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

DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit