Category: Civil rights

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Spike Lee’s masterpiece is still frighteningly relevant today – and stunning film-making

Director: Spike Lee

Cast: Spike Lee (Mookie), Danny Aiello (Sal), Ossie Davis (Da Mayor), Ruby Dee (Mother Sister), Giancarlo Esposito (Buggin’ Out), Bill Nunn (Radio Raheem), John Turturro (Pino), Richard Edson (Vito), Roger Guenveur Smith (Smiley), Rosie Perez (Tina), Joie Lee (Jade), Steve White (Ahmad), Martin Lawrence (Cee), Leonard L. Thomas (Punchy), Christa Rivers (Ella), Robin Harris (Sweet Dick Willie), Paul Benjamin (ML), Frankie Faison (Coconut Sid), Samuel L. Jackson (Mr Señor Love Daddy)

When it was released in 1989 it was like a punch in the solar plexus. Spike Lee’s third joint was a powerful, dynamic and deeply thought-provoking and challenging piece of cinema. This demanded you sat up, took notice and understood that underneath the happy lies America tells itself, the country was deeply divided and a tinderbox waiting for a spark. Perhaps the most painful – and shocking – thing about Do the Right Thing is how little has changed. You could make the same points today and the film’s tragic ending in police brutality, violence and uneasy truce could be repeated in the headlines as readily tomorrow as it was in 1989.

Set on one swelteringly hot day in New York City, Lee’s film is a kaleidoscope of diverse lives in the predominately Black neighbourhood of Bedford–Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. Just about the only people here not Black are Pizzeria owner Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Working for Sal is Mookie (Spike Lee), drifting through life but determined to get paid, who has a son with Tina (Rosie Perez). In this neighbourhood anything could be a spark. Perhaps it will be Buggin’ Out’s (Giancarlo Esposito) objection to Sal’s pizza parlour ‘wall of fame’ being exclusively Italian? Perhaps the bored kids schlepping around the street? Maybe imposing Radio Raheem’s (Bill Nunn) ghetto blaster constantly pumping out ‘Fight the Power’? Or will it because of the Korean convenience store owners, or the police officers who ride into the neighbourhood like it’s a war zone?

What’s really striking about Spike Lee’s film is it is neither polemic nor hand-wringing exercise. Perhaps what really outraged people in 1989 when it was released – let’s not forget it’s the year the vaguely similarly themed but deeply reassuring Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture – was that it offered no answers. Instead, it holds a mirror up to America for a long, uncomfortable, look. While other films presented racism as a journey towards peace, Do the Right Thing shows it as a systemic problem with no easy solutions. Any reconcilement is tentative or grudging at best, few lessons are learned and there is very little sign that this won’t all happen again.

Lee’s film is an electrically confident piece of film-making. It’s also amazing what a glorious mish-mash of styles Do the Right Thing is. You get everything from music video to action set-piece, kitchen-sink drama to comic book dutch angles, soft porn to comedy, odd-couple romance… Almost every scene as it moves around its smorgasbord of characters takes an influence from a different genre, held loosely together by Samuel L Jackson’s 24/7 DJ Mr Señor Love Daddy. But never once does one scene jar up against another or does the general impact of the film feel blunted.

Perhaps it works because the entire film is awash in the messy unpredictability of life and the simmering resentments hidden below the surface. Sal and his sons are awkward fits in the neighbourhood, legacies of a bygone age – a whole other generation of usurped immigrants – keeping an uneasy truce with their customers. Not that there are obvious lines drawn here: John Turturro (in an excellent performance of great depth) plays a racially aggressive man, fascinated with Black culture. Sal, superbly played by Danny Aiello, balances genuine affection for some customers with baseball-grabbing antagonism for others.

It’s sometimes hard to tell what they might face, as the Black community is widely disparate in its feelings. (Spike Lee has written critically of the tendency by some to lump “Black people” together into a homogenous lump). There are stark generational. Da Mayor – a superb Ossie Davis, stumbling, well-spoken and ineffective – and Mother Sister (a sensational Ruby Dee), the neighbourhood matriarch, belong to an older era of Civil Rights, Malcolm X and MLK. The younger generations – those kids bombing loudly around the neighbourhood, including a young Martin Lawrence – don’t give a toss about their legacies and are barely interested in the world around them. Others, like Buggin’ Out (a firecracker Esposito), speak a semi-coherent collection of political phrases, mixed in with righteous but largely pointless anger about trivial events, that most people ignore.

In the middle of all of this, Lee himself plays Mookie, an everyman character for Black America, young, drifting, uncertain about where he is going. Mookie shirks fatherly duties – Tina literally has to order a pizza from Sal to get him to visit – and often does little more than punch-clock. But he also offers a fine, level-headed understanding of the various personal and community clashes around him. He’s an effective sounding board for every character, listening carefully and constantly torn about what doing the right thing might mean.

There is a sort of brilliantly brave ambiguity around Do the Right Thing. There are no heroes, only people, warts and all. Casual fights are picked but not seen through – like Buggin’ Out confronting John Savage’s well-to-do commuter for scuffing his trainers. The kids demean Da Mayor as a drunk wash-out who never made anything of his life (perhaps, subconsciously, worried his present is their future). Racial prejudice works every way – in one of Lee’s many flourishes, several characters (Mookie, Pino, a Hispanic man, a police officer and Sonny the Korean shop-owner) break the foruth wall to speak a flurry of racial insults to Italians, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and white Americans, giving vent to private feelings, but also showing how close these are to the surface.

Do the Right Thing is made up of a series of brilliantly sketched vignettes as its many characters mix and mingle over the long day, some sharing insights, some butting heads. The film zigs as much as it zags – Mookie confronts Pino’s racism not with anger but calm, reasoned discussion. Our three breeze-shooting old timers are as irritated at the loud and brash kids as they resent the cops. Heavy-set Radio Raheem (a stoic Bill Nunn) puts aside his ghetto-blaster to talk about love beating hate. That ghetto blaster will exact a heavy toll.

It’s at the heart of the explosion of violence that caps the film. It’s tragic that the police violence which ends the film – and the resulting riot – is still no stranger today. A troublemaker meets a death far exceeding their crime by being effectively lynched by the police in a choke hold (Lee cuts to his feet twitching in the air, as he is lifted by a truncheon around the neck). This police murder (and the police flee the scene, taking the body – and the evidence – with them) slams the political message home. People are flawed, tensions are high – but no one does anything even vaguely approaching deserving death, and the fact the authorities ‘resolve’ problems through brutal force is everything that’s wrong with America.

