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

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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