Selma (2014)

Selma-David-Oyelowo-Carmen-Ejogo-I’m always a bit sceptical when it comes to biographical dramas. People who, indeed, have done great things in their lives are too often shown as perfect, flawless, almost God-like human beings. But the fact that someone managed to achieve something great, doesn’t necessarily mean they were great in every aspect of their lives. Being human also means being imperfect – and this is where Selma gets it right. Even though this is a film about one of the most important and influential people in the history of USA, director Ava DuVernay manages to show Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) as someone who is not only a preacher and a civil rights activist, but also a man with self-doubt and marriage problems. And it’s exactly because of those details that King manages to come across as a truly extraordinary man and not as some distorted, glorified history figure that seems all too good to be true.

This is one of the best biographical films I’ve ever seen that has brought me to tears on numerous occasions, although some may argue that it is not the most historically accurate one, since the right to use King’s real speeches was denied to the filmmakers. But what may very well ended up being a film about Luther delivering his famous speeches, inspiring people all over the USA to push for voter-registration reform, managed to become something much bigger in Ava DuVernay’s hands.This is not so much a film about a certain inspiring individual, as it is a film about a vision and courageousness of the entire African-American population. It focuses on all the people involved in the protests – on the citizens of Selma, Alabama and those who travelled to the South to march from Selma to the state capitol, Montgomery, to protest black disenfranchisement at the polls. Every activist present at the protests was important and deserves recognition, because King did not act alone – he had Tessa-Thompson--Selma_article_story_largepeople who helped him, worked with him, gave him advice, and Ava DuVernay manages to acknowledge that. As Ty Burr beautifully put it: ““Selma” knows we want the story of the icon, but it’s the crowd, and King’s place in it, that surges history forward and gives this movie its lasting power.

However, DuVernay’s portrayal of President Johnson sparkled some controversy. Only a day after Selma‘s limited Christmas opening, former advisor of President Johnson, Joseph A. Califano, published an article in The Washington Post, where he argues that “Selma was, in fact, LBJ’s idea“:

Film falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and even using the FBI to discredit him, as only reluctantly behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as opposed to the Selma march itself. In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted — and he didn’t use the FBI to disparage him. (Califano 2014)

Of course, how could they ever made a film where African-American population took matters into their own hands and tried to shape their own future? Where is Brad Pitt, who rescues Solomon Northup from slavery in 12 Years a Slave? Where is Emma selmaStone who tries to help African-American maids in The Help? This is quite possibly the first time the African-American minority had the opportunity to tell the history as they see it, from their point of view. As Bailey summed it up:

Johnson does not come off like a civil rights-obstructing monster, but merely as a savvy politician who doesn’t share King’s sense of urgency. A peek at his own voting record indicates that LBJ wasn’t always a friend to the movement; whether his subsequent (laudable!) efforts were the result of an honest change of heart or merely smart politics is a question historians continue to ponder. Selma tends to lean towards the former interpretation, and that’s part of what’s so infuriating about this manufactured furor: that a woman of color gets a chance to tell an important story about civil rights, and she’s critiqued by white sycophants, progressives, and Oscar bloggers for not giving enough credit to the white guy.

And as Ava DuVernay herself explained:

People say that I painted LBJ as a villain, which is not what I was trying to do. Our intention was not to say anything other than that these were two great minds who were in a chess match at times. It wasn’t a skip through the park that they came to this Voting Rights Act. I mean the very fact that these citizens had to walk and march twice unprotected, unassisted; to face state troopers with no federal aid — that was a big point of contention. Yes, the president did come on board eventually; yes, he did eventually order the federal protection; yes, he did pass the Voting Rights Act; yes, there were nuances and challenges as far as what was happening in Washington that made him have to take pause and play a tactical game with timing. But the bottom line is this is what we know in the film: It was a timing issue and King was always saying, “The time is now. The time is not to wait.” This film is not about LBJ. This is a film that’s about the people of Selma and the black leadership of Selma and the allies who came to the aid of black people who were being terrorized in Selma. And one of those allies turned out to be, eventually, LBJ in this particular situation. (Ava DuVernay 2015)

This is an exceptional film about an exceptional historical figure. Director Ava DuVernay (who became the first black female director to earn a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director and who will quite possibly become the first black director nominated for an Oscar) managed to recreate one of the most horrific and brutal events of the 60’s, and with that she created one of the most powerful and heartbreaking films of the past year. The cinematography by Bradford Young (who’s previous work includes Pariah and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) is breathtaking and the acting is superb. David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Martin Luther King is absolutely outstanding, as is Carmen Ejogo as King’s wife Coretta. But even though the film portrays the events that happened 50 years ago (3 years before King’s assassination), it is hard to overlook how little has changed since then – with the recent shooting of Michael Brown and the suffocation of SELMAEric Garner, King’s battle clearly still hasn’t been won. Far from it. King’s complaint about Alabama being 50% black with only 2% of black population allowed to vote, has curious parallels to modern-day Ferguson, Missouri, with predominantly black population and predominantly white police force. The brutal violence that police meted out against peaceful protesters on Bloody Sunday (March 7, 1965 demonstration) on the Edmund Pettus Bridge also reminds us of the aftermath in Ferguson and Eric Garner grand jury decision. As DuVernay responded on the question about the film being timely: “It’s always going to be timely, because times haven’t changed for us“, to which the cinematographer Young added: “When you think about it that way it’s not about being timely, it’s just highlighting out continuous struggle to be human beings in the world.”  (Yamato 2014)

