Going Back to the Bridge in Selma

Selma

Like two of the other most ballyhooed films from 2014 (Boyhood and Birdman), Selma is a really good film that has been a bit oversold.  I suppose if one is going to overrate a film, it might as well be one as noble as this, but in the slightly paraphrased words of my girlfriend, “I just wish they would’ve gotten the facts straight and given this girl a little more gospel.”  There’s something curiously missing from Ava DuVernay’s intelligently directed and reverent biopic of our nation’s most celebrated reverend and Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., despite many convenient current parallels reminding informed viewers there is still so much work to be done.  That missing piece is the call to action.

Standing tall in the film are DuVernay’s depiction of the most harrowing events (from the bombing of the four little girls in the church and the violent police suppression of the first attempt to march across the bridge out of Selma towards Montgomery, to the quieter but equally disturbing moments showing the casually institutionalized hate-fueled suppression of the right to vote in court houses across the Deep South) and, naturally, David Oyelowo’s commanding performance as MLK.

DuVernay, taking a cue from Spielberg’s Lincoln, does a commendable job showing the slow tension-building behind-the-scenes process of what it takes to organize a meaningful march against injustice and how that can be used as a tool to raise public sentiment for the passing of legislation (in this case, the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965).  The tenants of nonviolent protest are on glorious display here, showing how powerfully effective yet dangerous it can be, as it coaxes the irrational radicals out into the open light of day where those watching on the sidelines are suddenly spurred to stand up because they are left with no other option once violence erupts against the peaceful marchers.

Sadly, Paul Webb’s uneven screenplay betrays both DuVernay’s skills and Oyelowo’s passionate portrayal as the writer plays loose with some key facts and insists on fitting King into the archetypal mold of a leader riddled with self-doubt.  Continue reading

Spotlight on the Independent Arts: In the Family

In the Family

With the recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down DOMA, it seemed fitting for The Spin’s Spotlight to turn to In the Family – a scrappy but subtle independent film that struggled to find a distributor, was rejected at many festivals, was ultimately released by the filmmaker himself into a smattering of art houses in New York last year where it quietly received some raves (from the late Ebert and the Times) and is now currently available through Netflix.

*SPOILERS AHEAD – this is as much a review of the film as it is a study of the film’s techniques and storytelling style*

Joey Williams (Patrick Wang) is a mild-mannered contractor from a small town in Tennessee.  He lives with Cody (Trevor St John), a fine upstanding middle-school math teacher, and together they raise Cody’s six-year old biological son, Chip (Sebastian Banes), as their son.  Their life couldn’t be more ordinary, more peaceful:  Chip is obsessed with dragons and talks too much, Joey works long hours and always drinks a beer before bed and Cody passionately runs his classroom like clockwork.  They hang out with friends and family, who range from wholeheartedly to awkwardly accepting of this happy little family unit.  They talk.  They laugh.  All is well.  But then Cody dies in a car crash, and Joey is suddenly thrust into a situation where he has no legal standing to keep his son and the only testament left behind is from just after Chip was born and before Cody got together with Joey where Cody left everything (the house, Chip) to his sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew).  Suddenly, in a fit of confusion and poor communication, the sister takes Chip, there’s a restraining order, and Joey’s world comes crashing in on him.

Sounds melodramatic, right?  Sounds like the perfect story for a filmmaker to get on a soapbox, right?  Sounds like someone’s going to take a stand…draw a clear line in the sand, right?  WRONG.  Great care is taken, and great restraint is shown.  Continue reading