But Lee is not one to excuse all violence. The mob – and it becomes a mob, with Lee not afraid to show cash tills being looted as well as furious, righteous anger – nearly turns on the Korean shop next, seemingly for no other offence than being foreign. People we would never expect, scream passionately for the world to burn. But then, Lee also makes the key point: when the world is as unjust and dangerous as this, isn’t the right thing sometimes to let out a primal scream. After all, what is a building when weighed against a man’s life?

What is the right thing to do? It’s a complex message the film grapples with. Mookie arguably starts the riot – or at least directs its anger – with a window smash. But by doing so, he also side with his community. In many ways it is the right thing to do. After all, Sal started the spiral by responding to intense, loud baiting with a flurry of racism. Mookie is, in some ways, a fixed labourer – Sal, for all his affection for Mookie, can’t imagine a world where Mookie won’t be working in his pizza parlour – and siding with the crowd is a defiant assertion of his independence and identity.

It’s just a flavour of the complex and challenging ideas in a film that avoids easy answers. As Sal and Mookie, the next day, stand in the ashes neither of them willing to forgive and forget, but also neither of them wanting to return to violence, they stand like representatives of America, struggling to process its race-related history. It’s a million miles away from the easy messages and gentle fixes of liberal Hollywood. Tension here settles for coexistence – but acknowledges that explosions of rage and anger are an inevitable part of that. That’s not a message America wanted to hear in 1989 – hell its barely one it wants to hear today – but it’s a powerful part of this landmark masterpiece.

Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman drive through the South in Driving Miss Daisy

Director: Bruce Beresford

Cast: Morgan Freeman (Hoke Colburn), Jessica Tandy (Daisy Werthan), Dan Aykroyd (Boolie Werthan), Patti LuPone (Florine Werthan), Esther Rolle (Idella)

Retired Jewish teacher Daisy Wethan (Jessica Tandy) crashes her car while trying to drive down to the store. Her wealthy businessman son Boolie (Dan Aykroyd) decides she’s too old to drive herself, so hires black chauffeur Hoke Colburn (Morgan Freeman) for the job of Driving Miss Daisy. At first Daisy resists this new servant in her life but, doncha know it, over the next 23 years the two of them grow closer together as they deal with the ups-and-downs of life and find out that, heck, under the surface maybe we are all more alike than we think.

It’s been a recurrent theme that some films (like Shakespeare in Love or The Greatest Show on Earth) have found themselves actually diminished by the burden of being an “Oscar Winning Film”. Driving Miss Daisy joins them, an impossibly slight little puff of air film which could be blown away by the faintest breeze. It won out in a year where the most exciting movies of the year (sex, lies and videotape and most strikingly of all Do the Right Thing) failed to get nominated. It seemed a particular slap in the face that a film which looks at racial relations with such a cozy, nostalgic view as this one should triumph in the year Spike Lee made a film that exposed how close America was to racial tensions erupting into violence (worst of all this wouldn’t be the last time for Lee).

Driving Miss Daisy wants no part of that though. This is the Downton Abbey of racial dramas, a nostalgic and overwhelmingly “nice” film that uses odd-couple drama to make us feel good about ourselves. In this vision of the south, the Whites (and I am not buying the film’s pained attempts to suggest anti-Semitic mutters here and there is on a par with lynching) are mostly paternalistic masters, and the blacks forelock tugging servants hoping for a better life but grateful for the support of their betters. There isn’t a single black character (bar Hoke’s niece who appears wordlessly in the final minutes of the film) who isn’t a domestic servant, and not a single white person who isn’t genteel (bar a single racist cop 52 minutes into the film).

Not a single black character is ever angry, complains about injustice or is anything less than patient, noble and humble. It’s all part of a film designed to make us feel better about the South’s appalling record of racism and segregation by presenting it as exactly the sort of genteel Gone-with-the-Wind-good-old-cause fantasy many people remain comfortable with today, where black people needed to be looked after because (as even Daisy puts it in the film) they are basically children.

Now saying that, the film is of course light, fluffy, inoffensive and (there is no better word for it) nice. You can sit down and let the gentleness wash over you, no problem at all. I can see why it was a word-of-mouth hit in 1989, and why the Oscars gave it the big one. It’s well made and very faithful to the Pullitzer winning play it’s based on. Beresford’s genteel direction lets the dialogue and actors do the work (he didn’t get a nomination – though even he modestly said later he didn’t really feel he deserved one).

Freeman and Tandy do decent work with these incredibly simple characters. Tandy could have played this cookie-cutter “cantankerous-but-loveable-old-lady” role standing on her head. But she does it well (again, drawing those Downton parallels, this is exactly the same role Maggie Smith has in that series) and nails a little speech where she wistfully remembers visiting the sea then stops as if embarrassed by her self-indulgence. She won the Oscar.

Freeman here (and in Glory) invents a screen persona. He’s kindly, worldly-wise (but not bookly wise – he ain’t never had time to learn readin’), patient, long-suffering but full of dignity. But, with his repeated “Yassums”, his non-complaining acceptance of his position and status and his deferential nature, he’s pretty close to a sort of fantasy Uncle Tom-ish figure. Sure, Freeman can sell those quiet moments, where it’s clear Hoke has learned to bury feelings of fear (his brief confrontation with a racist cop – and his controlled fear – is the film’s most effective moment) but the whole performance feels like a carefully constructed lie.

It’s in line with the film, where the black experience has been cut down and filtered in such a way to make white people feel good about themselves. Because we can watch the film and go “oh yeah I’d be like Daisy and Boolie, they’re so sweet” and we wait 52 minutes before an unpleasant character turns up and uses the n word – and then he’s mean to Daisy as well for being Jewish and heck gosh darn it we are all the same after all, what a relief, pass the popcorn. You come out of Driving Miss Daisy and you have learned nothing.

