Selma

Given the ongoing racial tension in America, it’s clear that the events of Selma are as relevant today as ever. Much has been made of the fact that it has taken half a century for such a film to be produced, and that the Oscars were significantly lacking not only in nominations for this film but for any non-white actor. But I can’t help feeling that not only is this a more important film than Birdman, it will be remembered long after many of the nominated films are forgotten as a much-needed reminder that America, and the world, still has a long way to go when it comes to racial and social inequality.

While criticisms have been levelled at Selma for its portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson and perceived historical inaccuracies, it brings to the fore the supremely complicated racial situation in ‘60s America and hints at the historical context of these events while documenting the roots of modern tensions.

Johnson must negotiate the political system and deep-rooted institutionalised racism while balancing his conscience with popular American and world opinion. It is his role to represent all American people but also to prevent dangerous civil unrest. The failure of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to prevent de facto segregation and grant access to voter registration demonstrates the complexity of overcoming the visceral and reactionary fear and hatred of many Southern communities and officials towards African American communities.

David Oyelowo’s performance dominates the film; the gravitas and oratorical skill of an iconic leader blend with the humanity of a man burdened with the responsibility of being the voice of the disenfranchised as they fight the system.

When looking at historical events such as these it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing human progress to be inevitable. Selma highlights the passion, bravery and determination of those who campaigned coupled with the political skill of those who led the movement as integral to the progress that has been made in America since the events of the film.

It is also easy to look at these events with a moral superiority and the belief that they belong to a distant past, but events such as the shooting of Michael Brown (in 2014) should remind us that this history has a legacy and that the fight for racial equality continues.

Bearing this in mind I’m delighted that Selma did win an Oscar with Best Original Song going to Glory; not only because it is powerfully moving and the perfect ending to the film but because in their acceptance speech John Legend and Common so eloquently expressed the importance and relevance of this film in the modern world.

John Legend:

“We say that Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now. We know that the Voting Rights Act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today. We know that right now, the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today then were under slavery in 1850. We are with you, we see you, we love you and march on”.

Lincoln

Lincoln is an understated film; for most of its duration it is essentially lots of middle-aged men arguing about politics. Yet it remains thoroughly engaging for its two and a half hour duration – largely due to the excellent performances of all involved, but in particular Daniel Day-Lewis

While Day-Lewis faces the challenge of playing an American icon (helped by an uncanny physical resemblance), he does at least benefit from the distance that time brings. Whereas Meryl Streep’s performance in The Iron Lady can be held up and judged against personal memories and recordings of Thatcher herself, Day-Lewis has the space in which to form his own portrayal of such an iconic figure (albeit preceded by countless other interpretations). Day-Lewis brings humanity to the role, inhabiting the man and avoiding being dwarfed by Lincoln’s legacy.

There’s long been a tradition of focussing on the big men in history, often at the expense of the wider picture. The leading protagonist in a movement is idolised, with historical change ascribed to their actions alone. This is especially true of those who are martyred to their cause – in the public imagination Martin Luther King is often seen as almost single-handedly responsible for and representative of the Civil Rights Movement. While the film’s focus on Lincoln subscribes to this convention, it doesn’t idolise him. He is an excellent politician but a Machiavellian one; lying, bullying and bribing his way to the success of the Thirteenth Amendment.

The film encapsulates the contemporary debate about emancipation – even among those supporting the bill there are conflicting viewpoints, over the nature of “equality” and the practical reality that would follow emancipation. Public opinion did not tend to favour abolition of slavery; Lincoln was forced to sell the Amendment as the final blow to defeat the Confederacy.

The film concludes with the Amendment being passed by the House of Representatives, but in reality abolition was only the first step to equality; there was and still is a long way to go, despite the great progress occurring in the following century. It would probably have been beyond the imagination of most contemporary Americans to consider that in less than 150 years there would be a black President of America. Today, Obama is hoping for a progressive second term with action on immigration, gay rights and gender equality, despite a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, and issues such as race, abortion and homosexuality are a deep divide within American society. Spielberg’s film is an aptly timed comment on American political culture, as well as an intriguing portrait of one of America’s most loved and mythologised presidents.

Les Mis

Les-Mis-Wallpaper

As a massive fan of the musical, the much-hyped film adaptation of Les Mis had a lot to live up to, so it was with slight trepidation that I went to see it. But I needn’t have worried; Tom Hooper’s version captured the spirit of the show while adding a visual scale impossible to capture on stage. The only scene that I felt didn’t live up to this was the barricade scene, with the revolutionaries’ paltry construction looking a bit pathetic on screen.

When I heard that Anne Hathaway had been cast as Fantine I was a bit dissapointed; I’m not a massive fan since she single-handedly ruined One Day for me, but I was pleasantly surprised. She may not have been able to master the Yorkshire accent but she can certainly sing, and she pitched her performance perfectly for the extreme close up.

In general the casting is spot on, with Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen giving notably understated, yet still grotesque, performances that bring some comic relief amidst the gloom. They are indicative of the altered tone of the movie – more nuanced and less ‘theatrical’ than the stage musical. The big name performances all deliver, particularly Hugh Jackman and Eddie Redmayne, but the entire cast is strong: Samantha Barks (Éponine), Aaron Tveit (Enjolras) and Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche) all give excellent performances.

Some of the voices aren’t the strongest – I think I’ll still be listening to the original cast recording – but full-out musical-style belting might have felt out of place, and the live singing brings life and feeling to the lyrics that would have been lacking had the songs been dubbed.

The film couldn’t achieve the connection with the audience that appears uniquely with live performance; it felt wrong for One Day More to end in silence, rather than to rapturous applause, and in some ways this reduced its emotional impact. Yet the film managed to retain the emotion and atmosphere, the essence of the stage production – while the screen removes you from the action, the ability to choose shots and use close ups means that every viewer has the best seat in the house and ensures that the emotional connection with the characters and their stories isn’t lost.