A United Kingdom**** Uplifting


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Amma Asante’s brilliant new movie, “A United Kingdom” is part tender love story, part virulent attack on (one of the many) ugly side(s) of the British Empire. She pulls off the delicate balancing act of engaging us in the very human, intimate story of a love, powerful enough to take on the anger of the empire (and the contempt of its citizens), while at the same time, telling the bigger story about leadership, nation building and freedom. To Asante, these two parallel stories embody the tensions of love/togetherness/nobility on the one hand, versus empire/division/dishonesty on the other.

The story is set in the period just after the war, in a perennially grey, foggy, cold London…where Ruth Williams (a compellingly strong Rosalind Pike) meets and falls in love with Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo, from “Selma”). The problem is, she’s White and he’s Black. And to the White society in which they lived at the time, this interracial cohabiting is an abomination. Because of her choice of a mate, Ruth slips from dutiful daughter and trusted worker to someone contemptible; someone to be expunged- from family (her father is the first person to reject her) and from society.

The more complex problem is that Seretsy is no ‘mere’ Black man: he is Prince Seretse Khama, the King in waiting to the British Protectorate, then called Bechuanaland (now Botswana). There, a parallel rejection occurs: Seretse’s uncle (Vusi Kunene), his de facto father, and the present ruler, will not tolerate a White daughter in law. As he puts it, just as there would be no tolerance for a British Royal to marry a Black person, so too there can be no tolerance for the Royal family of Botswana to accept a White outsider as the country’s queen.

Call it political pragmatism, call it tradition, bigotry begets bigotry.

What neither the uncle nor the British establishment counted on was the rock steadiness of Ruth and Seretse’s love, and of their mutually reinforcing determination to defy injustice, no matter the personal sacrifice.

Asante’s last movie, “Belle”, also dealt with the issue of bi-racial love, and sought to link its demands for equality with the move toward the abolition of slavery. As “A United Kingdom” suggests, one hundred plus years after its abolition, White disgust at Blackness (in those early post war years) remained unchanged.

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In the movie, the Empire, whether led by an amoral Clement Attlee or a bigoted Winston Churchill – both of whom would have no truck with this Black King and his White wife – is presented as generally mendacious, deceitful and lying. And its sneering, supercilious embodiment is Sir Alastair Canning (Jack Davenport better known as Norrington from”The Pirates of the Caribbean”). Canning is a minor historical footnote that, at Her Majesty’s pleasure, sought to divide Khama from his country and wife through any means at hand; all so as not to offend apartheid South Africa.

In the end, Asante suggests that the glue of love and unity (plus a hearty mixture of luck and Seretse’s cunning counter-moves) was a more powerful force than the cynicism of the British strategy of divide and conquer.

Love as guerilla warfare.

(Though Botswana was fortunate: the Tswana represents over 80% of the population…so the possibility of a united kingdom was perhaps easier than most of British Africa whose tribes were arbitrarily reshuffled by the ignorant dividing pen of colonial cartography)

Guy Hibbert, the writer, who wrote the superb “Eye in the Sky”, allows us to be both wooed by the romance and outraged by the history. In “A United Kingdom” he manages to personalize Westminster politicking -whose smug haughtiness was the spark that fired up the Khama’s even as it lit the bonfires of independence around the Empire

And Streatham born Amma Asante offers us a view of Bechuanaland – honest; matter of fact – without the exoticism that so many other directors, either gob-smacked by the beauty of Africa or ostentatiously saddened by its poverty, tend to succumb to (Sydney Pollack in “Out of Africa”).

Though, in those few scene-setting flashes we saw of the magnificent Okavango delta, I wish she’d have been a little bit less restrained and offered us more. No matter, what was on offer in “A United Kingdom” was a full bounty of magnificent movie making

 

A United Kingdom. Dir: Amma Asante. With: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton. Writer: David Hibbert. Cinematographer: Sam McCurdy

 

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SELMA***** King of the Oscars