Worse than that, you’ve been shown a cuddly fantasy world. We never see Hoke outside of the setting of his master’s homes (there is no other way of putting it) and learn nothing about his life or experiences. We see him melt the heart of an already-fundamentally-decent woman, but their relationship always has boundaries. Driving Miss Daisy would be fine as an escapist piece of fluff – but time has shown it increasingly to be a film designed to make us feel reassured that history wasn’t as distressing as it might have been. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Lincoln (2012)

Daniel Day-Lewis gives on the great transformative performances as Lincoln

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (Abraham Lincoln), Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens), David Strathairn (William Seward), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Robert Lincoln), James Spader (WN Bilbo), Hal Holbrook (Preston Blair), John Hawkes (Robert Latham), Jackie Earle Haley (Alexander Stephens), Bruce McGill (Edwin Stanton), Tim Blake Nelson (Richard Schell), Joseph Cross (John Hay), Jared Harris (Ulysses S Grant), Lee Pace (Fernando Wood), Peter McRobbie (George Pendleton), Gloria Reuben (Elizabeth Keckley), Jeremy Strong (John Nicolay), Michael Stuhlbarg (George Yeaman), David Costible (James Ashley), Boris McGiver (Alexander Coffroth)

It took me three viewings until I felt I got Lincoln. Previously – in the cinema and the first time at home – I respected it. I admired the skill with which it was assembled. But I had found it hard to see it as much more than a critically acclaimed civics lesson, Spielberg at his most prestige. Returning to it the third time with the pressure well and truly off, suddenly I discovered a film I’d never seen before, an intensely dramatic telling of the perilous struggle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery. A vibrant, beautiful and surprisingly intense story of how close Congress came to vetoing it. What had seemed a stuffy museum piece, instead came to life as a dramatic piece of cinema. It goes to show you should never be afraid to give something another go. Or two.

This biopic of Lincoln goes down a very modern route of avoiding covering the Great Man’s entire life. Instead it zeroes in on little more than a crucial month. It’s January 1865 – in what we know are the final months of the President’s life – and Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) confronts a terrible choice. Civil war has torn America apart for year and peace may be on the horizon. But Lincoln fears a reformed America, with all its Southern slave states back in the fold, will find a way to end his Emancipation Proclamation and restore slavery to its height. To prevent this, Congress must ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution ending slavery. But, with many in Congress worried that such an Amendment will end any chance of peace, Lincoln is in a terrible position. Should he sacrifice peace for abolition? Or vice versa? Either way, it will be a no-holds barred fight on the floors of Congress.

Spielberg’s film is near perfect in its shooting and editing, while its historical detail is brilliantly on-point. You couldn’t fault a moment of its making. However, what makes the film a success is the director’s skilful ability to combine graceful (even stately) old-fashioned film-making expertise, with a truly compelling sense of the passions and dangers we face when democracy is in action. And the overwhelming tension when the stakes are high and we have no guarantees of the end result. Another film – the stately civics lesson I once took the film for – would have shown the passage of the bill as a Whiggish inevitability, a progress filled march to a better world.

Lincoln isn’t like that. This is a film that shows politics then and politics now ain’t that different. For every principled man, there a dozen looking out for the main chance, marking time or who are too scared to worry about right and wrong. The Amendment is delivered not by impassioned oratory from the President. It’s carried by skilled floor management and the employment of a trio of political lobbyists with briefcases stuffed with cushy job offers in the rebuilt America.

Votes are brow-beaten out of people, threats and persuasion are used in equal measure. There is no winning people over with poetic oratory. At one point, Lincoln makes a simple and heartfelt plea for one congressmen to do the right thing: the guy votes against him. One of the film’s moments of triumph sees fervent abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens refuse to be provoked into expressing his true views on the floor, instead offering a statement that he does not believe in equality “in all things”, knowing any other answer will be used to build opposition against the bill. Is there any other film in American politics where one of the biggest cheer moments is one of our heroes compromising and spinning his true views into something far less threatening?

It’s all part of the film’s demystification of American history as not being something made from marble, but instead being real and true. If anything though, this sense of realism – of danger and the very real possibility of defeat – makes the final vote (a long sequence that almost plays out a congress vote in real time) both far more dramatic and also surprisingly moving. Because we appreciate every step of the backroom handshakes, fights, compromises and (let’s be honest) corruption and shady deals that got us here. And, more than anything, the film has made clear Lincoln is willing for this brutal war (the horrors of which, both in battle and bloody aftermath, intrude at key points in the film) to go on for as long as it takes, to ensure this Amendment.

Lincoln is the heart of the film: and it’s almost impossible to state how central Daniel Day-Lewis is to the film’s success. This is an extraordinary performance. I don’t think you can understate how venerated Lincoln is in the American memory. With his distinctive features and a permanent memory of him sitting like a marble God in the centre of Washington, it’s hard for many to imagine that this was ever a real man. But Day-Lewis has turned in a performance here that transforms Lincoln into a living, breathing man but never once compromises his greatness.

From the voice (a wispy lightness, a million miles from the deep, Shakespearean accent you would expect – and entirely accurate) to the ambling walk, to the film’s embracing of Lincoln’s eccentric monologing, his love of whimsy and jokes, his autodidact passion for language, his warmth and love for his family – and his righteous anger when frustrated by those who cannot see the big picture – this is extraordinary. Day-Lewis is compelling in a way few actors can be. His Lincoln is superbly human. Every moment is beautifully observed, but this is so much more than an actor’s tricks. His Lincoln is someone you can come out of the film convinced that he was talking to you, that you understand him as a human being not a cipher. I felt I knew and understood Lincoln more from watching this film than I ever had from a history book. It’s breathtaking.

Of course it inspires everyone else in the cast to give their best. The at times difficult marriage between Lincoln and his wife gives some wonderful material for Sally Field (easily her finest performance in decades). Mary Todd Lincoln is aware she will always be a disappointment for her husband as a partner, but equally feels that her public mourning for this lost child speaks of a deeper humanity than her husband. Loyal if questioning, she’s also abrupt and clumsy enough at times to be a liability.

Tommy Lee Jones is exceptional as Thaddeus Stevens, prickly, difficult but also morally pure (the film has helped rediscover the unjustly overlooked Stevens). Previous Lincoln performers Strathairn and Holbrook give very good support. James Spader is great fun as colourful lobbyist. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is all restricted ambition as Lincoln’s son. Jared Harris shines in a few scenes as Grant. Gloria Reuben has a few beautiful moments as Mary’s confidante Elizabeth Keckley.

