Review – Selma

A defining moment in a nation’s history gets the film it deserves in this sure-footed drama that forsakes hagiography and gets to the human story between the lines.

Containing a message that remains just as pertinent as it did almost 50 years ago, the masterful Selma takes you to the cinematic promised land

Containing a message that remains just as pertinent as it did almost 50 years ago, the masterful Selma takes you to the cinematic promised land

With such weighty material to work with, director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb could so easily have served up a Hallmark-friendly Martin Luther King, Jr greatest hits package that ignored the man.

However, without MLK’s speeches to work with following the decision by his estate not to allow their use, the filmmakers have instead been liberated from the baggage those words bring with them to show us that King was a man just like anyone else; one trying to make the right choices in the face of almost overwhelming circumstances.

Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) takes President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to task in Selma

Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) takes President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to task in Selma

The strength of Selma comes from showing us King the politician, King the opportunist, King the strategist; while also having the bravery to sideline MLK for stretches to focus on his fellow activists as they prepare for the crucial 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches.

The length of the journey ahead is powerfully juxtaposed in the opening reel as King accepts the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, while in the next scene a Baptist church is bombed in Alabama, killing four young black girls. This is followed by Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) having her voter registration form denied in Selma by a white registrar on ridiculously spurious grounds.

On the march: civil rights supporters get to work in Selma

On the march: civil rights supporters get to work in Selma

Despite being granted an audience with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), MLK’s (David Oyelowo) calls on the Commander-in-Chief to enact legislation that will enable black citizens to register to vote unencumbered falls on deaf ears, with Johnson stonewalling the “voting thing”.

With Selma chosen by King as the staging post from which to march, the town becomes a hotbed for racial tension as a brutal police force, led by its racist Sheriff stand in the way of the peaceful protesters and state Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) stokes the fires from a safe distance.

Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) prepares to accept the Nobel Peace Prize with wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) in Selma

Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) prepares to accept the Nobel Peace Prize with wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) in Selma

By narrowing in on a relatively brief, but critical moment in the civil rights movement, Selma gives itself the luxury of being able to spend a healthy amount of time with some of the key figures, including Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), James Bevel (Common), John Lewis (Stephan James) and Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson). Just like any political movement, conflicting views exist on what strategy to take and DuVernay lets these scenes play out as tensions rise.

Oyelowo, meanwhile, presents King in a number of different ways, from the powerful orator with a gift for stoking a crowd with just the right amount of passionate indignation, to the leader getting his hands dirty on the frontlines. Away from the hullabaloo, Oyelowo paints MLK as a sinner doubting his path and struggling to maintain his marriage to the fiercely strong Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) in the face of huge pressure.

I fought the law: Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) in Selma

I fought the law: Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) in Selma

It’s a marvellously rounded and multi-faceted performance from Oyelowo and no mere caricature. The actor may have MLK’s preaching vocal inflections down to perfection, but there’s a lot more going on. Ejogo too gives an excellent account of herself as someone who isn’t just the wife of Martin Luther King, but a woman in her own right.

The infamous ‘Bloody Sunday’ horror show, when the protestors’ initial march on March 7, 1965 was thrown into chaos when they were brutally attacked crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge by police on horseback is distressing to watch and brilliantly shot by Bradford Young as terrified marchers flee through the eerie fog of tear gas whilst being mercilessly beaten.

Right-wing Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) in Selma

Right-wing Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) in Selma

Some have criticised the film for a heavy-handed depiction of Johnson, in particular for suggesting he authorised J Edgar Hoover’s FBI to dig up dirt on King. He’s portrayed as an opportunist (much like any other politician then) whose mind is reluctantly turned by the infamy of Bloody Sunday and at one point utters the ‘N’ word in conversation with the implacable Wallace (not one of Roth’s best performances). It’s perhaps fair to say that DuVernay doesn’t invest as much into these scenes as she does elsewhere, but every film needs its villain and the political establishment (led by the President) is it in the case of Selma.

Containing a message that remains just as pertinent as it did almost 50 years ago, the masterful Selma takes you to the cinematic promised land.

Debuts Blogathon: Quentin Tarantino – Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Debuts Blogathon

As the Debuts Blogathon, hosted by myself and Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, nears its end, we’ve saved one of the very best till last. Tyson from Head in a Vice is covering the one and only Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino’s hugely influential 1992 debut. Tyson was the first movie blogger to follow me and I’ve followed his posts ever since. His site is a real one-of-a-kind, providing entertaining reviews of genre fare, as well as his long-term Project: De Niro to watch and review all of Bobby’s films and his popular Desert Island Films feature (I promise to sort mine out soon!). Simply put, this is a fantastic site you really need to be following.

