Wednesday, January 21, 2015


     Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay and written by her and Paul Webb, excels in showing the many details, conflicts, and points of view that surrounded events in Selma and culminated in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  DuVernay maintains an understated approach that refrains from
grandstanding sound bites.  Due to various disagreements over copyright ownership, the script had to maintain a delicate balance between what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote/said and what could be used in a for profit artistic document.

David Oyelowo and Ava DuVernay
     Neil felt that, at times, the interior scenes were almost under lit.  There does seem to be a chiaroscuro effect, though the umber and black tones are complex, thanks to Bradford Young’s cinematography.  The pacing intriguingly goes long; there are sections where DuVernay and editor Spencer Averick where we see a decision being made or the silent reactions of other characters after something happens.  I appreciated it, but I could feel some restlessness in the audience.  Although the central character is King, a major, welcome focus includes Coretta Scott King, Hosea Williams, Ralph Abernathy, James Bevel, Andrew Young, Bayard Rustin, James Forman, John Lewis, and Malcolm X.  It’s great to see these names reclaimed from history and placed squarely in a movement that has been remembered as, but was not, monolithic.

The Cast Marching to Montgomery
     Reverend Al Sharpton opined that the Oscar acting nominations needed to include performers of color.  He’s not wrong, but I don’t know where the list would end with this cast:  David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King, Jr.) for best actor; Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King) for best supporting actress; Tom Wilkinson (LBJ), Wendell Pierce (Hosea Williams), Andre Holland (Andrew Young), Tim Roth (George Wallace) for best supporting actor.  I realize two of those actors are Caucasian, but they’re extraordinary.  Where the academy went even more wrong was in not recognizing DuVernay in either of the categories she has mastered (and after only two pictures).  She made $20 million look like $80 million or more.  Personally, I’ll supplement Reverend Sharpton’s argument to ask why a gay-themed movie like Pride was ignored for best picture and best supporting actor Ben Schnetzer.  However, I’m not going to boycott the Oscars by not watching them because that doesn’t solve the root problem.

Oprah Helped Fund
and Starred in Selma

     The Hollywood movie industry runs on money first and artistry second.  Special effects linked to superheroes are the raison d’être for commercial movies; personal expression that makes money drives independent and award-worthy movies.  Moviemakers want big audiences – i.e. mainstream audiences – and they pay only lip service to ethnic diversity.  Every few years, Hollywood congratulates itself on nominating performers of color, but the movies have to be funded and cast first.  Oprah Winfrey helped fund this movie.  How much does that tick off the Hollywood establishment, which is mainly white, male, and old?  I guess they liked having Oprah promote their business, but not create it.

     Television, on the other hand, far more progressively includes a variety of performers, though it refrains from anyone plain, unattractive, or overweight unless it’s for one or two specific series in any two to three year period.  Right now, I keep asking people, “Are you watching Empire?”  The backdrop is a music and entertainment corporation, founded by a former hip-hop superstar, that’s about to go public.  The founder has secret health issues and sets his three sons against each other to assume future leadership.  The kicker is that his ex-wife gets released from seventeen years in prison for drug dealing in which he was most likely complicit.

The Empire Family
     Creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong ‘kick it up a notch’ by making the oldest son an MBA tycoon in training who, we just found out, is bipolar and not taking his meds, thereby ticking off his Caucasian junior Lady Macbeth wife; the gay middle son is a gifted musician, whom his homophobic father (he names his club Leviticus) can barely tolerate; the youngest son is a spoiled rapper, who’s only emotionally close to the middle brother.  Dad Lucious (sort of luscious and sort of Lucifer) pushes for the youngest, Mom Cookie has the back of the second son, and the oldest has a wife who’s willing to get on her knees and put on a bib and let your imagination wander.  Yes, it’s an updated The Lion in Winter with three, rather than four, sons.  (Of course, they may find another son a couple of seasons from now like Dynasty).  In both, Mom starts off in prison.  

     I thought Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson made the most of their previous professional experience together to convincingly play a couple involved in a complex relationship for thirty years.  The music is really good and those that sing really pull it off.  My main complaint with Nashville is that I wish executive producer Connie Britton had cast Martina McBride or an actress that can sing in the main part.   The moment where Empire shot into Must-See was when a character I thought was a fixture was suddenly shot and by a character I know is permanent.  The second episode introduced a secondary character, Portia, as Cookie’s assistant.  Tottering in tiny high heels with a roll-top hairstyle that would have turned Joan Crawford green with envy and an attitude somewhere between casual and apathetic, she’s a hoot.  

Entertaining, Empire Style
     Yes, it’s a melodrama, but I can’t name another show where the lead character cogently critiques President Obama’s policies towards the poor, outlines what is happening to the music industry and how it undermines the potential economic aspirations for African Americans, and is treated intelligently by a TV interviewer.  As long as this show stays grounded in where Lucious and Portia come from and what they had to do to get to where they are, this will stay strong.

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