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THE OSCAR NOMINATIONS this year for movie of the year have by and large veered largely between the decorous (“The Theory of Everything” and “The Imitation Game”), the inoffensive (“Whiplash”, The Grand Budapest Hotel”and “Boyhood”) and the despicable (“American Sniper”). Really, only two stand out; only two don’t seem to have been written by accountants, lawyers and marketing men… shorn of passion, and burnished into an inoffensive safety zone: “Birdman”, that delirious, trippy flight of redemption and the extraordinary “Selma”. The latter is the stunningly powerful, emotionally rich and flawlessly directed movie that focuses on that one moment in America’s modern civil war when, in 1965, the State unleashed horrendous violence on its Black population as they struggled to get voter registration. Into this cauldron of hate and anger emerged one of its most powerful leaders, Martin Luther King.
Director Ava DuVernay has given us a movie of rare, raw and heartfelt passion. It zeros in on King’s uncompromising drive to make the constitutional freedom to vote – denied to the Black community ‘down South’ – a legal, actionable reality. The movie’s success is that, from that first shocking explosion, it manages to breathe felt life into the often abstract idea of the qualities that make for true leadership, as embodied by her all too human hero.

The storytelling unfolds on two interconnected levels: the historical events that took place at Selma (some of the footage is actual TV footage of the carnage), and – “cometh the moment, cometh the man”- the man whose leadership transformed a country.
But the movie isn’t about King per se. It’s not one of those ‘warts and all’ bio-pics. It’s about the idea of leadership. This is not to say that we aren’t privy to a strong sense of the man. DuVernay, and the outstanding David Oyelowo as King, give us a man who is thoughtful, eloquent, empathetic and deeply spiritual. He is also stubborn, and, we are told, unfaithful (that’s the warts side). He is the good father and the flawed husband. But he is more, and this is where the movie’s focus lies.

“Selma” offers us a meditation on the nature of leadership. We see three contrasting examples of it: LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) is the amoral politician, the leader of the nation for whom ‘the Negro question’ is just a pain in the ass; George Wallace (Tim Roth), governor of his State is a segregationist demagogue, gutlessly egging on his voting base still locked into a plantation mentality. To these two archetypes add the Black warrior activists intent on the catharsis violence.

King has traces of all of them: he too is an astute politician who knows how to use the occasion to his own advantage, who knows how to use his access to the President to further his cause; his extraordinary preacher’s eloquence is his demagogic gift; and he is, albeit peaceful, a masterful activist. But he transcends these labels. What none of them have is a clarity of moral vision, an abiding sense of faith and self belief that his is a mission of God.

His faith energizes and empowers him. In an exchange with LBJ, the President tells King (something like) ‘You’re an activist, and you do what you have to do. I’m a politician, and I do what I have to do”. Not for the first time, LBJ misreads King’s sincerity. For he is much more than an activist, he’s a genuine, faith energized, cynicism free leader, fighting- it is made clear – not for Blacks as a distinct group, but for Americans, and the idea of American justice, of which Blacks are just a part.

It is this moral stature – the mark of true leadership – that enables him to rise to the challenge offered by the events in Selma, and that gives him the courage and strength to be able to take on the state and its stubborn vested interests.

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And just as King, the leader, transcends King the (flawed) man, LBJ’s moment of truth also comes during a conversation with an unyielding George Wallace. LBJ tells him to think beyond 1965 to 1985. How will history judge them, he wonders. Wallace is unmoved; it is as if the hatred that fuels racism cannot stand up to the honesty of introspection.

In Selma, the movie suggests, the U.S had reached the tipping point. The violence was shocking. The Storm Trooper forces that try to block King’s march from Selma to Montgomery (State capital) bludgeon everyone in sight: young and old, men and women, the fit and the infirm. The Blacks are attacked with the venomousness of a society seething with pent up anger.

It was King’s determined leadership that shifted the course of history away from further quasi civil war to a more hopeful place. DuVernay suggests that Selma represents the point at which, for some, the pragmatism of politics yielded to the promise of justice. The point when politicians and activists became leaders, the point when the Black/White divide collapsed into the idea of the American. (A straight line past Andrew Young who became mayor of Atlanta to Obama?)
There is no question that this is the outstanding movie of the year, and that David Oyelowo is the outstanding actor of the year. That he failed to earn even an Oscar nomination is probably just a tawdry mix of xenophobia (“not another bloody Brit”…after all the roles of King, Coretta his wife and LBJ are all acted by Brits) and good old racism. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
And yet, the movie is an uplifting and optimistic one. DuVernay’s shows how the peace and faith and sense of brotherhood that defined King’s American dream is a true beacon shining in the night. The movie’s force lies in its ability to move beyond a – dated- dramatization of history to a perspective of a path to be followed.
It certainly is a path much needed. The police still seem to kill Black people with impunity. The visceral hate many Red state Republicans have for – ‘foreign-born’ – Obama is undisguised racism, The CIA’s wiretapping then has turned into the NSA’s omni-surveillance.

