Paramount’s late-breaking strategy of premiering the entire film of Selma at Tuesday night’s AFI Fest, rather than just the previously advertised 3o-minute preview, paid off in a prolonged and enthusiastic standing ovation from the packed-to-the-rafters audience at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre. Though director Ava DuVernay said the movie wasn’t “quite” finished with some sound mix work still to be completed (there was also no end credit roll yet), the powerful drama about the Martin Luther King Jr.-led 1965 march on Selma in support of gaining voting rights for blacks turned out to be a stirring and emotional experience for the crowd, who exited after a lively Q&A singing the movie’s praises.
Awards bloggers immediately began ecstatic tweeting suggesting Oscar nominations could be in store, particularly for DuVernay who not only would be the rare female to break into Oscar’s elusive, exclusive directing club, but also the first black woman. That would be extremely significant as this film, which has been years in development from Paul Webb’s screenplay, was not easy to get made at all and is the rare drama of its kind to be released by a major studio (on Christmas Day limited, and going wider for MLK weekend in January — the 50th anniversary of the Selma march). Star David Oyelowo powered it through in the last seven years with other directors attached like his The Butler helmer Lee Daniels.
Oddly enough for the self-proclaimed edgier indie filmmaker, this one has mainstream potential and is a crowd-pleaser. It’s not far from what Norman Jewison (In The Heat Of The Night, A Soldier’s Story) or Stanley Kramer (The Defiant Ones) might have done in their heyday when Hollywood insisted on older white directors taking on historical black issue dramas. If current horrid conditions in the South where voting rights are again under attack indicate, we haven’t come as far as we should have a half century later, the fact that a major studio is releasing this movie that is directed by a black woman does show Hollywood is making progress. And it is an exceptionally well-directed film.
At Deadline’s recent The Contenders event, DuVernay and Oyelowo sat down with me to discuss the significance of this period in King’s life, particularly with voting rights again being challenged and powder kegs like Ferguson, MO popping up. She talked about the rather shocking fact that until now no one has done a feature film with Martin Luther King Jr. as the main character. There have certainly been plenty on television — most notably a 1978 miniseries that earned a superb Paul Winfield an Emmy nomination but failed to draw ratings. Perhaps that is what scared film producers off. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case with Selma which wisely focuses on one major event in the life of King, rather than going the well-worn biopic route. Certainly that’s what attracted DuVernay.
The director and her star were both part of the post-screening Q&A nicely moderated by actress Alfre Woodard. The panel also featured producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner of Plan B (Brad Pitt is an exec producer on this ); musician-actor Common who in addition to a small role also contributed a terrific end credit song, “Glory”, written with John Legend; and producer/co-star Oprah Winfrey, whose Harpo Films was one of the producing entities.
For DuVernay getting involved was a bit of a surprise. “This subject matter is nothing that I’ve ever thought about tackling. I am more of a kind of black indie hipster romance kind of gal,” she said, adding she is not normally interested in historical dramas and would not have done it if Oyelowo was not on board and urging her to do it. Winfrey said her Butler son Oyelowo was the reason she came on board too. “He showed me a tape he had done and I said, ‘Yes I can see King in you. It’s not there yet but it’s on its way there, and I want to help you get it there. So that’s what got me to say ‘yes’,” she said.
Woodard got a big laugh in addressing Gardner and Kleiner of Plan B , which won the Best Picture Oscar this year for 12 Years A Slave. “Does the ‘B’ stand for Black? How are you going to sell these movies overseas, ” she asked, not half-kidding. Kleiner instantly responded, “Well, we don’t believe in the mythology that certain films are pre-determined to succeed in some markets and not others. We’ve had some specific experiences that told us that is not the case, and we have high hopes for this film and many other films that will come in its path.”
Paramount has a number of ponies they are pushing in the Oscar race including Interstellar, The Gambler and others, but Selma could be a sleeper for them, even if it comes on the heels of 12 Years A Slave (as well as Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which conversely got zero nominations). Where will this one fall? Certainly you can put Oyelowo high on the list of Best Actor possibilities. I could see a British wave this year with Eddie Redmayne, Benedict Cumberbatch and Oyelowo breaking through, but it is tough to gauge with all the intense competition. Picture, Director, Screenplay and Song are reasonable thoughts too. Bradford Young’s Cinematography is exceptional as well. And I really admired another Brit-playing-Southerner in the cast, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson. Unlike Oyelowo’s fairly exact vocal work, Wilkinson didn’t try to imitate Johnson but expertly inhabited his being anyway and totally convinced.
This has been a very big week for Paramount at the AFI Fest as Monday night they had the world premiere of another of their holiday/Oscar bait offerings, The Gambler, the remake of the 1974 James Caan drama about a literary professor who finds himself in a self-destructive cycle of gambling and losing. This version with a finely tuned script by Oscar winner William Monahan (The Departed) based on James Toback’s autobiographical-in-parts original is very entertaining, if not always plausible.
No matter though, the acting is of a high caliber with particularly fine work from Mark Wahlberg, quickly becoming one of the most watchable actors on the planet. He envelops this guy and you can’t take your eyes off of him, maybe because in the post Q&A he revealed he lost 60 pounds for the role — although he looked to be in good shape. Co-star John Goodman, however, steals every scene he is in as usual and if there are Oscar nominations to be found in this version, the Academy’s actors branch should start with him. C’mon, he has never been nominated and he always delivers. Michael Kenneth Williams is also excellent, but I think Jessica Lange, usually so good, overplays the overwritten but underutilized mother role here. It’s more the fault of the writing than the actress though. She’s certainly no match for what Vanessa Redgrave does in a similar role in just two scenes opposite Steve Carell in Foxcatcher. The 1974 version didn’t score any Oscar nominations, but Caan’s understated work deserved one, as does Wahlberg, but the category just might be way too crowded which is a shame because you can see this is a real labor of love for him and he says it is probably the most challenging role he’s had.
Gambler is the kind of drama like The Hustler that studios used to do all the time, but is now a very rare bird. Irwin Winker and Robert Chartoff, producers of the original are among those credited on this version as well along with Winkler’s son David , Wahlberg and his partner Stephen Levinson. The filmmakers should be congratulated for getting it through the system and into a prominent Christmas release slot where due to the cast it could drum up some business. Rupert Wyatt was the director and he joined Walhberg and Goodman (a man of few words) for a post-screening Q&A that started with a nifty reel of Wahlberg’s past films reminding us of his excellent and growing range as an actor. Anyone who can play opposite a stuffed teddy bear for two hours and leave you wanting more is worth the price of admission. By the way, Ted 2 is in the can according to Wahlberg.