In Selma the film, Martin Luther King is a man who listens

March 1, 2015

I am too young to remember Dr Martin Luther King, but I am not that young that I have not been deeply influenced by his legacy as the leading American civil rights campaigner.

“Selma”, the biopic of a slice of Martin Luther King’s life, can be a deeply affecting experience, at least for those of us for whom the American civil rights movement remains an important cultural, political and social touchstone.

Director Ava DuVernay, an African-American woman who seems to have held many roles in film from publicist to writer and director, has arrived without fanfare to show us that she is one of the strongest directors in contemporary film. Her re-creation of historical events – a number of key activities taking place primarily in Alabama in the southern US – and her ability to portray recent historical figures on screen is astonishing, especially African-Americans: King himself (an amazing performance by David Oyelowo), Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Bayard Rustin, Mahalia Jackson, Ralph Abernathy, Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) and even a brief appearance by Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch). The white historical figures are equally as good: Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), Governor George Wallace of Alabama (Roth), J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) and a host of others. But the film’s ability to get “inside” the African-American characters gives them three-dimensionality, substance and coherent identity – that is this film’s greatest achievement.

I am not quite certain why “Selma” is not more popular in the USA, hovering just over US$50 million in the theatrical box office as I write this. While not a flop, this is by no means a success. Part of it may be the mini-controversy over the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson: the film shows a number of discussions between King and Johnson, and paints Johnson as deliberate, strategic (fair enough) but wanting to hold King back at every turn. “You have one cause to worry about,” Johnson says to King at one point, “I have 101 causes.”

Those who live outside of the USA, unless they have read widely in American history, have no true concept of the enduring stain and trail of social dysfunction and blight that the history of slavery and racism has left on that country. Even today, African-Americans are heavily over-represented in American jails and prisons: six times the rate of whites, and nine times the rate for young black in jail.

As the film “Selma” points out, institutionalised disenfranchisement of African-Americans did not end with the abolition of slavery by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. As late as the mid-1960s, African-American voting rights were widely ignored, particularly – and especially – in the south. Just to be clear, this meant that in large areas of the south at that time, African-Americans simply were unable to vote, enforced through a wide range of tricks, regulations and petty bureaucracies. In turn this meant that they could not serve of trial juries, with deeply negative implications for African-American interactions with the justice and court systems. The master strategist King understood all of that. In an early scene in “Selma”, an older African-American woman attempts to enrol to vote and is asked a wide range of questions, including reciting the preamble to the American Constitution (she can, can you?), and finally rejected. It’s a heartbreaking moment; the woman is Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey).

It’s a shame that “Selma” will not be more widely seen in the USA or even here in Australia, where it has barely registered with the audience, other than with film critics, who wholeheartedly endorsed it. The American civil rights movement had a direct effect on the cause of Indigenous justice here in Australia, inspiring a wide range of campaigners. But aside from Barack Obama, whose personal story captured the attention of many Australians, African-American stories are not popular here.

And finally, a comment as to why “Selma” is able to transcend the biographical film genre in new and unexpected ways. According to American film critic Max O’Connell, there are six ways to make a biopic live and breathe. I quote them directly from his review on letterboxd, rather than attempting to summarise:


1. Focus on one small part of the character’s life.
2. Focus on the backroom deals, the horse-trading, the deal-making and the compromises needed to make progress.
3. Cast an actor who’s as good a listener as David Oyelowo, who’s commanding without ever feeling pre-bronzed because he’s constantly leaning in to what everyone’s saying and weighing information.
4. On top of that, get someone like Ava DuVernay to direct, as she’ll get the least-showy performances out of both actors that tend to show off (Cuba Gooding, Jr., Giovanni Ribisi) or characters that beg actors to give show-stopping performances (George Wallace, LBJ). Everything is perfectly measured, and with the exception of Martin Sheen as the world’s most dignified judge, none of the stars are particularly distracting (also: props to Oprah for never making scenes about her even in movies that seem to encourage it, a la “The Butler”).
5. Show the violence honestly without ever lingering too much on the brutality, instead showcasing how it affects the people and how they’ll have to adapt (or not).
6. When dealing with questions of whether or not the film’s noble center was a flawed man, don’t dodge the issue (here, it’s MLK’s philandering). Show how it hurt the people around them. At the same time, show how it’s just one facet, not an all-consuming problem, and that it’s insignificant compared to the work he did.

I particularly love O’Connell’s point number 3: David Oyelowo’s King actively LISTENS to the people around him. This is something that a large number of leaders and those in power are unable or unwilling to do. King apparently did this, and in “Selma” Oyelowo illustrates it beautifully, in scene after scene. In his short film career – Oyelowo has also starred in “The Butler” – for me, this actor with the sonorous voice has already earned his place in the pantheon of great screen performances, Oscar nominations or not.

David Oyelowo in Selma


Film review of The Butler

November 13, 2013

Directed by Lee Daniels; written by Danny Strong; starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Elijah Kelly, Vanessa Redgrave, Cuba Gooding Jr, Robin Williams, James Marsden, Live Schrieber, John Cusack, Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda

Despite its many charms, the film “The Butler” struggles to capture American political, social and cultural history from the 1950s to the present day.  It’s a well-meaning and frequently enjoyable film with an all star cast, loving period detail (down the uniforms worn by 1960s US postal workers) and a genuine affection for both its topic and characters.