Lincoln is a film shot with all the prestige of an American Merchant-Ivory, in love with the power of democracy. But it’s also open-eyed on how a system like America’s works, and how perilous delivering “the right thing” can be. Emotional and engrossing, it’s powered above all by a towering sublime performance by Daniel Day-Lewis who might as well be the 16th President reborn. It took me three viewings to see the richness here – but I am so glad I stuck it out.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2020)

Judas and the black messiah
Daniel Kaluuya excels as the betrayed Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah

Director: Shaka King

Cast: Lakeith Stanfield (Bill O’Neal), Daniel Kaluuya (Fred Hampton), Jesse Plemons (Agent Roy Mitchell), Dominque Fishback (Deborah Johnson), Ashton Saunders (Jimmy Palmer), Algee Smith (Jake Winters), Darrell Britt-Gibson (Bobby Rush), Lil Rel Howery (Judy Harmon), Martin Sheen (J. Edgar Hoover), Amari Cheatom (Rod Collins), Jermaine Fowler (Mark Clark)

In the 1960s, America was in violent turmoil. Simmering racial tensions were exploding, as a younger, politically engaged generation refused to accept the status quo of the past. Facing them was a reactionary, institutionally racist law and order system, determined to take any steps necessary to stop them. Violence was inevitable and the anger and resentments of that time still carry a powerful legacy today. It’s these emotions that Judas and the Black Messiah engages with. Impassioned and ambitious film-making, it often tries to do too much but still leaves a powerful impression.

In Chicago in 1968, Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) is a car thief and conman, who uses a faked FBI badge to steal cars. Arrested (and beaten), he is given a choice by FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) – serve time for his offences or turn informant for the FBI. O’Neal is ordered to join the Black Panther Party – and to get as close as he can to the charismatic leader of the Illinois chapter, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Hampton is radical, but also a visionary leader who is attempting to build a “rainbow coalition” that will unite black, Puerto Rican and white working classes to campaign on a wide range of social issues, from race to healthcare and education: a vision the FBI sees as a nightmare. O’Neal’s information is used to help frame Hampton, as events build inexorably towards his permanent removal.

Judas and the Black Messiah is dynamic and electric film-making. Shaka King’s film hums with righteous fury at the hypocrisy, racism and violence of the law enforcement agencies towards the Chicago black community (effectively the police are an occupying force, perpetrating violence and injustice). While not shying away from the violent response from many of the Black Panthers – including showing one white police officer executed while begging for his life – it paints an unsparing picture of the racism and cruelty of the Chicago police. Innocent black people are bludgeoned and abused. Those in the Black Panthers are framed for crimes, brutalised in prison and murdered in police custody. The outrage and fury of the film is both justified and affecting.

Simultaneously there is a powerful sense of grief at the loss of a golden opportunity – and the inspiration of a visionary leader, who could have grown to become a key figure in American history. King’s film explores the all-too-short life of Hampton before his murder. It delicately paints his charisma but also carefully establishes his vision. His recognition that social, educational and medical improvements are at least as important to ordinary black people as political rights. His attempt to build a coalition of the downtrodden, white and black. His status as the only man who could unite this coalition. His loss an incalculable tragedy for his cause and also for America.

This powerful picture is further framed by Kaluuya’s marvellous performance as Hampton. Kaluuya perfectly captures the charisma and electricity of Hampton’s public speaking, his ability to marshal words and move crowds. With a bulked-up physicality and head-cocking defiance, he wonderfully conveys Hampton’s ability to persuade and inspire, his lack of fear and passion to see justice done. But Kaluuya also makes him wonderfully human. In intimate moments with his girlfriend Deborah (very well played by Dominique Fishback), Kaluuya makes Hampton gentle, shy, even a little nervous – giving him a very real emotional hinterland that sits naturally alongside (and contrasts with) his activist public persona. This is a stunningly good performance.

It also, perhaps, unbalances the film slightly. King’s film is ambitious – but it is attempting to do too much within its two-hour runtime. This is a film that wants to explore the corruption of the law forces, the terrible plight of black Americans, the life of Fred Hampton and the story of his betrayer Bill O’Neal. It’s this final story that actually ends up feeling the least defined – and least engaging – of the film’s plot threads (unfortunate as it’s the one that gives the film its title).

None of this is the fault of Lakeith Stanfield, who gives a marvellous performance of weakness, fear, self-preservation and regretful self-loathing as O’Neal. But his relationship with Hampton never feels close or personal enough. In fact, the two of them feel very distanced from each other. The sense of the personal in the betrayal is lost. The idea of O’Neal struggling between loyalty to Hampton and his FBI handler Mitchell (who encourages O’Neal to see him as a sort of surrogate father) is weak, because we never get a real sense of a very personal link between O’Neal and Hampton, or a real sense that O’Neal is deeply conflicted about his betrayal. (Indeed, the film is reduced to explicitly telling us that O’Neal is struggling between betraying the Black Panthers and a true belief in their cause, which feels like a failure of narrative.)

Fundamentally, you could split the film into two movies. One which focuses on Hampton and in which O’Neal is little more than an extra. And another that zeroes in on O’Neal’s struggle with the FBI and fears of being caught, in which Hampton is a distant, inspirational figure. What King’s film fails to do is effectively is bring these two characters together properly. The personal nature of the relationship (and the betrayal) is lost. This isn’t Jesus betrayed by one of his disciples – more like Jesus being cashed in by someone at the temple. It’s a loss to the film.

It feels at times as if O’Neal was the original “hook” but that King became more interested – perhaps rightly – in Hampton and the tensions in Chicago (and America more widely) at the time. Similarly, the film is fascinated by the corruption of the FBI – Martin Sheen makes a chilling, latex covered, appearance as Hoover – and by questions over how far Mitchell (Plemons, decent bur fatally compromised), a relative liberal, is willing to go. In both plot lines, O’Neal is an entry point but becomes less and less the focus. It partly explains perhaps why Stanfield – clearly the “lead” – ended up joining Kaluuya in the supporting actor category at the Oscars. He may well be the lead but his story is the least compelling of the several threads here.

