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« 100 Days 'Til Oscar. A Short Clean Sweep | Main | Foreign Submission Review: Panama's "Invasion" »
Thursday
Nov132014

AFI: Selma Premiere or, We Ate Cookies With Lorraine Toussaint!

Safely happily physically ensconced back in New York City, my head is still ping-ponging around that exciting week in Los Angeles. My thoughts take scary stumbles back in time to 1960s Alabama when white politicians and racists were trying to stop black citizens from voting. Sound familiar? The first part, I mean. Sadly in 2014 we're still fighting efforts to surpress the vote, making Ava DuVernay's upcoming Christmas release Selma a historical drama that is also uncomfortably contemporary.

The AFI FESTIVAL PRESENTED BY CORPORATION (don't make me say it, publicists!) closes tonight with Foxcatcher but we'll have a few more days of coverage to catch up. My closing night film was the world premiere of Selma. It was so fresh from the editing bay that the great cinematographer Bradford Young was brought up on stage five days earlier for that A Most Violent Year premiere (he's busy) only to instantly return to this film for color corrections. It was so new that a couple of visual effects and a few sound issues had not been fully resolved. The event was pitched as a preview of 30 minutes of the film but Oprah Winfrey, who produced, convinced Ava to seize the opportunity to present the (nearly) completed work. We were actually asked not to review it though I see that the rest of the internet has thoroughly disobeyed this studio request. Virtually the whole cast was there with the exception of the white guys (Allesandro Nivola, Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Wilkinson) and Carmen Ejogo who plays Coretta Scott King.

More on Ejogo, Oscar play, and a party photos after the jump...

Despite a beautifully agonizing scene starring Oprah Winfrey near the film's beginning, the film starts slow. Thankfully it gathers emotions well with each step toward that march continually gaining on my reservations about this very traditional genre. Ava DuVernay doesn't quite break out of this often frustrating genre's staid fussy walls (there are a lot of speeches) but her gift for emotional intimacy -- see the wonderful Middle of Nowhere for proof -- really pays off here. Aside from Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) there isn't much time to get to know any of the characters because a) there are so many of them and b) the story is not about individuals but about community and the rights of all citizens to determine the collective course with a vote.

DuVernay steps up to her bigger canvas very well. The march scenes, which would kill the movie if they didn't feel both intimate and epic simultaneously, are terrific. They're as moving and harrowing and triumphant as the scenes call for. 

And on a lighter note, this is how good the rising director still looks while going on 40 hours (yes, 40 hours) without sleep.

Unfair!

She told me she had crossed over from the exhaustion and was experiencing something else now. She seemed exhilarated; Standing ovations will do that to you. When we chatted briefly, I told her that I would tell her how much I loved Middle of Nowhere but that's the cool thing to do now so it would sound like I was jumping on the bandwagon. 

The Q&A after the film was emotional but also entertaining. Alfre Woodard displayed a great sense of humor as the moderator and asked surprising funny questions like "how do you plan to market this to the foreign markets?" to which the producers smartly countered that the common wisdom that black films can't succeed overseas was a myth. Woodard also teased Oprah "Oprah, when are you going to start putting all your resources towards things you actually care about?" which got a big laugh from the crowd. One of her best questions was about how Ava worked with the white extras playing the Alabama racists who were continually jeering or scowling or attacking the principle cast and the bit players alike which took the director off guard at first. But then she told a cool story about how they had to be cajoled into really embracing the rage and the "N" word to help her shoot the scenes. Stories emerged from the cast that she is excellent with extras in general, bringing them water ("Ava, someone else can do that!") on hot days and making everyone feel a part of the storytelling.

But let's move on the party...

Niecy & Lorraine

It was definitely the most well catered of the events attended, a full dinner. I guess when Oprah is your producer you needn't worry about your launch party's budget. Oprah was nowhere to be seen at the party (though we did arrive a  bit later than expected) but it might have been a strategic move - Ava DuVernay remained the focus of the night, which was as it should be. Before leaving Anne Marie and I visited two supporting actresses. I had had an embarrassing funny exchange with Niecy Nash exactly a year earlier at the same festival so I said hello again. She was absolutely hot in a super-cinched metallic top and dark pants. "Be honest did you wear this because Gettin' On just premiered and you needed to remind people?' Niecy laughed and introduced me to her husband, and confessed that she'd been insanely dressed / done up at all times recently to overcompensate for the drab night nurse. 'He's like "take that shit off!" 

And then Anne Marie and I met Lorraine Toussaint (who also has a small role in Selma) and talked The Fosters and Middle of Nowhere and Orange is the New Black. She tried to mock-scare us with a "so you've met Vee" moment but she was way too friendly to be Vee scary in person.

And then we all ate chocolate chip cookies together.

But how will the movie do with Oscar?, you impatiently ask, skimming past these adorable anecodates.

