24 Lies a Second: A Question of Votes

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A Question of Votes

We’re going through another quiet patch at the cinema, if you ask me: although the decision by one major cinema chain not to show Jason Statham’s Wild Card at either of their central Oxford cinemas is only exacerbating matters. There are some no-doubt pretty good films out that just didn’t appeal, while I just couldn’t find a way to squeeze Run All Night into my schedule this week: sorry.

And so let us look instead at a recent film which I didn’t go into detail about on its release, Ava DuVernay’s Selma. This was at the heart of this year’s traditional Oscar kerfuffle, firstly because the film was nominated for Best Picture but DuVernay wasn’t listed for Best Director. Presumably the Academy think the quality of the film was just an accident for which DuVernay had no responsibility, I don't know. This is a recurring problem created by the necessity to give directors and producers separate Oscars, I suppose: The Two Towers, still to my mind the best of the Lord of the Rings films, fell into the same hole.

There was also, of course, the wider issue that this year all the acting nominees, across the board, were – how can I put this? – mono-ethnic. There is a hefty discussion to be had here concerning the different roles and responsibilities of AMPAS and the major movie studios, which I do not propose to go into again, but one of the big questions is this: was the academy executing a snub by not even nominating David Oyelowo for his performance here?

Oyelowo does not play someone called Selma, in case you were wondering. He plays Martin Luther King, who at the start of the film is being en-Nobelled for his role in bringing about the end of institutional segregation in the USA. (The film is set in the mid 1960s.) This does not stop him being a thorn in the side of Tom Wilkinson's character, who is likewise not called Selma: he is Lyndon Johnson, the President at the time. King's new cause is to fight for the rights of black voters in the southern US: the film features a powerful scene in which an elderly black woman (played by Oprah Winfrey, who also produced the movie) attempts to register, but is denied the franchise by a racist functionary on outrageous grounds.

King and his fellow leaders of the civil rights movement head to Alabama, where this has taken place, judging it a good place to make a stand and raise public awareness of the issue. Set against this are a number of bigoted white officials, key amongst them Tim Roth: also not called Selma, he is playing the state governor George Wallace. And so the stage is set for a momentous battle of wills between King and his supporters, and the establishment which – for various reasons – opposes them. The battleground is a small Alabama town called Selma, which if nothing else solves a mystery.

Well, the first thing I have to say is that I found Selma to be rather more to my taste than 12 Years a Slave. I hesitate to say that I genuinely enjoyed it, because it's clearly meant to be an informative, almost 'improving' film, rather than a piece of honest-to-goodness entertainment. But, rather than simply being a guided tour of atrocities and horror, it attempts to be a serious portrait of a still-iconic figure, as well as touching on some of the complexities of the civil rights movement not usually paid much attention.

There is, for example, an examination of the somewhat factionalised nature of the movement itself, with King and his followers being treated warily by other local groups in the Selma area: their complaint is that King's group is all about publicity and headlines, rather than the long haul of grass-roots activisim. The antipathy between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X is also touched upon (the latter appears briefly as a character). So the film is not simply about heroic African Americans standing up to the Man (although there is, inevitably, an element of that). Nor is Dr King himself presented as a flawless living saint: Oyelowo does a fine job of capturing King's remarkable oratorical style, but also depicts him as a man struggling to bear the burden of expectations placed upon him. The film touches gently upon the issue of some of King's personal indiscretions, too.

That said, you could hardly call this an impartial portrait, nor would you really expect one, and the film reserves its anger for the forces of prejudice which King and the others must confront. The film constantly reminds the audience that the civil rights leadership was under non-stop FBI surveillance at this time, with King himself described as a 'political and moral degenerate' by J Edgar Hoover in one scene. Tim Roth, who really isn't in the film very much, doesn't seem to be making much attempt to find the humanity in Wallace, although Tom Wilkinson does his best to make Johnson understandable, if not entirely sympathetic.

This is a well-made film, thoughtful, with some good performances in it. But I suppose we must ask ourselves if it has itself been the issue of a racially-motivated snub: should it have been the subject of more critical praise and awards nominations? Well, obviously, it's a hellishly subjective issue. Simply posing the question means you're discussing the answer in a somewhat charged atmosphere.

To be honest, I think it was quite brave of the Academy not to nominate David Oyelowo for his performance, for playing Dr King is exactly the kind of role you would expect someone to get nominated for, provided they do a good job: not unlike Idris Elba for his performance as Nelson Mandela, in fact. One might almost get the sense that the academy would like to give an award to Mandela, or Dr King, or Stephen Hawking themselves, but they have to settle for awarding them by proxy instead. I am cynical enough to suspect that the main benefit of this for the Academy is that it makes them look good, which is why, as I say, the decision not to nominate Oyelowo isn't necessarily a bad one... but then again his performance is pretty impressive. It is, as I said, difficult to say.

To be honest, I think it may just be a case of bad timing: the Academy clearly likes to appear to be a progressive and open-minded institution, but it doesn't want to look like it has a fixation on a particular subject, and coming only twelve months after 12 Years a Slave probably hasn't done Selma any favours. Giving top awards to two civil rights-themed films in succession isn't the academy's style.

And we have to ask ourselves whether we want awards to be given out based on principle, or achievement? Selma isn't a bad film by any means, and its credentials and message are utterly laudable. It tells a story about an important moment in recent history, one which is still relevant half a century on. But I don't think that in itself should be enough to guarantee the film nominations. This is a serious and heartfelt film, without any obvious weaknesses: but at the same time, it never quite soars, never completely surprises you. It's a good film, and worth watching, if only for its insight into still-too-recent history. But a great film? Regrettably, no.

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