Judas and the Black Messiah is still hugely effective in many places. Its main weakness is in trying to juggle these various plot threads, and not always succeeding in bringing them together as well as it should. Because the O’Neal plot line needs to take up a good share of the run time – but is the thread the film seems least interested in – it does mean some of these scenes drag more than they should, making the film at times seem longer than it should. You can’t help but a feel a film that focused on Hampton alone would have been stronger. King’s film still makes powerful points – but its ideas are sometimes blunted and crowded out by its attempt to cover so much. Impassioned and ambitious, it doesn’t always completely succeed.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020)

Chadwick Boseman excels in his final performance in the stagy Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Director: George C Wolfe

Cast: Viola Davis (Ma Rainey), Chadwick Boseman (Levee Green), Glynn Turman (Toledo), Colman Domingo (Cutler), Michael Potts (Slow Drag), Jonny Coyne (Mel Sturdyvant), Taylor Paige (Dussie Mae), Jeremy Shamod (Irvin), Dusan Brown (Sylvester)

In a Chicago recording studio in July 1927, while the sun beats down outside, blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is due to record some of her greatest hits. But she’s almost an hour late. The people who made it on time are her backing jazz band. Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) are seasoned pros. But trumpet player Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman) is something else, an ambitious and electric young man who feels he knows what the new sound is in a way that Ma doesn’t. Over an afternoon, as Ma flexes her power upstairs, the white agent and recording studio owner fret, and tensions between the band members slowly simmer towards and explosion.

It’s impossible to watch Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom right now without being very aware of the tragic early death of Chadwick Boseman. Boseman passed away while the film was in post-production, and it’s hard not to guiltily wonder if Boseman was aware this was to be his final performance. Either way, this was a stunning way for this electric, James Dean-like talent to sign off – a scintillating, passionate performance as a man carrying huge burdens and deeply repressed griefs and guilt. August Wilson’s play provides several key set-piece speeches for Levee – and Boseman burns through them with an intensity that will leave its mark on you.

Bright-eyed, with a wiry body of elastic tension that shifts from loose, jazzy movements to rigid bursts of fury, Boseman is extraordinary. Starting the film as seemingly an irresponsible, easy-going young man frustrated at the concessions of his elders, Boseman establishes a deep psychological pain at his core. He’s a young man who has seen his parents vilely mistreated by oppressive white men, who smiles to get what he wants but never forgets that the white bosses he works with see him as little better than a slave, ripe for exploiting. It’s a brilliant performance, one for the ages.

It dominates a film that is told with dynamism but never escapes its theatrical roots. Its set-piece speeches are virtuoso moments for the actors, but the silent observance with which they are watched by other actors feels more suited to theatre rather than the realism of film. The build towards the film’s tragic end, hinging on a moment of violence, is the sort of character breakdown that we accept in the theatre, but seems forced on film – especially when met with the sort of visual tableaux that seems to invite the curtain to come down. Wolfe directs what is very much a conversation piece in two locations with a great deal of energy and imagination – but it remains very much a theatrical venture at heart, where long speeches and elements of Greek tragedy (hubris, nemesis and character flaws) shape the plot.

But it doesn’t altogether matter when the ideas the film tackles are so vibrant and presented with such passion. It’s a film that sharply outlines the racial divide in America. Wilson’s play is all about how master/servant exploitation continues in America. Its early shots establish the only work black people in Chicago can find (all of it manual or secretarial), while the musicians are paid cash-in-hand, even Ma, because no bank will believe a black man hasn’t stolen a cheque.

“All they want is my voice” says Ma, and she’s right. A difficult prima-donna, unafraid of expressing her desires both musical and sexual, Davis is larger-than-life but impressive as the domineering Ma. But Ma behaves badly because it’s the only way she has of exerting some control in this environment. She won’t see the profits from this recording work (it will be the white men running the studio). So, just for a few hours, she wants to remind them that they rely on her. So, she’ll be late. She’ll demand a cold coke. And she’ll insist her stammering nephew speaks the opening monologue of the song, even if that does mean burning through several recording albums to get it right. Because Ma may be an artist, but she’s also a tool to these people – something they will use while she can earn them money, and will then cast aside the second she is done.

It’s the same with the band. And the older hands have accepted it. Sure, they have their resentments and their sadnesses – old pro Toledo even remembers when he had the fire like Levee has – but they understand the game. They are props in the white man’s game, and they are content to earn a decent living from something they like doing, knowing that they are still living a better life than many. Cutler even has his faith to bolster him, a faith Leveee rejects in Boseman’s most electric scene, with a speech that angrily denounces God for his unfairness towards black people.

Levee is another thing again to the rest of them. He has plans and ambitions and wants to form his own band. He’s written his own songs, which have far more of the zip that we know jazz is heading towards. He’ll play nice to get what he wants, but he’s not willing for a second to forget how racist the world is. And he won’t let go of his anger for a moment. Compromise for him only serves a purpose. His youthful defiance and lack of deference spark resentment in the others – who either can’t or won’t understand him – and even Ma, perhaps seeing him as a threat, can’t stand him.

It of course leads to tragedy – and a coda that grimly reminds us all that in this world there may be winners but the thing that unites them all is that they are white. Jazz music may be on the cusp of change – and Ma will pay that price in a few years – but America isn’t. You only need to look at how the musicians are treated to know that equality is a million miles away.

The cast are faultless. Turman carries a quiet sadness and resignation as the ageing Toledo. Colman Domingo is relaxed then taut as Cutler. Taylor Paige has a dangerously selfish energy as Ma’s younger lover Dussie. But it’s still more of a play than a film, even if it is told with pace and energy, acted with such flourish and passion. It leaves you with effective and engaging arguments, but it still feels like it work best in the theatre.

One Night in Miami (2020)

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Aldris Hodge, Eli Goree and Leslie Odom Jnr have a passionate debate in One Night In Miami

Director: Regina King

Cast: Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X), Eli Goree (Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali), Aldris Hodge (Jim Brown), Leslie Odom Jnr (Sam Cooke), Lance Reddick (Brother Kareem), Christian Magby (Jamaal), Joaquina Kalukango (Betty X), Nicolette Robinson (Barbara Cooke), Michael Imperioli (Angelo Dundee), Lawrence Gilliard Jnr (Drew Bundini Brown), Beau Bridges (Mr Carlton)

One night In Miami in 1964… civil rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), NFL super-star Jim Brown (Aldris Hodge), “King of Soul” Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jnr) and world heavy-weight champion of the world Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) all gathered in a motel room overnight. We’ll never know what they talked about: but playwright Kemp Powers imagined what might have gone down in that room in a play, which forms the basis of Regina King’s film directing debut.

What do they talk about? Along with some home truths, it’s mostly the state of America and the struggle for racial justice. Malcolm X – edgy and worried for his life – feels singer and businessman Sam Cooke has sold out by pandering to white audiences. Cooke angrily argues that building his own record label for himself and his black artists is beating the white man at his own game. Cassius is having last-minute doubts about converting to Islam. Jim Brown is pondering switching from sport to film-making: after all, what are he and Clay really but “gladiators”?

