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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If tattoos could talk: Glen Campbell's life in music

The late singer made a trade of music, and made it look easy.

There was a rudimentary tattoo on his left upper arm, which he’d given himself at the age of nine: a small cartoon dagger, scratched with a needle and filled with ink, 72 years ago, in the yard of the house he shared with 11 brothers and sisters in Bills­town, Arkansas. In his last years, doing interviews about Alzheimer’s in his final home of Nashville, he’d wear T-shirts and you could just make out the tip of the dagger emerging from his sleeve. But for decades you wouldn’t have seen it, beneath flower-power shirts on his late-1960s TV show, or the fitted tuxedos of the 1970s, as he played the “William Tell Overture” on his guitar with the philharmonics of the world.

His accent came and went, too, as he adapted his vowels and crossed his Ts for the sophisticated compositions of his regular musical partner Jimmy Webb, another southerner making his way in LA. Campbell was the son of a sharecropper but he didn’t like getting his hands dirty. When he left home at 14 to become a musician, it was a practical move for the family – the money was good, and without him there was more room in the house.

As the first-call guitarist in the elite LA session group the Wrecking Crew, he played on 500 tracks in one year. Carole Kaye, who later delivered the bass line on his most famous song, “Wichita Lineman”, told me they all went out to buy big diamond signet rings with their wages one day. Glen peered into his: “Hey, look, I can see Russia,” he said.

Dirt poor, down-home, authentic – he may have been those things, but it was not his business to claim to be. He wasn’t a songwriter; he was an interpreter of other people’s material – a concept almost alien in a modern musical climate that expects songs to be a reflection of an artist’s inner life. He would take the most urbane track and throw it back at his audience with an incandescent ordinariness. “It is like a bird flying, it’s like somebody breathing, it is easy for him,” his musical director TJ Kuenster said.

Exactly how he achieved it was more mysterious. He had a habit of speeding things up, injecting light and energy into songs and turning them into something kinetic and fresh. His vocal entries often lagged a fraction of a second behind the beat, making each one sound like a spontaneous thought.

On his prime-time TV show, with his hair sprayed into a high wave, he’d awkwardly navigate the light comedy of the day: the Smothers Brothers riding hippos through the studio, or the skits with Sonny and Cher. His talking voice was chirpy; then he’d sit down to play Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and it was as if a switch had been flicked. His face fell into a state of instant clarity, intense but faraway, with sometimes a hint of pain – though you knew the pain wasn’t his.

He never sang about himself, which made the private self a separate entity. There was the lost Glen of the late 1970s, blank of eye and huge of beard, free­basing cocaine in a Vegas hotel room, having fisticuffs with his girlfriend. There was the middle-aged golf-playing Republican, baptised in a freezing creek under the watch of his younger wife; then tanned and born again, happily doing his Donald Duck impressions on stage. There was the lapsed Glen who hit the whiskey again as a pensioner, drove drunk, attempted to knee a policeman in the genitals, ran down a freeway, got snapped for a famously bad mugshot and spent ten days in prison, where he still managed to perform an impromptu set on a couple of hay bales.

But at any point in the 55-year ride, amid the personal dramas and lapses of musical taste, he’d open his mouth and what came out was deeply serious. You couldn’t imagine him writing a shopping list but he had an ear for poetry – teeing up particular lines in Webb’s songs for his audience, asking how someone so young could write “Asleep on the Wind”, an impressionistic portrait of a legendary bird that spends its whole life in the air. He’d take Webb’s tracks away and arrange them for his guitar, playing them back at their composer in his trance-like state. When the song was over, he’d snap out of it and laugh. “Those chords! If I start thinkin’ about them I miss ’em! I love it! Write me another one like that!”

When I noticed the tattoo sticking out of his T-shirt, faded like a biro scrawl, it struck me as strange that the same piece of skin had passed through so much of 20th-century music, with its changing notions of what it means to be “authentic”. The arm had travelled from sacred harp singing in Steinbeck’s south to Bob Wills’s hayseed country shows in the golden age of 1950s TV; from Vietnam protest songs to the stifling world of residencies in Las Vegas – and finally to the life of a “country legend”, via the theatres of Missouri and the golf courses of Arizona. In middle age, he recorded religious albums that sounded as pure as “Wichita Lineman”. Once again, he was acting as a funnel, for a different kind of light.

He was the real deal not because he turned his personal experience into a marketable commodity but because he made a trade of music, and made it look easy. He followed the gold rush, sold himself, got himself back just in time – yet in his playing, and the very touch of his tongue on his teeth, he was astonishingly truthful. It was the ultimate life in music, and in that sense, too, he is a piece of time lost. 

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear