Selma

Paramount Pictures

When considering the value of a film, there are at least two ways to think about it. You can measure its impact on you as an individual, or you can think about what it might mean for society as a whole. Ideally, we would do both, but it is often difficult to weigh the two against each other – especially at this time of year when we reduce the totality of a year in cinema to a simple list of ten. So let us, for the moment, put a film’s purely artistic achievements on the backburner, and celebrate those films that impact our world in a positive way. These socially-conscious movies dramatize the plight of oppressed or marginalized communities, bringing light to issues that too often seem to get stuck in the dark.

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Selma

“That’s why Rosa sat on the bus; That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up.” Those lyrics can be heard in John Legend and Common‘s “Glory,” a new song that plays during the end credits of Selma and makes the connection between the 50-year-old events depicted in the movie and the current events continuing to affect the nation. No, the movie isn’t about or related to Rosa Parks, but that line represents the beginnings of the African-American Civil Rights Movement that 10 years later was still unfinished, even after the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and obviously remains unfinished to this day. Had there been more time for the completion of the movie and soundtrack, perhaps there’d also be another lyric in “Glory” referencing Eric Garner’s last words of “I Can’t Breathe,” which has been adopted as a statement of protest against race-related police brutality and lack of repercussions. When the Ferguson Grand Jury decision was announced late last month, there was backlash against “insensitive” tweets and other public acknowledgment of the link between the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting and Selma, which was a month away from hitting theaters (we’ve still got a week until it opens in limited release on Christmas, while most of America won’t have the chance to see it until its January 9th expansion). The issue was mostly taken up with anyone remarking about the movie’s Oscar chances in the wake of the Grand Jury results. They immediately noted the accidental relevance of a movie about the 1965 Selma […]

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Ava DuVernay

The film Selma – or, more correctly, the film that would become Selma – has been in various states of creation and production for years. In 2008, screenwriter Paul Webb made Variety’s 10 Screenwriters to Watch list, where his own story (screenwriting wasn’t just a second act career for the then-sixty-year-old, it was actually a third) helped market his Martin Luther King, Jr.-centric script, which was believed to be set for a snappy and soon production. In 2009, Lee Daniels signed on to direct the film, ultimately leaving the project to direct The Butler. It wasn’t until nearly three years after Daniels exited the project that a new director was announced for the feature. Her name is Ava DuVernay, and she is our filmmaker of the year.

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Selma

The end of any calendar year is traditionally marked by a glut of biopics, the kind of true-life tales that frequently pack an emotional wallop, particularly the “inspirational” kind. It’s easy to feel compelled to action — some action! any action! — after sitting in a theater for two-plus hours, having your heart broken by a story that’s both cinematically rich and personally touching, but it’s far harder to turn that into actual movement. Let’s put it this way: when was the last time you walked out of a movie theater and felt like you’d had the crap kicked out of you? If you’re keeping up with 2014’s staggering rash (not that kind of rash, unless you’ve been tempted to imitate Wild) of dramatically upsetting biopics, it was probably mere days ago. But how can you fix that movie-sized hole in your heart after watching genuine human beings go through terrible, terrible things on the big screen, purely for your entertainment? What if you’re too busy feeling sad about said biopics to get your holiday shop on? Open up your pocketbooks, buddy, ’tis the season!

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Interstellar-and-Particle-Fever

A lot of Best Picture hopefuls each year have documentary counterparts. It makes sense, because biopics and other true stories are great fodder for Oscar bait. Some are as easy as Monster and Milk being linked to Nick Broomfield’s Aileen Wuornos films and The Times of Harvey Milk, respectively, in part because the dramas were directly influenced by their doc predecessors. Others, like Dallas Buyers Club and How to Survive a Plague and Captain Phillips and Stolen Seas are not as officially linked but certainly go together by being about the same real-life subject matter. Occasionally even the fictional contenders are informed by docs, as was Gravity heavily modeled after footage from the IMAX movie Hubble 3D. Lately I’ve noticed a phenomenon where a lot of the 2014 Best Picture candidates are not just easily tied to past documentaries but specifically correspond quite perfectly with docs that are also in contention for Academy Awards this year. This isn’t to say all the following titles up for the Best Picture or Best Documentary categories will wind up nominees, but it sure would be cool for the five in the latter group to line up with five of the former and that could lead to a whole segment of the ceremony devoted to nonfiction and the different ways to tell true stories, depict actual events and address real issues and ideas. They could even make it a musical number.

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1984

Unless you’re a superhero movie with a release date set way in advance, it’s not easy these days to know when your movie will wind up produced let alone released. A good example is Selma, which despite being about one of history’s greatest real-life superheroes, Martin Luther King Jr., had initially been slated to shoot back in the Spring of 2010. Four years later it finally went in front of cameras, by this time with a new director and distributor attached, as well as an additional producer by the name of Oprah Winfrey. It opens this Christmas, a few months ahead of the 50th anniversary of the landmark events it depicts, the protest marches in support of voting rights in Alabama, and of course it now seems as perfectly timed as can be. Not just because of the anniversary, either. There are plenty factors that make a movie like Selma relevant today. Many mentioned this summer’s Ferguson protests when the first trailer arrived, and then the cast also acknowledged the connection on the red carpet of its AFI Fest debut this month. Film critic James Rocchi also tweeted this week that “if you don’t think Selma is about 2014 as much as 1965″ you should read the comments on a Breitbart.com article about the movie’s premiere. And with this a significant election year, the issue of voter disenfranchisement has continued to be a big deal. Then again, the latter two things could have provided timeliness in any of the past six years that Selma had been in development. There’s a […]

