Selma (2014)

It may be largely famous right now for its snub at the Oscars (though it was nominated for Best Picture), but I’m quite sure Selma will have a long life independent of that particular over-rated awards ceremony. For after all it covers one of the important stories of the US civil rights movement — Martin Luther King’s leadership of a voting rights rally in racially-polarised Alabama, and a march from the town of Selma to nearby Montgomery, the state’s capital — one that until now has largely been the preserve of documentaries, but one that still resonates even today (the rap over the closing credits draws direct parallels to events in Ferguson and other racially-motivated murders of black people). Its tone and style are still very respectful as one might expect — there aren’t a great deal of laughs here (you’d hardly expect any) — though everywhere the filmmakers are keen to try and stress the characters’ essential humanity, often occluded by hagiographic portraits of the period. There’s a lovely scene early on of King (David Oyelowo) being helped to tie his ascot by his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), and the film later alludes to his womanising. The closest the film comes to caricature is with the paranoid J. Edgar Hoover (surely understandable), and though Tom Wilkinson’s President Johnson sometimes seems set up as the natural antagonist to the civil rights movement, in fact he eventually comes round to accepting its aims and enshrining them in law (if this character arc seems a little too neatly fitted, then it’s also the one that’s caused the most controversy around the film). The filmmaking style is restrained and the dialogue scenes can sometimes seem stagy (I imagine this material would work well as a play), but you get the sense that its aim is not to overwhelm with auteurist style but to testify to the extraordinary characters involved in rally and march, and certainly it’s the faces and the acting which are to the fore. Particularly strong is David Oyelowo in the central role, and his background on the stage no doubt helped him convince as a man renowned for his natural charisma and oratorical skills; Oyelowo can certainly hold the attention of a room (or indeed a cinema). The film may at times feel didactic (and will no doubt be an important educational resource) but thanks to its talented cast and crew — including the excellent cinematographer Bradford Young, and its director Ava DuVernay — Selma is also a fine piece of cinema.

Selma film posterCREDITS
Director Ava DuVernay; Writer Paul Webb; Cinematographer Bradford Young; Starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Wednesday 11 February 2015.

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Belle (2013)

I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with the traditional period drama so beloved of English filmmakers. There’s something peculiarly retrogressive about that heady blend of overdressed men and women walking into, out of and around grandly decorated rooms in vast mansions, aristocratic seats of wealth and power, while talking about politics (if the character is a man) or matches that bring in £10,000 a year (for the ladies). And yet I’ve always been rather drawn to these overprivileged lives, with their finery and their petty concerns. At a certain level, Belle is no different: it has heritage sets, vast homes filled with art and beautiful furniture, and overdressed men and women entering and leaving its overdressed rooms. Yet its title character is one who would usually be doubly excluded from such a milieu, being a black woman. Her position is neatly signalled by repeated shots of her looking at paintings around the house which show black people subservient to their white masters, gazing adoringly upwards from prone positions in the corners of the canvases. The title character of Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has a quite different, and quite unusual, position in society, for her parentage to a British Navy Captain allows her to be raised within this overprivileged world and through the independent wealth this affords her can break traditionally gendered restraints to get involved directly in the political arguments of the time. These, of course, revolved primarily around slavery and its importance to the interests of the British Empire, and in this respect it’s particularly helpful that Dido Belle’s surrogate father is the Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), who is working on a case involving the human rights of slaves killed by a slave trader. This case (known as the Zong massacre after the ship involved), along with another he later worked on (Somersett’s Case) and which is sort of elided into it here, are small but crucial steps on the path towards the abolition of slavery and the film implies that his relationship with the mixed-race Dido is key to his decision. All of this is, on the level of historical record, fairly unclear — there is little documentary evidence of Belle’s life aside from a remarkable painting of her with her (white) cousin Elizabeth — but as a film, it’s all very nicely staged and enjoyably acted by a set of excellent thespians with much experience at this sort of thing.

Belle film posterCREDITS
Director Amma Asante; Writer Misan Sagay; Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid, Emily Watson; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Friday 27 June 2014.