King’s film is passionate and directed with confidence, even if the film never really escapes from its heritage as a single-setting, one-act play. The action largely takes place in a single room – despite efforts to open it up by having our heroes visit the roof or pop out for supplies. It’s not a surprise that the best moments are also the most theatrical, not least the heated debates that allow the actors to shine.

These debates are so strong, I wish there were more of them. The heart of the film is that argument about the balance between pandering and creating something that will sell. Sam Cooke has had a lot of success – but is it at the cost of not singing about the things he really cares about? Or is he right that people like The Rolling Stones will always open doors he can’t – and if he and other artists can make fortunes from the Stones covering their songs, isn’t that a win for the black community? Malcolm X has no time for that possibility, accusing Cooke of a soft-pedal Uncle-Tomism, content to leave the sort of impassioned protest songs he could be singing to men like Bob Dylan.

Both Brown and Clay are largely left to play peacemaker and devil’s advocate. Hugely successful athletes, they balance justifiable pride with a determination to be their own men. But the film fails to really explore issues in their industries – is their success elevating their community, or just enriching rich white guys? It would have been interesting for Malcolm to turn some his fire on these two. After all an early scene with Brown shockingly demonstrates the limits of sporting success to truly change the opinions of some white Americans about their black neighbours. There would certainly have been plenty for him and Malcolm X to get into in a debate about the right way to progress civil rights. But it never quite happens.

Not that the film is afraid to turn some of its guns on Malcolm X. Kingsley Ben-Adir excels playing a far more fragile, anxious and gentler Malcolm than we expect (after all, it’s so hard not to immediately think of Denzel Washington). This is a Malcolm worried for his and his family’s safety, going through the turmoil of leaving the State of Islam and not sure where his life is heading, other than the fear it won’t be a long journey. Ben-Adir has the fire and passion, but also the nervous sense of being the youngest, least well-known (at the time) of the four, and he creates a successful ambiguity as to whether his friendship with Clay is at least partly based on self-interest.

There is some seriously rich material in this film for the four actors to sink their teeth into, and King’s direction allows each of them a showpiece, while expertly shuffling perspectives. Odom Jnr is superb – not least for his heart-rending and emotional performances of several Cooke songs – as a man who knows deep-down there’s truth to what he’s being accused of, while feeling his shared success is part of doing “his bit” and he’s being unfairly picked on.

Aldis Hodge’s Jim Brown is the most settled and content of the four, certain of his own destiny and comfortable with his life. In the hands of a lesser actor, his role could be potentially overlooked, but Hodge’s charisma keeps his careful performance compelling. Eli Goree perfectly captures Muhammad Ali’s exuberance, good-natured arrogance and restless energy and mixes it in with a sweet desire for everyone to get along. All four of these actors riff brilliantly off each other.

The film doesn’t let us forget the dangers of the time either. The opening sequence demonstrates the dangers and prejudices all of them face: from booing crowds to threats of physical harm. It’s something we return to time and time again – while Malcolm X’s fear about shadowy figures watching him is a constant reminder that his own death is so close.

But I feel there could have been more. Sam Cooke would also be dead by the end of 1964 – but you could watch this film and not have a clue that within 18 months half the people in it would be murdered. Away from the debates, the film takes a while to get going, and there gaps in issues of racial politics that you feel could have been richly explored.

For all that the film could have been a moment of time, it actually feels a bit disconnected from the rest of history. Where does this event – and the insights we gain about our characters – fit within the perspective of civil rights for the rest of the 1960s, let alone the rest of the century? The film doesn’t quite capture this. More ambition to expand the play beyond that one night into something more far-reaching (imagine what Spike Lee might have made of it) would have been fascinating. As it is, this is a brilliantly acted, well-made film – but still feels like an adaptation of a night at the theatre, a more reassuring rather than challenging film.

Gandhi (1982)

Ben Kingsley excels as Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s Oscar winning epic

Director: Richard Attenborough

Cast: Ben Kingsley (Mahatma Gandhi), Rohini Hattaggadi (Kasturba Gandhi), Roshan Seth (Jawaharlal Nehru), Pradeep Kumar (VK Krishna Menon), Saeed Jaffrey (Vallabhbhai Patel), Alyque Padamsee (Muhammad Ali Jinnah), Virendra Razdan (Maulana Azad), Candice Bergen (Margaret Bourke-White), Edward Fox (Brigadier General Reginald Dyer), John Gielgud (Lord Irwin), Trevor Howard (Judge Broomfield), John Mills (Lord Chelmsford), Martin Sheen (Vince Walker), Ian Charleson (Reverend Charles Andrews), Arthul Fugard (General Jan Smuts), Geraldine James (Mirabehn), Amrish Puri (Khan), Ian Bannan (Senior Officer Fields), Richard Griffiths (Collins), Nigel Hawthorne (Kinnoch), Michael Hordern (Sir George Hodge), Om Puri (Nahari)

In 1962, Richard Attenborough was approached by Motilal Kothari, an Indian civil servant, who believed Attenborough was the man to bring the life of Mahatma Gandhi to film. All this despite Attenborough having never directed a film. But the life of one of history’s greatest men, and passionate advocate of peace and non-violence, spoke deeply to the socially-engaged Attenborough who dedicated 20 years of his life to bringing the film to the screen, immersing himself in Indian culture along the way and winning the support of Nehru (until his death delayed the project again) and Gandhi’s family. The eventual film was a huge success, cementing the public perception of Gandhi and beautifully capturing both the importance of the story, and its emotional heart.

Opening with Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, the film covers in flashback his life from combatting anti-Indian prejudice in South Africa as a young, British-trained, lawyer to his return to India and long involvement in the campaign to win India its independence from the British Empire, stressing non-co-operation, his eventual success but also his failure to hold the Hindu and Muslim parts of the country together and his attempt as “father of the nation” to put an end to religious violence, a failure that will eventually lead to his assassination. 

Attenborough’s grand, epic film marshals thousands of extras to bring to life pages of history. At times events fly by with speed, but Attenborough never loses sight of the emotional heart of the story – both Gandhi and the status of Indians as not being masters in their own home. Attenborough directs scenes of real power, most strikingly a heart-rending peaceful march on a salt works (the tax on salt use being a major burden on many poor Indians) that culminates in line after line of peaceful Indian protestors walking calmly forward to be beaten down by soldiers. Despite being the grandest and largest of films, it allows questions of pure morality and decency to lie at its heart and, supported by a parade of British acting greats, keeps the Indians at the heart of their own story and the masters of their own destinies.