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Paramount Pictures

Movies about the African-American Civil Rights Movement are and always have been in a strange place. The events of the period are a rich vein of fantastic story potential, but it’s one that’s gone mostly untapped by the film industry. Institutional cowardice about “black” movies, which supposedly don’t do well (except that they totally do) keeps Hollywood out of the period, and it’s difficult for independent filmmakers to fill the void, since a Civil Rights film is by necessity also a period piece, and making those requires a big production budget. It’s ridiculous that it’s taken this long for a major motion picture with Martin Luther King, Jr. as a main character to come out, but it’s finally happened thanks to the marriage of some select big Hollywood money (producers Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt) and indie artists (writer/director Ava DuVernay). The fact that it’s taken so long means that there are outsized, even unfair, expectations weighing on Selma. Does the movie live up to those expectations? In some ways, yes — but in others, sadly not. The film follows Dr. King (David Oyelowo) from when he won his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 through the protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in early 1965. Despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act, many southern states enforce ridiculous restrictions on voter registration in order to prevent black people from voting (gee, sound familiar?). King and other leaders of the SCLC join with local activists in Selma to make the city the focal point of […]

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Selma Movie

With percussive echoes of Public Enemy’s “Say It Like It Really Is” filling the background, the trailer for Ava DuVernay’s Selma offers a potent history lesson and a booming figure in David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King, Jr. His presence is powerfully immediate, embodying the preacher’s bombast as well as the quiet tones of tense moments. This is impressive work, and it should resonate a million fold after the year we’ve just had. It’s hitting theaters January 9th, but (no surprise) it’s getting an Oscar-qualifying run around Christmas time. This trailer is a hammer to the forehead, and while it’s easy to call this a breakout year for Oyelowo (from A Most Violent Year to Interstellar to now playing one of the most famous figures of American contemporary history), I also hope this film launches DuVernay into the bigger spotlight she deserves. Gird your loins, and check this out.

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oprah the butler

It’s not even July yet. Do we really have to start with Oscar stuff now? The only other people mentioning this fall’s crop of potential award-winners do so with hilarious disclaimers like “It’s never too early to semi-blindly predict the rest of the year’s critical darlings” or “It’s only June, but let’s take an ignorant stab at the Oscar nominations anyway, shall we?” Oh, how I wish such a disclaimer could have run at the top of this paragraph. But now there is news. News that does not mention any explicit Oscar-mongering, yet carries the faint swooshing noise of Oprah Winfrey, polishing her mantle in anticipation of Oscar number two (and the first one was an honorary humanitarian award, so it barely counts as it is). Selma, the Winfrey-produced, Ava DuVernay-directed, David Oyelowo-starring biopic about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., has a release date: December 25, 2014, for a limited release, and then January 9, 2015, for the wide expansion. And that kind of a release schedule, or course, is what you do when you want to see your film dented and eventually destroyed under a shower of heavy awards statuettes. Last year, Dallas Buyers Club, Her and 12 Years a Slave went for the late-year, limited-then-wide release pattern. Today, all those movies can proudly proclaim “Academy Award Winner” on their various Blu-ray and DVD covers.

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oprah the butler

That sound you just heard was a million The Wire obsessives, all emerging from their subterranean lairs at the same time (as most Wire fans burrow underground, subsisting on nothing but Wire marathons, YouTube clips and constant assurances that “you come at the king, you best not miss”). This natural phenomenon happens very rarely, but when it occurs, it can mean only one thing: David Simon has announced some new TV project. And, indeed, he has. As Deadline reports, the head writer/creator/showrunner of The Wire (and Supreme God-King amongst those strange, mole-like TV bingewatchers) is now working on a Martin Luther King Jr. miniseries for HBO. The series is based off of Taylor Branch‘s “America in the King Years,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the civil rights movement. Simon will be writing at least the first episode and the series bible (essentially, an encyclopedia of all necessary characters, settings and major details), then he and Eric Overmyer (producer on The Wire and co-creator of their later series, Treme) will be “seeing the entire mini through completion.” Simon might not be showrunner (at least not yet), but his name’s still attached, and that’s more than enough to slake the thirst of desperate Wire fans worldwide.

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Liam Neeson

Liam Neeson has been waiting to get to work on Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln biopic which appears to be stalled. What’s an actor to do when he can’t get into the Oval Office on film? Sign up to play a different president. In this case Neeson will be taking on the role of Lyndon Johnson in Selma. It’s a very good fit.

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Precious director Lee Daniels is confirming that he’s cast Hugh Jackman in his Civil Rights film Selma. Robert DeNiro was rumored to be taking on the role of Alabama Governor George Wallace, but Daniels says the only actor confirmed is Jackman.

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De Niro’s potentially attached to three upcoming films… Selma from director Lee Daniels, Another Night in Suck City from director Paul Weitz, and… wait for it… a sequel to the classic 1988 buddy comedy Midnight Run.

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published: 12.19.2014
A-
published: 12.18.2014
C-
published: 12.17.2014
B+


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