Where’s King now that we need him more than ever?

 

Selma: dir Ava DuVernay. David Oyelowo (King), Carmen Ejogo (Coretta), Tim Roth (Gov. Wallace) Oprah Winfrey, Tom Wilkinson (LBJ), Giovanni Ribisi (counselor to the president). Writer: Paul Webb, Exec producer Brad Pitt

it’s a noir: The Paperboy


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“THE PAPERBOY”, LEE Daniels’ latest work (he also gave us “Precious”), tells the story of two reporters – Matthew McConaughey as a slimy Ward Jansen and David Oyelowo (“Complicit”, “Lincoln”) as a faux Englishman, Yardley Acheman – who journey down to a hot, sweaty Southern swampland in search of an award-winning story and the truth: what they believe to be the wrongful imprisonment of one Hillary Van Wetter – a deranged, drooling John Cusak. Van Wetter is supposed to have disemboweled the local sheriff and is in death row.

They enlist the aid of Charlotte Bess, a highly sexed, bleached-blonde beauty (Nicole Kidman, steaming up the screen) who –for reasons that are never explained – has taken to corresponding with Van Wetter and has fallen in love with him. She becomes the central object of lust and desire, by the incarcerated Van Wetter and the Jansen’s young brother Jack (Zac Efron as an Oedipal stud, forever strutting up and down in his underpants, all hormones all the time).

The whole story is narrated through the memory of the Jansen’s maid, Anita (Macy Gray), a stoic figure who has managed to shoulder off racist abuse and simply carry on.

The search for the truth – set amidst the town’s close-lipped, prejudiced conspiracy of silence – is the movie’s central theme. Daniels introduces us to a world where the villains are as unattractive and unsympathetic as the protagonists and where, he suggests, the truth, never obvious, remains ever elusive and ambiguous.

All this in an atmosphere of sweaty (literally – as everyone sweats in the movie) lust and sex. In one, you could say climatic, scene Nicole Kidman reprises the “Basic Instinct” crotch shot as she titillates a shackled Cusak. The sex grows more and more debased as the movie heads toward its dark denouement, revealing as it goes, the grimy truths of Daniels’ characters.

Alfred Hitchcock once said that he chose Jimmy Stewart as often as he did in his movies because Stewart bought him ten minutes. By this he meant that Stewart’s persona was so well known and loved by the movie-going public that he came with huge positive affection…so as a writer, Hitchcock didn’t have to spend ten minutes creating a likeable film persona; Stewart bought him that. He could simply get on with his tale.

We saw this in “Arbitrage”, (even though this was just a passably average film) where Richard Gere is such a seductive personality that, even though we may disapprove of his character’s conniving, manipulative ways, he still manages to seduce the audience into rooting for him to ‘get away’ despite ourselves.

One of the problems with “The Paperboy” is that there is no Jimmy Stewart persona. The nature of the story demands this kind of obfuscation between truth and lies, good and evil. But Daniels so relishes showing us – exclusively – the nasty, seedy side of his characters (and we’re happy that McConaughey has finally moved away from gormless romcoms to playing seedy, which is his real métier) that he never allows us to empathize with anyone.

The result is a ‘caring deficit’. Basically, as an audience, we don’t give a shit about any of the people we’re spending this ninety minutes with; so that the emotional drama of the tale becomes seriously compromised.

Indeed, because he’s so intent on making his point about the hazy ground where truth and lies merge, the narrative truth of the story falls off the tracks. For as the story unfolds, there are multiple revelations and twists that take place. These make good intellectual/thematic sense – but they lack dramatic relevance. From a story-telling perspective, they become irritations and irrelevances; they contribute little to the plot.

Net, net, “The Paperboy” is a reasonably well-acted, seriously flawed, thematically overburdened movie.

It’s one, to be genre appropriate, I say “noir” to