Posts Tagged ‘Oprah Winfrey’

Selma: Doesn’t Quite Measure Up to Excellent Performances—Movie

January 18, 2015

In spite of some very good performance, “Selma” still feels and falls a little flat. Directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb, “Selma” is about the 1965 March for voting rights from Selma, Alabama to the Montgomery state capitol and the events leading up to the March.

selma_xlg

“Selma” opens with Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his wife, Coretta Scott (Carmen Ejogo) getting ready for the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony for which King is a recipient. This scene is important for showing us not only the esteem with which King is held, but in presenting, in a very subtle manner, the dynamic between Martin and Coretta. It’s loving relationship, but seems a little strained. From Oslo we go back to the United States where we meet Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), a nurse in a rest home. It’s through her that we see how difficult it is for African-Americans to register to vote, regardless of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the courthouse, in an effort to register to vote, we watch Cooper going through hoops to answer ridiculous “qualifying” questions, the answers to which, no American would have the answers. It’s that scene and one other horrific scene which set the movie up perfectly for what is to come and demonstrates perfectly why the Selma marches are necessary and why King believes that it is so important that they happen on his time-frame, not President Johnson’s.

As King prepares for the initial march we are introduced to members of both the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Meeting at the home of old friends, the two groups discuss strategy and while SNCC favors a more aggressive approach, it acquiesces to the more non-violent pursuit of King’s SCLC. The resulting initial Selma march is shown in all its brutality. It and the aftermath are well-done, albeit very difficult to watch.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., David Oyelowo is outstanding. He never seems like he is doing an impersonation and his performance feels very genuine. Signing on to the film in its early 2010 origins, “Selma” became a passion project for him and he does King proud. A very unglamorous Oprah makes for a very compelling Annie Lee Cooper and in some ways, Cooper is the heart and soul of the film. Carmen Ejogo as Coretta gives an outstanding portrayal. Her performance is a very dignified one, much like the real Mrs. King many of us have seen or about whom we have read. Stephen James as a young John Lewis is also very good. In fact, the entire supporting cast is extremely good. Not so good, two important leads…surprisingly Tom Wilkinson as President Johnson and Tim Roth as George Wallace. Their accents and performances seem more like caricatures than the real people. To be the successful politicians they were, there had to be more to them than what we see on the screen. And perhaps it should be pointed out that these two actors are English and maybe this is what causes them to overdo the Southern drawl to cartoon levels. Oyelowo and Ejogo are also English, but neither lay the accent on so thick and are much more believable in their roles.

There has been some controversy about how President Johnson’s and Rev. King’s relationship is portrayed. That is something for historians to discuss. Regardless of what truly happened, no one can doubt that the Civil Rights Movement and the fight for true equality and the right for all Americans to vote, regardless of the color of their skin, was and is an important, hard-fought battle. There most definitely is a moving connection as we watch the final March take place and Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.This reviewer just wishes that the rest of “Selma” packed more of an emotional wallop. Some scenes do, but others do not and it’s hard to say just why that is the case. When the film is mixed with real footage of the day, more of that emotion resonates. There’s just not enough of that to bring “Selma” to that next level.

2 ½ nuggets out of 4

 

Lee Daniels’ The Butler: Service Lacking—Movie

August 23, 2013

Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is neither as good as I hoped it would be nor as bad as I feared it might be. It’s definitely somewhere in the middle. What it does have is one terrific supporting performance and that performance is from Oprah Winfrey. More about her later.The Butler

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is directed by Daniels and written by Danny Strong. The film is inspired by the 2008 “Washington Post” article by Wil Haygood about Eugene Allen, the White House butler who served during the Eisenhower administration through the Reagan years.

I went to the movie expecting it to be about the real White House butler, (albeit under a different name). It turns out that there is a world of difference between “inspired by” and “based on.” In this case, the movie and we are the poorer for the difference.

This butler, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), had a horrific childhood in the cotton fields of Georgia before moving into his employer’s  home, Mrs. Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave), to serve on her house staff. From there he had a series of jobs in different cities until he landed in DC and ultimately the White House. In DC, with his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), Cecil raises two sons.

Unfortunately, it’s during the White House years that the movie shifts much of its focus from Gaines to his oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo).  With Louis’ involvement featured, we learn about the actions of the Freedom Riders, witness the Woolworth’s sit-in, experience the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and watch Black Power come to life. But we see these events through Louis’ eyes, not Cecil’s. In fact, Louis is featured so prominently, it begins to feel as if it’s his movie.

The film’s treatment of the presidents under whom Gaines served too often plays into the stereotypes by which they’ve come to be known. While the scenes of LBJ (Liev Schreiber) with his beagle are funny, they seem out-of-place.  And the exchanges with Richard Nixon (John Cusak), both in the Eisenhower years and then as President, feel unnecessarily cruel… and are they even true? The interactions with Eisenhower (Robin Williams) and Kennedy (James Marsden) seem the most genuine and least caricaturist in nature. Frankly, I’m not sure what to make of the Reagan years (Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda). I can’t put my finger on it, but something about these scenes just doesn’t work.  And as a side note, much is made of Cecil trying to get equal pay for the African-American staff. In reality, a recent interview with a long-time White House staffer seems to credit another African-American with that accomplishment.  Presidents Ford and Carter are completely left out of the film. I, for one, would  love to know what it was like to be so close to history-in-the-making with the resignation of one President and a new one so quickly taking his place. Also, I’m very curious as to what was it like to work for a Southern president from the very state in which the fictional butler was from, Georgia (in reality the real butler was from Virginia and never spent a day in the cotton fields).

The film’s best and most genuine scenes are with Cecil and Gloria as a couple and with their circle of friends (including portrayals by Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Terrence Howard)…some from the White House staff and some from the neighborhood. It’s a look at normal middle-class African-American life that movies don’t often show and it feels very real.

This brings us to the film’s two name stars—Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey. Sadly, for much of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” Whitaker too often is an onlooker in his own film. It’s in the scenes with Winfrey that he seems to come alive. Winfrey, however, is simply amazing. From the moment she enters the film, you completely forget that she is “Oprah.”  She gives the movie its humanity…its heart…and her performance alone is worth the price of admission, she is that good.

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” can’t really decide what it wants to be. Is it a story about a man’s life under extraordinary circumstances or is it more of a documentary?  Because of its indecision it ultimately does neither very well, and that is a real shame.

2 nuggets out of 4

Vanessa Redgrave

%d bloggers like this: