Oscars 2014 Best Picture Review: Selma

David Oyelowo (centre) plays Martin Luther King in Selma.
David Oyelowo (centre) plays Martin Luther King in Selma about an important part of American history.

Selma appears to be about an important time in US history. However it tells more than what we’ve learned about the whole story including those involved.

The film is about the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 led by Martin Luther King Jr. that would pave way to President Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But it was more than that. It starts with Martin receiving his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. However it’s just the beginning for Martin. A black church in Alabama explodes killing four young girls. Annie Lee Cooper has been denied the right to vote like most black people in Alabama before her. Meanwhile King is unsuccessful in convincing Johnson to pass a law allowing black citizens to vote.

Instead of accepting defeat, King is undeterred and determined to achieve this. Selma, Alabama is the meeting place for King and other activists to organize efforts to achieve this law. However both Johnson and FBI head J. Edgar Hoover are nervous about this. Hoover uses phone calls to disrupt his marriage to Coretta. Undeterred, King and black residents of Selma march to the registration office only to be confronted by a mob of police and a riot ensues where King and Cooper are arrested.

Things get even harder as state governor George Wallace, a pro-segregationist, speaks out against the marches and even calls police in Marion, Alabama to use force from state troopers during a planned night march. An assault by troopers does occur during the march where Jimmie Lee Jackson, who hid in a restaurant for the safety of him and his family, is shot to death by the police. Jimmie’s death only prompts King to tell people to stick to fighting for their rights. However the Kings receive threats on their children and activist groups are becoming unhappy with him.

A march from Selma to Montgomery to make their message heard is planned especially with the hopes of having all of the United states watching and paying attention, especially as working on ‘white consciousness’ is one of King’s objectives. At first King is hesitant but is convinced by his colleague Andrew Young. The original march takes place with all African-Americans. Right on the Edmund Pettis Bridge they’re stopped by police and attacked. The news goes nationwide. A second march is planned. This time King not only has blacks from other cities but white supporters too from regulars to religious clergy. Just before the marchers reach the end of the bridge, the chief officer and his group are back again. This time they’re allowed to proceed but King kneels in prayer and goes back. The reason was because King was suspicious. He doesn’t trust the mob of police and wants legal permission for them to march. The push for permission is especially stressed as one of the white allies, Rev. James Reeb, was beaten to death. The permission is granted by Alabama Judge Frank Minis Johnson. Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King and the marchers make history.

There’s no question that this is to do about an important moment in American history. Actually coming from Canada, I was never taught about Selma. I knew about the I Have A Dream speech but was never taught about Selma. However the film is also about Martin Luther King himself. The movie begins with him accepting his Nobel Peace Prize which came months after his I Have A Dream speech. However we would be reminded that King had more work to be done. Selma was a new challenge for him as his people needed the right to vote. However there was the constant threat of police brutality and even death. He stood firm in his non-violence stance and his plan was to work on ‘white consciousness’ and he knew it was the only way to work. He also knew he had to work with the tough minds of President Johnson and other politicians including Alabama Governor George Wallace. Each death linked to the marches would make him more fearful but it would make him more convinced this is something that needs to be done. We all know it was achieved but this is a reminder of how King and his people had to achieve their right.

The film also takes us back to the time and place. It reminds us just how hard it was to be black in southern US states like Alabama. Living in segregation was one thing. Being denied the right to vote was another. The only time in my life I knew of black people being denied the right to vote was in South Africa up to 1994. Apartheid riots were common news stories in the 80’s. I was shocked to learn that it was happening to black people in the 60’s in the Southern US. I always thought the US was supposed to be the ‘land of the free.’ It showed the red tape black people had to face in the justice system and especially with the police. We are all shocked and disgusted to hear about the fatal shootings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin in recent years and their killers getting away with it. This was happening in Alabama in the 60’s all the time. Especially shootings by police on young unarmed black men like Jimmie Lee Jackson. You couldn’t blame them for having had it. They couldn’t be denied this anymore and this was a must-win situation for them and King.

