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”.

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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.

Frankenstein, and National Theatre Live

Last year I was lucky enough to be able to see both versions of Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein at the National Theatre, with both Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature, and as Frankenstein. Yesterday I took the opportunity to catch Cumberbatch as the Creature again, at a National Theatre Live screening. The production was excellent, with Cumberbatch standing out as the Creature (as he did as Frankenstein). Cumberbatch has carved a niche for himself as the go-to actor for posh and emotionally repressed (Sherlock, David Scott-Fowler in After the Dance, and soon to be Christopher Tietjens in Parade’s End). But as the Creature Cumberbatch shows his versatility and physicality. Cumberbatch commands attention, even though for a substantial part of the first half he doesn’t speak.

Jonny Lee Miller and Naomie Harris give excellent performances but Cumberbatch as the Creature sustains the production. While initially the Creature embodies the joys of living Cumberbatch goes on to capture the increasing despair of a lonely man, abandoned by his creator and rejected by society, his humanity and kindness destroyed by successive confrontations with the world.

At the start the camera was inclined to zoom around and over the stage, but once it settled down the showing was almost as good as the theatre, capturing the atmosphere as closely as possible. As with the showing of She Stoops To Conquer I attended (which featured videos on the play’s costumes as well as an interview with director Jamie Lloyd) the screening featured an interesting video discussing the production.

NTLive is an excellent way to reach out to new audiences, both in the UK and abroad. These screenings are accessible to those not able to reach London and developing new audiences at NTLive can only be beneficial for ticket sales at the National Theatre itself. Recording these performances also preserves them for posterity and allows further showings such as the current screenings of Frankenstein. The screening may also have been beneficial for the two girls I was sitting next to, who were holding hands and hyperventilating at the sheer anticipation of Cumberbatch’s appearance on screen. Who knows how they would have coped with the prospect of seeing him on stage in person?!

Other companies are following the National Theatre’s example, with the Donmar Warehouse’s production of King Lear being broadcast as part of NTLive last year. The Royal Opera House also has a live cinema season. The increasing tendency for organisations to broadcast their live performances can only be a good thing as it broadens access to, and encourages engagement with, audiences.