected. King resolves to start actively pushing for the African-American right to vote and appeals to President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass a law that would enforce this right. Johnson however insists that he has other important issues to deal with and cannot give King what he wants at this time. One of the main controversies of this film is its portrayal of Johnson as being hesitant to help King, a portrayal that has been deemed historically inaccurate. However, to me at least, it seems both reasonable and believable that Johnson would have reservations and other concerns on his mind. Whether it was historically accurate or not, I think that it does a good job of highlighting and explaining the ambivalence exhibited by many well-intentioned people at this time. Subsequently, without the President’s backing, King travels to Selma, Alabama, and leads the charge for equal voting rights.

The fight proves difficult as King and his comrades come in opposition against the Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), a man who personifies the most hateful aspects of racism and prejudice. As Wallace adopts a policy of violence and brutality to combat King and the black Selma residents, King remains steadfast on maintaining a stance of non-violence. He is adamant that the only way the struggle of the African-Americans can be overcome is if they do not allow themselves to give in to aggression or hate. He instead insists that the people must place their faith and their trust into peace, love and God. This becomes more arduous and, in King’s view, all the more fundamental as the violence rages on and the death toll continues to rise. He then announces his intention to lead a 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery in the name of African-American suffrage. He hopes that by raising enough awareness of their plight and by casting a spotlight onto the crimes and the atrocities being committed upon them, he might be able to force the President into action. This leads many of King’s followers to question whether he truly has their best interest at heart.

The portrayal of Martin Luther King is undoubtedly the film’s driving force. Oyelowo delivers a layered performance as he portrays King both as an icon and as a man. He perfectly captures the voice and the mannerisms of Dr. King as he stands on the podium delivering those rousing speeches but he is also able to deliver a subtle and affective performance as he portrays King’s human side. Martin Luther King was undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary men of the 20th century, but he was a man nonetheless; a man with doubts, a man with fears, and a man with weaknesses. The film never tries to eulogise him but instead shows him as the man he was, warts and all. It never strays away from showing the more ignoble aspects of his life as we see in one particularly striking scene when King’s wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) confronts him on his infidelity. However they also show King as a man capable of extraordinary love and empathy, as shown when comes to the hospital to weep for a young victim of a hate crime and to comfort a grieving grandfather.

Ava DuVernay was not a name I was familiar with until I saw this film. She does an admirable job of depicting this monumental event and of the sufferings of the African-American people. She does not pull any punches as she shows just how cruel and how brutal these tribulations could become. She is also able to maintain a fair-minded approach to the story as she is careful not to idolise King. DuVernay provides balance by showing that there were those in Selma who disagreed with King’s methods and questioned his intentions. Even King has his moments of doubt when he starts wondering whether their cause is worth all of the suffering and casualties that it brings. DuVernay has been criticised for taking historical liberties and for portraying real life figures unfairly. However to criticise the film for its historicity is to miss the point. It’s not about capturing what happened, it’s about capturing the spirit of what happened. At the end of the day this is a film about the fight against prejudice and racism. This is a film about the centuries long struggle that is still ongoing today. It is about showing a single moment in time when a group of people came together and showed the world that they were not going to take it anymore, when they faced the obstacles and adversities that opposed them and triumphed.

Selma is a marvellous and a powerful film. It does an incredible job of capturing the inspirational and significant crusade of a people against an inveterate evil and of the extraordinary man who led them. It delivers an importantly relevant message as it shows us just how far we’ve all come but also how much further there still is to go. On top of that it also finishes on that kick-ass Oscar-winning song ‘Glory’ by John Legend and Common. On the whole it is an excellent and an important film that everyone should see.

★★★★★

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A Most Violent Year

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks, Elyes Gabel, Catalina Sandino Moreno

Director: J. C. Chandor

Writer: J. C. Chandor


In A Most Violent Year we are presented with a moral tale about a man who follows a path of truth and honour in the face of violence and corruption in his pursuit of the American Dream. It is a perilous path that he chooses as outside forces beyond his control threaten to bring him down. However, no matter how desperate his situation becomes, he refuses to abandon his principles and stray from his path. He carries on regardless, all the while placing his trust in the belief that whatever choices he must make along the way there is always one choice that is “most right”. He trusts that all will be well so long as he follows his moral compass and does what he believes to be the right thing. This proves to be very difficult and dangerous as he stands to lose everything that he has worked for.

The film is set in the backdrop of New York City in 1981, one of the most violent years in the city’s history. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant who runs a successful oil business, is in the process of making the biggest deal of his career when a series of his lorries are commandeered by armed men as they make their deliveries. Abel is an ambitious, strongly principled man who prides himself on having built a business from honesty, hard work and integrity. Even after one of his drivers is beaten to a pulp during one of the hijackings, Abel refuses to allow his employees to carry weapons. These incidents indicate that someone has targeted Abel and his company and that he must try to find and stop them. However things become worse for Abel when the district attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) informs Abel that a case is being built against him, accusing him of corruption and embezzlement. This takes a toll on Abel’s business as none of his partners will participate in this deal anymore.

The troubles that Abel faces threaten not only his business, but also his family. When Abel catches a man trying to break into his house in the middle of the night, his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) demands to know what is happening. Abel tries to assure her that everything is under control, only for Anna to later find their daughter playing with the intruder’s gun. Abel is left with no option but to tell his wife the truth. Chastain plays a Lady Macbeth type of character as she pushes her husband to resort to dishonest methods. She is just as ambitious as her husband but does not share his sense of morality. She has no qualms about keeping her family safe through immoral means, a view that often leads to clashes between her and Abel.

Isaacs, who appears to be channelling 1970’s Al Pacino in his performance, plays Abel with a calm and collected demeanour coupled with an underlying sense of panic. This is a man who is trying his utmost to keep everything under control, but finds himself struggling to cope as more of these problems keep slipping through his fingers. He is adamant that this business deal must happen and that it cannot wait until his legal troubles are over, and so he finds himself scrambling around trying to borrow the money that he needs. On top of that he struggles to keep his situation with the district attorney and the police under control, especially when they show up in the middle of his daughter’s birthday party with a search warrant for his house. His legal troubles become even worse when one of his lorry drivers is involved in a gun-related incident. He attempts to face his troubles with all the dignity he can muster, but he exhibits a clear sense of desperation beneath it all. As his difficulties get worse and worse, one wonders how long it will take before he finally snaps.

Despite the compelling struggle of Abel Morales and his ideological clashes with his wife and his associates, I found A Most Violent Year to be a somewhat underwhelming film mostly due to its lack of payoff. When all is said and done, the film never really builds up to anything and never really finds a resolution. I’m not convinced that Abel as a character has learned anything by the end, and so I find myself wondering what it was all for. The inaction that Abel displays may be necessary as a character motif, but in the end it ultimately builds up to something of an anti-climax. It certainly isn’t by any means a bad film; in fact I believe it to be a worthy addition to J. C. Chandor’s filmography. But ultimately I did not find it to be particularly effective or memorable.

★★★