At 132 minutes, “The Butler” is both too long and too short, defeated by the task it has set itself – a virtual history of the American Civil Rights movement through the eyes of one man.  That man is Cecil Gaines, played by Forest Whitaker, whose dignified performance is surely ripe for an Academy Award nomination – and the film is worth seeing for Whitaker’s acting alone.  He’s a black man who becomes a butler in the White House in the 1950s, and witnesses Presidential history first-hand through numerous administrations over more than thirty years.  The film is based on a true story of Eugene Allen, the subject of a feature article in the Washington Post on the eve of Barack Obama’s election in November 2008.

Growing up in the rural south prior to World War II, Cecil (spoiler alert!) witnesses both the rape of his mother and murder of his father by a white southern landowner.  Taken in by a kindly old southern matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave), he learns how to be a “house nigger” (the movie’s term, not mine), carefully and quietly serving the white plantation owners.

To survive as a black man in 1950s and 1960s America, Gaines needs to keep his emotions in check.  He finds his way into bar tending, then a fancy Washington DC hotel.  From there he is recruited to serve as a butler in the Eisenhower White House.

All of Gaines’ fellow butlers are black men.  He works there for the next thirty-plus years from Eisenhower (played by an unusually low-key and badly cast Robin Williams) to Kennedy (James Marsden, who sounds the part does not look it) to Johnson (Liev Schrieber, who tries hard, but never reaches the “larger than life” sense of his character) to Nixon (an incongruously cast John Cusack, who appears to have lengthened his nose for the part, and does a valiant but unsuccessful job at capturing this most complex of presidents) to Reagan.  Ford is barely mentioned and I do not recall Carter appearing.  You see what I mean?  The enormity of this topic conspires to defeat the film-makers’ best intentions.

The Butler  2013(photo: Jane Fonda and Alan Rickman)

Ronald Reagan is played by British actor Alan Rickman, the most successful presidential portrayal.  How is it that Americans can play Brits and Brits play Americans so well – think Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher and Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln?  Worth pondering.  Jane Fonda plays Nancy Reagan, in one of the “The Butler’s” best in-jokes.  Fonda was once one of the most radical actors, including a notable visit to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War.  So when Fonda plays a iconic conservative First Lady, the result is, well, slyly funny.  She’s also devilishly good in the cameo role.

Along the way, Cecil marries Gloria, who is played by Oprah Winfrey.  Younger viewers may not recall that Winfrey has had an illustrious acting career, gaining an Oscar nomination for her role in Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple”, as well as starring in “Beloved”.

Cecil and Gloria have two kids:  Charlie, the younger (Elijah Kelly), goes to Vietnam.   Louis, the older one (David Oyelowo), lives through a breath-taking sequence of historical events (Forest Gump-like):  He is a “freedom rider” for civil rights in the south in places like Birmingham, Alabama, is arrested sixteen times, joins up with the Reverend Martin Luther King, and even sits with King prior to King’s assassination in Tennessee.  He later becomes a radical black activist, helps to found the Black Panther Party and has a girlfriend who looks exactly like Angela Davis.

Martin Luther King (played by Nelsan Ellis) supplies a useful dramatic addition to the story.  When Louis embarrassingly says to King that his father is just a butler, King gives an articulate defense of African-American butlers and maids.  As the Salon review summarises:

Black domestic workers, King tells Louis, have played an important role in the struggle for civil rights….  Maids, butlers, nannies and other domestics have defied racist stereotypes by being trustworthy, hardworking and loyal….  In maintaining other people’s households and raising other people’s children, they have gradually broken down hardened and hateful attitudes. Their apparent subservience is also quietly subversive.

Did King ever say this?  I have not been able to find it, at least not yet.  But the point of the film is that King COULD have said it, even if he did not.  It’s at this point that “The Butler” starts to gain some of its power that it has given away through too much narrative and incident.  If, like me, you lived in the United States during the development of the Civil Rights movement, “The Butler” may have special meaning.  It dramatises many of the events, including some we can only guess at (how various Presidents dealt with the race issue), and ultimately is both moving and memorable.

Gaines lives long enough in the film (as did his inspiration Eugene Allen) to see Obama elected to the Presidency in 2008.  Thankfully, we are spared an Obama appearance – although Orlando Eric Street was originally cast to play the current President, but does not appear.  (Apparently Barack Obama turned down the invitation to play himself.)  Plenty of time left for that.

The Butler poster


Footnote:  Will Whitaker win an Oscar for his role?  His character – ageing about sixty years throughout the course of the film – is just the sort of role that the “Academy” loves.  But here’s a prediction: he is nominated but does not win, losing out to someone in a “flashier” film such as Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips”, Robert Redford in “All is Lost” or – most likely – Chiwetel Ejiofer in “12 Years a Slave”.

Trivia corner:  A few years ago, Whitaker turned down the chance to play Obama in the film “My Name is Khan”.