Just as much of a focal point as blacks fighting for their right to vote is also the focus of the bigoted attitude of the whites in Alabama. King made it his duty to work on ‘white consciousness’ in order to achieve this victory. Alabama, especially in the city of Selma, showed what type of ‘racial battleground’ they had to deal with. The first sign was the church explosion but we’d see it all throughout. We’d see it in the police brutality, we’d see it as a restaurant proudly advertises itself as ‘a whites-only restaurant since 1883,’ we’d see it as a white man ‘introduces’ himself to King and punches him in the face, we’d see it in the taunting of white people from all around. That’s the type of environment the black people had to fight. We should forget that Alabama has segregation removed years ago but the white people weren’t happy. They felt that segregation was right and they reacted in frustration with taunting and even violence. Even when white people joined the blacks in their march, that didn’t change a lot of people’s minds. In fact they found white supporters to be a threat and reacted with the same violence on them, even killing some. Another reminder that white supporters of the Selma marches would also be at risk to the same violent reactions as blacks. The film takes us back to the time, place and the hostile attitudes at the time. An ugly reminder but necessary to show.

Even though the film was about Martin Luther King, his crusade for human rights and the bigoted attitudes in the area, the film also showed another factor: the strength of non-violence. King’s use of non-violent means to achieve human rights may appear radical to many and even ridiculous to some at first. In fact it explains why he had a rivalry with Malcolm X as seen near the beginning of the film. Because Malcolm believed: “by any means necessary.” However it was shown to be successful in the actual event and in the film. In fact I noticed the film to also show violent means to look cowardly. We see it in the police who try to use it to strike fear in the protesters in hoping they’d quit. We see it in the white Alabamans as they use it to strike fear in the blacks and their supporters. Most of the times it’s seen they do it on impulse because they just don’t know how to deal with the situation. Funny how we’ve seen a lot of Hollywood movies, especially in the action movies of the 80’s and 90’s, where the leading man uses vengeance and violence to become the hero. Here violence looks very cowardly.

Without a doubt, this film has to belong to Ava DuVernay in directing and co-writing the story with Paul Webb. She did an excellent job in recreating the story of the marches, the people involved with them and the atmosphere of the time and place. The end result is an excellent film that won’t leave you. It’s not without controversy. There are many questioning the depiction of Lyndon Johnson in the film. Historical documents show he was actually supportive of Martin Luther King and his mission. Even I myself believed for a second that Johnson may have had some difficulty at first, knowing Johnson was originally from Texas: a state that formerly had segregation. DuVernay simply responded: “I’m a storyteller. Not a historian.” Whatever the situation, it was still a very good film put together.

David Oyelowo was excellent as Martin Luther King Jr. as she showed him in both his convictions, his inner strength and even his own personal frailties at times, like that time he relied on Andrew Young to go through with the march. Even that scene where he calls gospel singer Mahalia Jackson for inspiration and she sings to him shows that King did have fears which he needed support for. Tom Wilkinson was also very good as Johnson. Even if you feel his depiction of Johnson wasn’t that truthful, it was still a very good performance. Carmen Ejogo was excellent as Coretta. She did more than just simply play Martin Luther King’s wife. She played a young woman who herself grew in courage: a courage Coretta would need after Martin’s assassination. Oprah was also surprisingly well as Annie Lee Cooper. Right at the beginning we could see a character completely opposite to the Oprah we know. A character that looks like she’s been through the hardest life offered her. You could see it in her face. The cinematography and music added to the environment of the story. You could feel that this was a struggle worth winning.

Selma is a film retelling an important moment in history. It gives us insight into the people involved and the environment they had to fight in order to achieve their rights.

Movie Review: Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips is a recreation of a moment of recent history. It’s as much about the man involved in this moment as the moment itself.

Richard Phillips is a captain of freighter ships who lives in Vermont but pilots his freighter ships mostly in the Arabian Sea. One day in April 2009, he’s assigned to be a captain of a freighter bringing relief supplies from Oman to Mombasa, Kenya. He accepts the duty but is well aware of the risk of pirates from Somalia once he sails around the horn of Africa. Meanwhile in Somalia, a group of pirate leaders recruit young men for their next sting. It could be big, it could be small, it’s all in a day’s work.

Captain Phillips is sailing the freighter Maersk Alabama through the Arabian Sea. He’s also taking all precautions to prevent a pirate attack including getting the ship to participate in a drill. The pirates are hungry not just for a simple ship but bigger stuff. Their small rusty motor boats, or skiffs, have ship radar. They see the Maersk Alabama within their view and they chase after it. Fortunately Captain Phillips and the crew are prepared. The first day, the pirates’ motor blows on their boat. Captain Phillips and the crew think the have it solved. What they don’t know is that the pirates are fixing the motor in the boat overnight.

The next day the pirates try again. Captain Phillips and the crew again take precautions like using the hose system to prevent them from coming on board. The pirates notice an area where a hose isn’t working. Perfect opportunity to climb aboard the ship and hold the crew hostage. It’s there where pirate Muse and Captain Phillips meet eye to eye. Phillips tries to get them to leave by offering $30,000 but they want more: millions. The ship is able to shut the power down and able to make the pirates fail in their attempt. However the US forces have received word and have arrived. They try to negotiate with Muse only the have the pirates get away in a lifeboat with Captain Phillips as hostage. They hope Phillips will be their ticket for ransom.

That night the lifeboat is surrounded by navy ships and the crew is too frustrated and start turning on each other. Muse is stubborn with Phillips feeling he can’t go after going this far. The end scene adds to the intensity as it shows the whole standoff between the pirates, the Navy and the SEAL team. You’d be surprised to see how close Phillips was to being executed by the pirates. And even after you think it’s over, it’s not.

The most remarkable thing about the movie is that this is one that really depicts pirates for the negative people that they are. Admit it. We’ve all been charmed by pirate stories: Captain Hook, Captain Kidd, Jack Sparrow, Blackbeard, you get the idea. Even the popular lines like: “Arrrrgh Matey;” “Shiver me timbers” and “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!” show how charmed we are with them. However the news about Somali pirates have given us a reality check about pirates and what they do. This film even shows pirate really are: dirty, merciless thieves who threaten people on ships for their riches.

Another remarkable aspect the movie shows us is the sheer determination of those four pirates. You’d think that a group of four young Somali pirates not even 21 would not stand a chance against a huge freighter like the Maersk Alabama with all their devices and a prepared captain. However they were stubborn enough to fix a motor overnight, find a dry gap in the ship’s hosings, use a ladder to get to the deck, try a getaway with a lifeboat and even resist arrest with the US Armed Forces. The film is very focal on the pirates’ determination and their false sense of invincibility. It even shows how sometimes small has a competitive advantage over the big guy. It’s like that way in the animal kingdom too where insects can find their way into large prey.

Just as much as it focuses on the Somali pirates and their determination, it also focuses on Captain Rich Phillips himself. It especially focuses on Rich’s smarts as he knows about Somali pirates before the attack and even prepares his crew just in case, his smarts when he’s under attack on board and his smarts during the attempted getaway. Even the assault by the navy and the aftermath had Rich Phillips in focus. It was as much about Richard Phillips as it was about the pirates.

Tom Hanks once again delivered a remarkable performance: his best since Cast Away. It’s great to see him perform well in a movie that’s the least Hollywood-like I’ve seen him in. His performance really had a lot of range and was as much about Captain Phillips the person as it was about Captain Phillips the hostage. Equally as spectacular is the direction of Paul Greengrass. Actually It shouldn’t be that Greengrass, who made a name for himself with United 93 about a 9/11 terrorist operation botched by vigilante passengers, directs it. It’s like the film reminds us that the pirates of the seas are like the terrorists on airlines. Always were. Billy Ray did an excellent job of scriptwriting. Surprising that the writer of The Hunger Games is the scriptwriter here.

It’s not to say the movie’s all Tom Hanks, Paul Greengrass and Billy Ray. Barkhad Abdi was also excellent as pirate Muse. He makes Muse look like a pirate who didn’t have much of a clue to what he got himself into. Barkhad Abdirahman was also great as the vicious pirate Bilal who possessed a false sense of invincibility. The emsemble of lesser-known American actors added to the quality of the film. The only other well-known actor in the film is Catherine Keener. Actually it’s surprising to see the role of Andrea Phillips, Captain Phillips’ wife, as such a small role. The music of Henry Jackman and the cinematography of Barry Ackroyd also added to the quality of the film.

Captain Phillips is an excellent recreation of a moment in recent history that’s both about the moment and the man involved. Both Hanks and Greengrass do it again.