The answer is "surely well". You can consider it a threat in a number of categories but I'd say particularly in Picture, Director, Actor, Screenplay, Costume Design, and Original Song (Common and John Legend wrote the end credits song, but the images are still playing as you listen to it which should help it with the music branch who "watch" these songs as they appear in the films for voting purposes). While I'd love to see Bradford Young get his first Oscar nomination for cinematography since he's the best young DP out there I suspect his work on A Most Violent Year is too showy not to pull focus from this far more subdued visual effort. And though I had previously predicted Carmen Ejogo for a Best Supporting Actress nomination, that might be a tough nomination to snag unless the film totally catches fire at Christmas time with AMPAS. Her scenes emphasize the huge chasm between her and her husband - the marriage is in trouble - which is actually how it should be but it also necessitates that she's not in much of the movie. She has one terrific juicy Oscar clip ready scene but one huge scene isn't always enough.

Selma's not-at-all-secret Oscar weapon is that it feels important.

Oscar loves a message movie and this one has a doozy that just about anyone (except for currently governing Republicans) can agree with. And the team involved speaks reverentially about the project. I spoke with David Oyelowo the day before at the premiere of The Gambler and he was full of nerves about the next night's premiere. He hadn't seen it yet and had high hopes. Turns out he didn't need to worry. The filmmaking team is reverential about the movie, the message and the actor's performance. Plus he's already working campaign angles like a pro. Consider this: At the Q&A he revealed that he was told in a dream that he'd play this role (years before it actually happen - he gave the exact date). His line that got the most enthusiastic response will surely be uttered again on the long winding road to Oscar, sprinkled generously as it is with soundbite crumbs. 

It's no accident that this great man's name was 'King'". 

 

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Reader Comments (15)

Nat: I'm not too sure about A Most Violent Year. It's "flashier", but the trailer made it look uniformly ugly and, if that's supposed to be the colour palate for the entire year, it's just non-indicative of the idea of places looking different at different times of the year. I'd hope cinematographers knock huge points over that latter flaw in particular.

November 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

volvagia -- you shouldn't judge films by their trailers.The movie is beautiful to look at.

November 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Okay. Might check it out now, but that trailer was NOT enticing on an aesthetic level.

November 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Great piece! I am so excited that this film is apparently so good. I actually do think historical dramas can be great in the right hands (many of my favorite films are fact-based), they just so often are paint-by-numbers. It would be neat to see Oprah nominated for Best Picture as a producer as well (I think she might be the first black woman nominated in that category...?).

November 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

See, Nathaniel? It worked out perfectly. But now I'm jealous...about the food. (Ahem, Anne Marie.)

November 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Paul Outlaw - Thank you for offering me your extra ticket! Truly your graciousness knows no bounds. The one thing that could have made up for missing my screening was finally meeting you in person, followed only by eating cookies with Lorraine Toussaint. You are a gentleman and a scholar.

November 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Aww, thanks to Nathaniel more than to me. Just another fun evening in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood.

November 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I'm so glad to see that the film is getting such a positive response. I shouldn't be so surprised but, even in Ava DuVernay's capable hands, I was worried that this would either be another stale historical drama/biopic or something like The Butler (the endless parade of familiar faces had me worried it was going in that direction). Hopefully DuVernay and Young (I don't think we've had a black cinematography winner) can make history this season.

Also, even if her Oscar chances are slim, I'm hoping this leads to greater things for Carmen Ejogo. Who knows? Coretta Scott King may be prove to be a good luck charm for her: she played her in 2001 and got a husband (Jeffrey Wright), maybe this time around she'll get an Oscar nod?

November 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

Gurl, I'm just glad to hear it wasn't a mess. You never know with historical pics, even with the most capable of hands.

Sounded like a fun night tho! So jealous.

Madame Toussaint sounds endlessly entertaining.

Hopefully DuVernay makes some history but ugh I wish this was coming out at the beginning of Dec instead of at the very last second, like everyone else. Especially if there's an element of it that needs time to marinate for a nod, which is exactly what the Carmen Ejogo situation sounds like.

November 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First

What about the supporting actors? Wilkinson, Roth?

November 14, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Orange is entering the comedy categories at the Globes and SAG Awards, which is the right thing to do, and yet I believe Lorraine should compete in the drama categories to sweep with all the trophies. I love that dichotomy.

November 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Cal - Wilkinson a possibility (working on updating the supporting actor chart right now). Roth no. Very little screen time.

November 14, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Checking out your Actress list and...in spite of the baity subject (physical disability) Cake doesn't really have the reviews (50% on 10 reviews, which means 25-40% is likely) to be in the top 15 and, if critics didn't dare talking her up for that Horrible Bosses performance (The ONLY good part of that movie), they're not going to talk her up for something with even worse reviews when she's also not the "on the top of the world" star level that motivated the serious discussion of The Good Girl. I'd say to just bite the bullet and admit that Saldana is somewhere in the top 15 at least.

November 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Volvagia -- you are funny. Saldana probably won't even be on one ballot. It's a supporting superhero performance with green skin and virtually no meat to the characterization. Aniston is roughly 189,000,000 times more likely (but still very much a longshot).

November 14, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Can you imagine if, not only do we have the first time an African-American woman is nominated for Best Director, we also see the first time two women are nominated the same year if Jolie also gets in? How exciting.

Volvagia - Of course critics wouldn't talk Aniston up for her Horrible Bosses performance. I can't tell, but are you implying this was an oversight or snobbery on their part? I don't mean this maliciously, but you have some of the most interesting but also weirdest ideas about Oscar nominations.

November 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

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