Archive for the ‘civil rights’ Tag

4 reasons to go see Selma – and they’re all English

Screenwriter Colin Welland famously proclaimed “The British are coming!” when he picked up the original screenplay Oscar for Chariots of Fire in 1981. Then the drought followed. Then Film4 (the movie-making bit of Channel 4) helped correct that with prestigious Oscars for The Last King of Scotland [Best Actor], Slumdog Millionaire [Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and 5 others] and last year 12 Years a Slave [Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress, and 6 nominations] and for the first time a black hand clutching that Best Picture statuette. Which brings us neatly to Selma, the powerful new movie about Martin Luther King and the break-through protests he led at Selma, Alabama which ultimately secured the vote for African-Americans. So an American icon (the only modern American with a public holiday named after them – this coming month you can join in on the 19th [January]) and a very American subject yet the 4 lead roles are filled by Brits.

I went to a BAFTA viewing last week attended by the film’s main lead, David Oyelowo. I didn’t know anything about him, not having been a Spooks fan – that’s a UK drama on BBC about spies (= spooks) for any American cousins reading this, I’m pointing that out because spooks means something else that side of the water (= derogatory term for African-Americans). They changed the title to MI-5 in the US for just that reason. So I almost fell off my perch when he started talking in a South London accent. Much like when I first heard Eton-educated Dominic West speaking after watching The Wire – BTW McNulty’s partner The Bunk (Detective Moreland) shows up as a token American actor in Selma, Wendell Pierce plays the Reverend Hosea Williams who leads the first Selma to Montgomery march in MLK’s place.

Actor David Oyelowo speaking about his role as Martin Luther King in the movie Selma

David Oyelowo on playing MLK at Vue West End, Leicester Square – 17th December 2014

1. David Oyelowo plays the big man himself, Dr Martin Luther King Jnr

Actor David Oyelowo as Dr Martin Luther King Jnr in Selma

David was born in Oxford and trained at LAMDA in London. His portrayal of MLK certainly makes him a Best Actor contender in the forthcoming awards season – I thought Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking was way out ahead of the pack before I saw Selma. He’s done the whole African-American story at this point with roles in Lincoln, The Butler and The Help. He also appeared in the aforementioned The Last King of Scotland as well as a small part in fellow Brit Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.

He puts the success of British actors down to their training which he characterises as focusing on building the character from the inside out, diametrically opposite The Method. His accent in the movie is flawless, King having a very particular mix of accents with an equally distinctive preacher’s inflection.

He felt fated to play this role (it took eight years to get the movie made and he was cast early on). Shooting on location in Selma and Montgomery, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge which was the frontline of the protest (the bridge being named after an Alabama senator and general who also led the Alabama Ku Klux Klan – surprisingly (to a Brit at least) it retains its name to this day), shooting on location in the places where the civil rights history played out made for some very powerful experiences for the actor. One Twilight Zoney story he told was how when they came to shoot the final speech in front of the Capitol building in Montgomery the Production Designer was unhappy with the rostrum and podium. He went over to the nearby church, where MLK had preached, and asked to borrow a lectern. The pastor went down into the basement to look for anything suitable and found one covered in dust. When the Production Designer got it cleaned up and onto the set he checked back against contemporary photos and found it was the actual one used in 1965.

2. Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King, MLK’s wife

Actress Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott king in the movie selma

Carmen was born in Kensington (London, England) of a Nigerian father and Scottish mother. She’d already played Coretta in the HBO TV movie Boycott thirteen years earlier. She met her current husband, actor Jeffrey Wright (Felix Leiter in the Daniel Craig era Bond films), on the set of that movie but was previously married briefly to British trip-hop artist Tricky. She met Coretta King when making Boycott. She captures the dignity of CSK well and has a good scene with Malcolm X as well as a key one confronting her husband about his infidelity.

3. Tom Wilkinson plays LBJ (President Lyndon Johnson)

tom wilkinson as lyndon johnson in selma

Tom lives up the road from me in Muswell Hill. He’s great as Mr President, a touch crude and ultimately concerned with his legacy. He was born in Leeds and trained at RADA. He is in a strong tradition of Brits playing US Presidents including Anthony Hopkins as Nixon and Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln.

4. Tim Roth plays Governor George Wallace

actor tim roth as governor george wallace in the movie selma

Tim is from Dulwich, South London and studied at Camberwell Art School. He is in a strong tradition of Brits playing evil baddies. Wallace qualifies as indicated by the assassination attempt which left him in a wheelchair from 1972. Roth set out to play him as a despicable monster and pulled it off pretty well, you really want to hiss every time he appears. Roth came from a left-wing/Communist household and the Selma-Montgomery Marches were well known to him from it.

It’s a really striking movie and very well acted by the Brit Pack. What makes it particularly resonant though is that recent times have made it abundantly clear that the race issues that dog America (not least because it’s a nation founded on a genocide) are still here #ICantBreathe

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Bitter Crop

The night before last the New York jazz club of the 30s and 40s Cafe Society was recreated in London at the Purcell Room on the South Bank for one night only. The club was set up in 1938 as an alternative to the largely segregated, mob-run nightclubs then on offer. Behind it was Barney Josephson, the New Jersey-born son of Jewish immigrants from Latvia. His declared ambition was to create ”a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front”. His socialist tendencies are well captured in the club’s motto: The wrong place for the Right people.

Cafe Society was opened in 1938 by Billie Holiday and it was there within the year that she unleashed upon the world Strange Fruit, a song like no other. Picking up on my earlier post about great song lines, Shelter from the Storm, there is one line in this poem turned song that ranks among the all-time great song lines:

Pastoral scene of the gallant South

If you ever wanted to illustrate irony… that word “gallant” kills off a view of the Confederacy in one mighty blow. When Holiday first heard the lyrics her one question was: what does ‘pastoral’ mean? Which is ironic in itself in that her whole being understood what Strange Fruit meant which is why she made the song so much her own.

With the same irony that has Danny Boy being composed by an English lawyer, it was actually written by a white man, a Jewish school teacher called Abel Meeropol – pen name Lewis Allan, after two children he lost in their infancy. Meeropol’s motivation was simple: “I wrote Strange Fruit because I hate lynching and I hate injustice and I hate the people who perpetuate it.”

Here’s the poem he brought to Holiday and Josephson at Cafe Society, already set to music, already performed in obscure left-wing circles, ripe for the magic of a singer who could perform it from her soul and evolve it into something uniquely powerful.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,

Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,

Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,

And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,

For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,

Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Holiday delivered this body blow to audiences throughout her career – here’s one later take on it (the instability of the picture seems to suit the song, as if it can’t fully be retained by the technology):

 

Update 19.xi.11

Barney Josephson didn’t seem to have his own Wikipedia entry so I’ve just made him one

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