Sign of the times – Selma (2014) Review

Selma posterAwards and nominations are not important. Forget them. What matters is the film itself; its message and our reaction to it. I say this to quickly dismiss the main story surrounding Selma and its lack of nominations at the Academy Awards. While the conversation regarding diversity, both in gender and race, in the current film industry is one that needs to happen, it all stems from the deeper message of equality – borne in the Civil Rights Act and depicted through the Alabama protest marches in Selma.

The title of the film combined with the poster provides an interesting quandary that will surely, for better or worse, affect the way an audience appreciates it. Selma is the name of the town and it became associated with the protest marches that took place there in 1965, but just as with the poster, the presence of Dr. King looms large in the retelling of those events. But Selma is not a Martin Luther King Jr. biopic, at least not in the truest sense of the word. Its focus is on the key battle in the fight for equal voting rights but it still cannot avoid looking at the man who the movement looked to as its recognisable leader.

Fortunate then that in David Oyelowo the film finds an actor at possibly the height of his powers, able to embody the passion and righteous energy that seemed to flow through Martin Luther King Jr. Even though Oyelowo is not given to the method acting techniques that have proved effective for others depicting historical figures, he disappears into the role entirely, nailing the signature diction in a way that feels richly authentic. Whenever he is on screen, his performance draws the eye and we hang on his every word in the way his supporters did. The scenes where King addresses assembled crowds capture the vibrancy and stirring nature of his oratory, not in word-for-word accuracy but packed with the same emotional punch nonetheless.

The grandeur of these speeches, entirely justified in their crowded settings, becomes less justified and more incongruous when it bleeds into the more ordinary exchanges between various members of the movement. After a while, everyone seems prone to giving mini-proclamations about hope, truth, and so on, and this unfortunately takes something away from the words that are projected from the lecterns. Speaking about Dr. King, director Ava DuVernay has talked of the desire when making Selma to “try to portray him as an ordinary man who did great things” and this is certainly achieved to some extent, particularly in small scenes of his home life. But while Oyelowo’s performance is mercurial – the pain and burden of responsibility etched onto his face – his relationships are never fleshed out enough to give us more than a glimpse behind the curtain. We see him as the weary leader, the stirring orator, and the calculating tactician, and yet there’s still something not accounted for.

Selma march

All the supporting players, from Coretta King to Malcolm X to LBJ are represented but are a bit shallow in their characterisation. They all seem to be slightly underwritten, and even though the actors make the most of what they’ve been given, the depths of their characters remain unexplored e.g. Tim Roth is all racial hatred and nothing else. It’s a small gripe to be sure, but one that if addressed might have given the film another layer to carry the weight of its message.

As mentioned before however, to heap the success or failure of the film entirely onto Oyelowo’s shoulders would not be true to its focus, and it’s here that DuVernay’s firm directorial hand is most apparent as we are taken step-by-step through the protest marches. This methodical approach keeps the film on track, and the steady pace allows the tension to build in a very natural way so that when the pivotal moments occur you can never fail to feel what is at stake here. DuVernay exhibits a commitment to the retelling that means she never stylizes events to the point where they lose their impact. The scenes of brutality – given an added discomforting edge due to events in Ferguson last year – are shocking but never gratuitous, and really hit home when considered today.

Despite its flaws, Selma is at its most powerful when seen as a marker of the progress of racial equality, especially at the time of its release which sadly adds even more poignancy than anticipated. The efforts of Martin Luther King Jr. and so many others in the Civil Rights Movement show that great strides have been accomplished and while the final goal is still a way off, it can be achieved. Selma understands this and reminds us of it with its final scene which is filled with hope. It’s not the greatest film of our time but it is important and it will not fail to move you. The collective awards may not have recognised it as much as it deserves, but Selma deserves to be recognised by as wide an audience as possible.

Becoming a Symbol – Spartacus (1960) Review

Spartacus posterIn Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne comes to the realisation that he has to become more than just a man in order to fight crime in Gotham. He must become a symbol, and by doing so he will become incorruptible. Part of this same idea runs in the background of Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus, where a Thracian slave-turned-gladiator dares to defy the might of Rome and win not only his freedom, but freedom for all those enslaved by her.

You may have noticed how I attributed this production entirely to the film’s lead actor even though he was not in the directors chair. This is because even though our man Stanley was behind the camera – hired after Anthony Mann was fired – he barely registers any impact on the finished product. It’s Douglas who seems to be the driving force and while he is the centre, it feels as though we have been forced to focus on him even though there’s more interesting stuff occurring elsewhere. The film is devoid of Kubrick’s verve and ingenuity, and plays out entirely how I expected as a standard historical epic.

That’s not to say that Spartacus isn’t an engaging piece of cinema and for all of its 196 minute runtime – including overture and intermission – it never had me bored. We start in the mines of Libya, where an enslaved Spartacus still kicks against the goads of his masters. He is then snatched up by gladiator trainer Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) and taken to Italy. It is here that he meets and falls in love with serving woman Verinia (played by Jean Simmons), who is always lit softly in close-up giving her an ethereal quality. Classic Hollywood stuff. I have to say that their relationship does not seem so believable but I do like the way it begins; they are thrown together initially, essentially for the entertainment of their cruel overseers, but there’s something between them and through prolonged glances and fleeting touches they grow closer together.

After a visit from the delightfully imperious Crassus (Laurence Olivier), where a select few gladiators are picked to fight to the death – uncommon in the training schools – they decide that enough is enough and their escape is long overdue. After taking back their freedom they rally to Spartacus, and as an army they plan to march to the coast to return to their various homes. Kirk Douglas does his best steely resolve as the leader of the resistance but he’s too much of a moral paragon, a bastion of all that is good and right, without any flaws. It’s this that elevates him from man to symbol but at the expense of any heart and empathetic response from the audience. As a story of freedom I’m immediately on the side of the slaves, as is everyone who watches this, but I’m not that interested in Spartacus himself.

Laughton uses his dulcet tones to sway the senate.

Laughton uses his dulcet tones to sway the senate.

The major upside of the rise of Spartacus as an anti-Roman figurehead is the impact this has on the governing body of Rome herself – the senate. It’s here where the real meat of the drama lies, as conniving politicians manoeuvre and use the slave uprising as a pawn in their own games for ultimate power. The cast is stuffed with fine actors; Ustinov and Olivier I have mentioned, also John Gavin, John Dall, Tony Curtis and Charles Laughton. Those in the senate have a tremendous time with their roles and it’s a joy to see Laughton going toe-to-toe (politically speaking of course) with Olivier while the meek Ustinov steals a lot of the scenes with this fretting and fawning.

Earning it’s right to be called an epic, Spartacus makes good on the promise of grand scale. Impressive vistas fill the entirety of the wide frame and even indoor scenes are lush and vibrant. It all looks fantastic, and I’m only disappointed I couldn’t watch it on the big screen. Particularly in this age of CGI, the older blockbusters become all the more impressive for their scale because of the simple fact that every soldier you see marching in an army is an extra, and the battle scenes are all the more spectacular for it.

I’m always wary when approaching a film that has become a respected classic over the years, worried that it might not hold the same wonder that it did for audiences years ago, and while I don’t believe that Spartacus warrants all the praise it has accumulated, it’s certainly a great film. Perhaps what sets it apart most is its ending. By no means a happily-ever-after but sombre and befitting the man who stood as a symbol against Rome. Kubrick may have disowned it, but Spartacus is an entertaining tale with universal appeal.

Next time on my Kubrickian journey, Stanley courts controversy with Lolita.
My review of Kubrick’s previous film, Paths of Glory, can be found here.