The film’s impact though may be directly connected to the gloriously transcendent performance of Ben Kingsley in the title role. For years it was believed the film could only work with a British actor in the title role – imagine how it would be received today if Gandhi had been played by (as it nearly was) a browned-up Anthony Hopkins or John Hurt (who famously told Attenborough he looked absurd). Instead half-Indian unknown RSC actor Ben Kingsley took the role. Kingsley so completely and utterly immersed himself in Gandhi – everything, the physicality, the morality, the voice, the intellectualism – that not only has he become so completely associated with the role but it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing it.

Ageing almost 50 years over the course of the film, Kingsley’s Gandhi is above-all moral, softly-spoken, observant and considerate – the very spirit of the original man seems to be up on the screen. Far from the sort of histrionics you might expect from a subject of an epic movie, Kingsley is not afraid to be quiet, gentle even underplayed. He completely understands that the charisma and power in Gandhi laid in his moral authority, not his speech-making, but his careful example-setting of even-handedness, patience and desire for peace. 

But Kingsley is also willing to show Gandhi as shrewd and stubborn, even while mixing it with both a deep pain at the loss of life. Kingsley is superbly good at the smaller quieter moments – he wrings heart-rending force from the loss of his wife (a similarly impressive and quietly authoritative performance from Rohini Hattaggadi), which partly works because the film quietly centres the truth and faith in their marriage. This is extraordinary work from Ben Kingsley, that seems to carry not just the entire film but the sense of a nation.

Attenborough though was a director who was at his best when working with actors, and his ability to coax truthful and heartfelt moments from quiet scenes are what gives the other sequences the emotional force to make them work. Attenborough seemingly called in every favour to assemble the supporting cast that backs up Kingsley, many of them juggling only a few scenes. Among the stand-outs we have a martially certain Edward Fox as General Dyer, an archly arrogant John Gielgud and a frustrated John Mills as viceroys, Trevor Howard representing decent British rule as an honest Judge and Martin Sheen as a reformist minded journalist. That’s to overlook dozens of others in small roles, all of them clearly committed to the intention of the project.

The film though allows the Indians themselves to take centre stage, even if it is easy to criticise some of the simplifications of many of the issues that would eventually culminate in partition. The film has a clear hostility towards the idea of religion, seeing it as the root of much of the violence that erupted in India in the last years of Gandhi’s life. While Roshan Seth is excellent as Nehru, the character is portrayed more as the faithful follower of Gandhi than the shrewd politician in his own right (it’s a role most of the other leading members of congress are also placed in). Alyque Padamsee carries a high level of charisma as Jinnah, founder of Pakistan – but the film can’t quite resist painting him into the corner as a semi-villain, ignoring Gandhi’s desperation to get Jinnah to invest in a united India.

It’s part of what has been seen since as the film’s more hagiographic stance towards Gandhi. Certainly later historiography has outlined a few shades of grey in Gandhi – although I would argue that seeing him as a man and not a saint only heightens (similar to Mandela) the awe at what he went on to achieve. The film’s whistle stop tour of Indian history – taking in every major event and personality, some in a matter of moments – looks particularly old-fashioned now with our current trend being biographical films that focus only on crucial moments, not the whole life. It adds a slight air of schoolboy history to the project, an unfortunate side-effect of the passionate earnestness with which the story is told.

But then even in 1982 – when it lifted 8 Oscars including Best Picture, Director and Actor and most of the technicals – it was seen as slightly old-fashioned. Attenborough has generously repeatedly said that he believed Steven Spielberg was more deserving of Best Director for ET. And it’s true that Attenborough was in many ways a producer at heart with these epics than an inspired director like Lean. His marshalling of crowds, finances and simply forcing the will together to make the picture – and to allow it to focus on Indians rather than Westerners – is a tribute to his organisational skills. His strengths as a director were more in performances, and as with many of his epic films the most memorable moments are smaller, intimate ones. The larger moments are shot with an assured professionalism rather than inspiration, but Attenborough understands how to wring emotion from moments and how to let character drive action.

Gandhi works above all because even today you can see it is a passionate labour of love, that everyone involved in clearly believed in passionately. It may well be that at times it is workmanlike or simplistic – and covers the sweep of history with an earnest completeness, even while it is unafraid to be critical certainly of the British – but it still invests it crucial moments with humanity, life and deep emotion. You can’t help but be moved by it – and you are instantly stunned by the sheer brilliance of Kingsley as Gandhi, one of those performances like George C Scott as Patton which seems more like the man than the real thing. Gandhi may be old fashioned, but that’s not a crime when the quality is still there.

Glory (1989)

Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington are among the first black American soldier in Glory

Director: Edward Zwick

Cast: Matthew Broderick (Colonel Robert Gould Shaw), Denzel Washington (Pvt Silas Trip), Cary Elwes (Major Cabot Forbes), Morgan Freeman (Sgt Major John Rawlins), Andre Braugher (Cpl Thomas Searles), Jihmi Kennedy (Pt Jupiter Sharts), Cliff De Young (Colonel James Montgomery), Alan North (Governor John Albion Andrew), John Finn (Sgt Mulcahy), Bob Gunton (General Charles Garrison Harker), Jay O Sanders (General George Crockett Strong)

The American Civil War started over slavery, but it took a long time for either side to admit it was a fight about slavery. Racism abounded on both sides, and it was a fight in which black Americans may have been the subject, but were rarely invited to join. Glory covers this point of history, and specifically the first all-black regiment and its struggle to be recognised as equal to the other regiments in the army. 

Wounded at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) returns home to Massachusetts and accepts command of the first all-black regiment, which is currently being raised by abolitionists in the state. With his friend Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes) as second-in-command (no one was progressive enough to actually allow black officers for the regiment), he recruits a wide range of black Americans, from free-man and bookish intellectual Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher) – an old friend of Robert and Cabot – to former slaves such as the wise John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) and the resentful Silas Trip (Denzel Washington). Training is a struggle, with the army denying the regiment supplies and support, and it’s an equal struggle when they reach the front line to be recognised for duties other than looting and latrine digging. Will the Massachusetts 54th be given the chance to prove itself in the front line – and establish a black man can fight as hard and bravely as a white man can?