Quentin Tarantino

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

When Chris and Mark posted about this project, I immediately knew I could only do it if I could grab Quentin Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs.

Reservoir Dogs PosterFor my money, it’s the greatest directorial debut and the man has continued to inspire and make incredible movies in his uncompromising style. Luckily, I was quick off the mark and the boys gave me this movie to talk about. Now I have it, I’m here to offer my thoughts on the film, Tarantino himself and the lasting effects Reservoir Dogs has had on cinema.

Reservoir DogsWhat can I say about Reservoir Dogs that hasn’t already been said a million times, by people much more respectable than me? Not a lot, but I’ll throw some stuff out here anyway. For those that don’t know, the plot goes a little something like this: a diamond heist goes bad and the thieves are left to pick up the pieces back at their warehouse headquarters, all the while suspecting that a traitor in their midst sabotaged the operation.

Tarantino’s style can be seen immediately in the opening scene, and it showcases what most people associate Tarantino with – dialogue. The conversations his characters have in all his movies, I mean, you can tell a Tarantino film just by tuning in to a conversation. The smallest, most subtle things take on so much meaning and for me no one writes like this man. I didn’t see the film on its release (as I was 10-years-old), but I can imagine people watching it and wondering who the hell this Quentin Tarantino guy was; writing, directing and acting in his debut movie.

Reservoir DogsThen the opening scene kicks in and we are listening to some guys talking about random things like tipping and the subtext of Madonna’s Like a Virgin song. It just holds your attention, then the guys leave; the suave crew walking out of the diner in slow motion, set to the George Baker Selection’s super cool Little Green Bag. Wow. You’re just hooked, and here we are over 20 years later, the effect has not diminished at all.

Reservoir DogsI love how within this opening scene, where the issue of tipping the waitress comes up and Mr Pink’s refusal to tip, sets into action a discussion that not only tells us all we need to know about these characters, but even foreshadows the events of the film. Mr Pink won’t tip, showing he mostly cares only about himself (I’ll be honest, his argument is solid and I hate tipping). Mr White believes the waitress works hard and deserves a tip, which shows despite being a criminal he cares for people, which is what leads him to be so blindly trusting with regards to Mr Orange. Mr Blonde offers to shoot Mr Pink for a joke, foreshadowing his sociopathic tendencies. Mr Orange tells Joe that Mr Pink refused to tip, playing the part of a rat, which he is. Joe pressures Mr Pink to tip and he does, showing Mr Pink is ultimately a coward. All that is gleaned from an argument about a tip. That is great writing, and a standard which he has continued throughout his career.

Reservoir DogsIt’s a heist movie where we never actually see the heist. People always assume it’s a horrendously violent film, yet apart from the police torture scene – the camera even cuts away from the ear slicing – it really isn’t that violent. Most of it is set in a warehouse, with a small cast. Yet I can’t find a bad thing about it. Everything from the dialogue, to the cast and the music is not only perfect, but something which is synonymous with all of Tarantino’s films. He finds random music in Japanese clothing stores. He takes washed up actors and gives them the part of a lifetime. But mostly he just does what the hell he wants, when he wants.

Reservoir DogsAs a fan, the one thing I think I love more than anything else Tarantino-wise is that all the characters from his films are alive and real to him. They all play out in his head, and by doing so he has created an intricate, instantly recognisable movie universe – one which boasts a family tree of miscreants that overlap between movies in weird and wonderful ways. This chart shows the links, and it just emphasises the detail and thought that goes into everything he writes.

Reservoir DogsThese connections – however subtle they may be – bear little effect, if any, on the plots of Tarantino’s movies. Instead, they’re like Easter Eggs that reward observant onlookers: in-jokes that might mean nothing to us, but mean the world to their creator. Even in his early work, Tarantino was building his own giant playground, in which not only his individual movies co-exist, but their characters’ paths cross and intersect behind the scenes.

I could go on and on about it, but I’m merely scratching the surface. Ultimately Reservoir Dogs is a work of genius by a debut director and a film that, while he may have bettered in my opinion with Pulp Fiction, will easily stand the test of time. I’m hungry, let’s get a taco.

Over at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, Dave from ccpopculture provides a piece on New Zealand-born director Andrew Dominik’s 2000 debut Chopper. Head over to Chris’s site now by clicking here.

Tomorrow is the penultimate post in the Blogathon and comes courtesy of Shah from Blank Page Beatdown with his piece on Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave. Don’t miss it!