Fiercely modern and aggressively cinematic: David Oyelowo as Dr Martin Luther King, Jr in Selma
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Supreme leaders: what Selma and The Interview tell us about the power of the leading man

The civil rights drama and political farce could not seem more different. But David Oyelowo and James Franco share a dynamism sadly overlooked in awards season.

You would be hard pressed to find two more dissimilar examples of political film-making than Selma, a drama about the civil rights struggle that resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and The Interview, in which a talk-show host sets out to assassinate Kim Jong-un. Only one of these pictures includes a scene in which a flashing beacon the size of a pepper-pot is inserted into a man’s anus. (A clue: it’s the same one that also features the phrase “Holy fuckamole!”)

Both movies, though, owe much of their success to dynamic, nuanced leading men. That neither David Oyelowo, who plays Martin Luther King in Selma, nor James Franco, the fictional TV inquisitor Dave Skylark in The Interview, were included among this year’s major awards nominations should be a source of disgrace to the bodies concerned. These are performers who are operating at the highest extremes of their talents.

Any doubts that Oyelowo, a lean, handsome British-Nigerian actor, could embody the doughy, square-faced King are dispelled in the opening close-up in which he stares down the camera, almost daring us not to believe in him. “It’s not right,” he frowns. He isn’t referring to the obstacles placed in the paths of black voters to prevent them converting their legal rights into crosses on ballot slips. Rather, he is talking about the unwieldy ascot tie he is putting on to accept his Nobel Peace Prize. But as first lines go, it sets out the film’s stall succinctly.

Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) is persisting quietly in her efforts to register to vote, knocked back each time by bureaucratic objections of sharply escalating pedantry. Meanwhile, there is a bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama; four African-American girls are killed. The director Ava DuVernay’s staging of this attack, terrifying but also discreet and poetic, is typical of her skill at balancing fury with film-making. Truth alone doesn’t necessarily equal good cinema. Reshaped and re-imagined, it can get the job done.

This has led to objections that Selma gives President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) a bum deal, showing him to be less amenable in negotiations with King than was really the case. Earlier versions of Paul Webb’s screenplay were kinder to LBJ but DuVernay, who was denied a screenplay credit despite her comprehensive rewrites, has said she consciously rejected an interpretation in which black Americans were rescued by knights in white armour. The essence of truth is intact, just as it is in the approximations we hear of King’s speeches (his estate withheld permission for his words to be used). When King meets Johnson to impress upon him the urgency of facilitating black voting, DuVernay arranges the shot with economical eloquence. George Washington, framed on the wall between them, becomes a silent onlooker. A ticking grandfather clock peers over King’s shoulder, intensifying his plea to the president: “It cannot wait, sir.”

Wherever there is the temptation to rely on stock images, DuVernay instead forges a distinct aesthetic. When King prepares to lead the voting-rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery, the film switches to a point-of-view shot so that we can see what he must have surveyed on that day: an expanse of possibility bisected by a thin and twitching line of baton-happy cops. Removing the imagery from the realm of documentary is part of the film’s drive to liberate the subject matter. The cinematographer Bradford Young makes the screen glow and sing. Unusual angles present this familiar story as strange and new; the flow of marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge is seen in wide shots from above and below, rendering them as a pulse of energy flowing across an abyss. Even before our ears catch the mention of Ferguson in the closing song (“Glory” by John Legend and the rapper Common, who also stars as a member of King’s coterie), Selma has proved itself fiercely modern and aggressively cinematic.

It would be foolhardy to make the same claims for The Interview, though there is some fun in the disparity between the slick, Mission: Impossible-style look of the film and the buffoonish escapades of its heroes, Skylark and his producer Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen). They have been invited by Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) to conduct a TV interview with him. Turns out the Supreme Leader is a Katy Perry-loving, Margarita-drinking ditz with the manner of a Californian mall rat: “I’m freaking out right now,” he giggles. “This’ll be just like Frosty Nixon!” cries the presenter.

The Interview trailer

The CIA has other ideas. That an assassination attempt should be entrusted to these dolts – who can be distracted from a briefing about North Korea’s nuclear capability by the sight of a female agent’s cleavage – is pretty much the whole joke. But it’s a durable one that makes the ridicule equal. (America doesn’t come out of the film looking any better than its enemies.) The hackers who succeeded partly in thwarting the movie’s US release must have overlooked the rich vein of self-criticism. “How many times will the US make the same mistake?” someone asks. “As many times as it takes,” comes the shameless reply.

As with Skylark himself, the movie’s approach falls short of the fully interrogative. And The Dictator, starring Sacha Baron Cohen, was much sharper at skewering the hypocrisy of the US. But The Interview is still a naughty, nutty joy. As a culturally impoverished narcissist whose reference points extend no further than The Lord of the Rings, Franco is a scream. In his unshakeable delusion that his every act is righteous and justified, he’s like a twisted mirror held up to the west. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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