List of references:

The Basics:
Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Written by: Paul Webb
Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth
Running Time: 128 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 9

Whiplash (2014)

Whiplash is an intense drama about an aspiring jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (played by Miles Teller) who attends a fictional music school, named Shaffer Conservatory. Barely 19-years old, he is spotted by an infamous, but brilliant conductor Terence Fletcher (outstanding J.K. Simmons) whose jazz band needs a new drum alternate. Andrew manages to get the spot, but what may seem like a dream come true at first, a real breakthrough, soon turns into the worst possible nightmare. Fletcher is egoistic, bad-tempered, devilish and intimidating and his monstrous working methods don’t exclude verbal attacks, psychological torture, slapping and throwing chairs in his student’s heads. His God complex seems to give him a permission to constantly humiliate his entire band – and they have no other option than to suck it all up or quit music forever.

Oh dear God – are you one of those single tear people? You are a worthless pancy-ass who is now weeping and slobbering all over my drumset like a nine year old girl!” Simmons is one of the most mesmerizingly horrifying men cinema has seen in a long time and as Ty Burr brilliantly put it in The Boston Globe: “When Fletcher stops the band and tells a player “That’s not quite my tempo,” it’s the judgment of an Old Testament God.” Fletcher’s uncompromising character is also one of the reasons that Whiplash picked up a nickname “Full Metal Julliard” at last years Sundance Festival (where it won the Grand Jury Prize).

Everything Fletcher does is supposedly done for their own good. He believes that there are no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job” and this is why he’s pushing them to their limits and beyond. But are his students really strong enough to survive this constant pressure? Are they able to withstand the constant humiliation in front of the whole classroom and turn this fear of Fletcher into anger – and finally, anger into music?

Andrew is quiet, introverted and from what it seems, friendless guy, whose only wish is to become a great drummer. But is he determined and tenacious enough to survive Fletcher? We quickly come to realization that he’s much stronger than it may look at first. Although a little awkward and shy around girls and still going to the movies with his dad, he becomes more confident after he gets accepted into Fletcher’s inner circle. During a family dinner with his cousins, there’s no trace of his shyness anymore – he’s become cocky and disrespectful towards other family members who seem to be satisfied with living a mediocre life (“I’d rather die drunk and broke at 34 and have people at dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was“). If we were afraid at the beginning how Fletcher will eat him alive, it is clear by now that the two actually deserve each other. Fletcher has finally got a student who’s up to the challenge and Andrew (who doesn’t just want to earn Fletcher’s approval, but in some weird way actually wants to become like him) is more than willing to practice until blood splashes all over his drumset. It isn’t long before there’s a war going on between the two narcissistic egomaniacs. Is it possible for the both of them to come out of it alive?

There has been some criticism about how Chazelle “misses the point of jazz”, how he makes it all pain and no fun. But all of us who went to music school know how realistic his portrayal of practising music actually is. Because music is not just about being creative and expressing yourself – it can also be about pushing yourself over the boundaries and practising until nearly passing out. As Chazelle himself explained:

I do believe in pushing yourself. If you actually take the idea of practice seriously—to me, practice should not be about enjoyment. Some people think of practice as “You do what you’re good at, and that’s naturally fun.” True practice is actually about just doing what you’re bad at, and working on it, and that’s not fun. Practice is about beating your head against the wall. So if you’re actually serious about getting better at something, there’s always going to be an aspect of it that’s not fun, or not enjoyable. If every single thing is enjoyable, then you’re not pushing yourself hard enough, is probably how I feel. But this movie takes it to a extreme that I do not condone. (Chazelle in Robinson 2014)

It seemed impossible to me that a simple story about a musician who wants to realize his dreams could work as a thriller. There has been too many films focused on aspiring musicians and musical prodigies that didn’t quite work (1980’s film Fame comes to mind and I’d rather not even mention the awful August Rush). But 29-years old Damien Chazelle’s second feature film showed me wrong. This was easily one of last year’s best thrillers (and I’ve seen Gone Girl and Nightcrawler) where you’ll find yourself sitting on the edge of the sit, gasping for air. There is no chasing cars, no horrible crime or murder to solve. This is a thriller about a guy who is drumming his ass off. Who knew drumming could be so exciting?

I had seen a lot of music movies that celebrated music or that showed the kind of joys from playing music, which is a big part of it of course, and not something that I would want to deny. But I hadn’t seen that many movies that really go deep enough into the fears of playing music, or the language that musicians can use to treat each other, or like the way that you can see it dehumanize and the way that it can feel like boot camp. (Chazelle in Dunaway 2014)

The impressive jazz score (by Justin Hurwitz – you can listen to it here) is one of film’s strongest and most impressive components, but what stands out nearly as much as the music is the brilliant editing by Tom Cross. It isn’t until the final 15 minutes that Whiplash truly turns into a mesmerizing and breathtaking thriller and achieves the greatness (with the most magnificent directing, editing, sound recording and acting) you never imagined it could. A truly amazing (and surprisingly confident for a second-time director) film that will stay with you for a long time after you’ll leave the cinema. Whiplash is also a film that (once again) showed us the undeniable talent of Miles Teller and that will hopefully be able to redefine Simmons’s career.

List of references:

The Basics:
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Written by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miler Teller, J. K. Simmons, Paul Reiser
Running Time: 106 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 8.5