Edward Zwick’s beautifully filmed, carefully re-created historical epic set the tone for much of his future career. It’s an often overly-sentimental film straining for a very self-conscious sense of importance, weighed down by the pride at the “message” it is carrying. It often does hit the mark with presenting scenes that carry emotional force – but then seeing as it treats nearly every scene as being a “moment” that should move us (with James Horner’s choral manipulation working double time to get us experiencing feelings), it’s no wonder that it succeeds sometimes.

Which is not to say the message it presents isn’t an important one. Black Americans have often been pushed into the margins of American Civil War history. Or worst of all presented as the victims, reliant on the courage and bravery of the abolitionists of the North to save them from slavery in the South. Until Glory it was very rare for anything to push their stories front and centre – or to tell a story where former slaves were allowed to fight their own battles and choose their own destinies. 

It’s one of the strongest marks of the film: these are soldiers unlike any other, who enter battles with less concern about their own survival, and more about having the chance to live as freemen and to make a mark on the world. To show that they, and people like them, could do just as a white man could do. And if they had to die to do that, better to live a day on their feet as freemen then a lifetime on their knees. It’s the principle emotional message of the film, and something Zwick translates with some skill, even if he frequently overeggs the pudding while doing so.

However, with such a strong message, it’s a shame so much of the film is filtered through the experience of its white lead character. For many of the films of the 80s and 90s dealing with these issues – Cry Freedom, the Steve Biko biopic, with Biko as a supporting character to his white South African journalist friend, being perhaps the key example – it was essential to have a white man at the centre, as if worried that audiences couldn’t understand the story they were seeing unless they had it filtered through the perception of someone who looks a bit more like them.

Matthew Broderick takes on the lead role here of Shaw – with the film giving a significant slice of its running time to its coming-of-age theme of Shaw learning to become a leader of men – and while the character is meant to be callow and an unlikely Colonel, it doesn’t help that Broderick lacks the charisma for the part. Perhaps he is a little too lightweight an actor for such an enterprise, for a film that demands greater force of character (you can imagine Tom Cruise doing a much finer job in the role).  Similarly, the familiar beats of a young man learning how to lead feel trivial compared to the life-and-death issues facing his soldiers.

But too often Zwick’s film returns us to Shaw’s point-of-view, the narrative filtering so much of the action through his perceptions and decisions that the black soldiers become supporting actors in their own stories. Broderick is not helped by the soldiers being played by some of the finest American actors of the last 30 years. Braugher is fabulous in the thankless role of the bookish man who must grow a spine. Morgan Freeman established a persona – the wise and level headed older man, who will not let hate and fury define his life and his choices – that would last him for the rest of his career, and is superb (his Oscar nomination for Driving Miss Daisy is probably the only thing that led to him not getting a nod for this film).

Denzel Washington took home an Oscar as the bitter, angry Trip – and it’s the sort of role an actor seizes with relish. Washington fills every frame with his rage at the system, his inarticulate, indiscriminate anger lashing out in every direction. It’s the fury of a man who has had all his choices taken from him in life, and would rather destroy things than run the risk of allowing himself to become committed to something, or form a bond. Washington probably won the Oscar alone for the astonishing scene where he silently, defiantly accepts a whipping (on a body covered with scars) for missing a curfew. He’s an elemental force of nature in the film.

There is plenty of strong stuff in Zwick’s work, but the film itself overplays its hand frequently. Moments of emotion are played so heavily to the hilt they sometimes fail to have an impact. It wants you to know at every turn that you are watching a film with an important social message – and the speechifying at points put into the mouths of the characters runs dry. While superbly made – veteran photographer Freddie Francis’ work is beautiful (and Oscar winning) – it’s a heavy-handed, overly pleased with itself film that knows all too well that it is about an important subject. While sometimes it lands – often in quieter moments, particularly those where Freeman and Washington are allowed to simply be human without overindulgent music cues hammering home the emotions – at others it comes across as too much.

Loving (2016)

Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in a love story that fails to capture fire

Director: Jeff Nichols

Cast: Joel Edgerton (Richard Loving), Ruth Negga (Mildred Loving), Marton Csokas (Sheriff Brooks), Nick Kroll (Bernie Cohen), Michael Shannon (Grey Villet), Terri Abney (Garnet Jeter), Alano Miller (Raymond Green), Bill Camp (Frank Beazley)

Imagine the idea of the state dictating whom you could and couldn’t marry. This was the predicament Richard and Mildred Loving found themselves in, when the appalling segregationist policies of America in the 1950s saw them arrested for the crime of a white man marrying a black woman. Over time, especially from the 60s onwards, their case was seized upon by Civil Rights movements as a possible cause celebre for repealing many of the worst excesses of laws against mixed-race marriages. But the Lovings themselves remained quiet, private and determined to lead as normal a life as possible, while others fought this battle for them in the court.

Jeff Nichols’ film is full of affection, empathy and regard for these very everyday, normal people. What it is not – for all the skill of Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga’s performances in the leads – is a film that manages to raise any real interest at all. This is a frequently slow-moving story that manages to drain any drama out of what should be a really dramatic story.

Racial inequality is the sort of topic that desperately should be throwing up rage and anger. Imagine Spike Lee tackling this sort of content. Loving settles instead for being a polite, even rather patronising homage to the quiet lack of drive and energy in Richard Loving (in particular). The sort of film that honours his decision to, essentially, get involved as little as possible in the case, to avoid engaging as much as he can in the wider implications their legal battle has for the nation and to studiously resist any attempts to get either side involved in it.

This may be great for reality, but it’s strikingly poor drama. You feel that a drama that focused instead on those actively campaigning for the rights for equal marriage rights to be recognised, the ones who actually fought these battles in court and brought energy and fire to the debate might be a more interesting film. Instead this settles for being a film about regular, not special people, while around the edges of their lives far more interesting events and actions are constantly taking place. 

There are some things to admire in the making of the film – Nichols’ brings his usual poetic skill to it – but this is a glacially paced, unabsorbing, overlong film that manages to make a scintillating and passionate subject as dull as dish water. Negga and Edgerton both do fine jobs – and clearly really admire the everyday nature of their characters – but these softly spoken, unengaged people to whom events happen, but who never take a stand of any sort of try and shape these events or set the direction of their own life, slowly switches the audience off.

Where is the fire here? Nichols’ film instead tries to become a tribute to the honesty of the working man, to Richard’s everyday values, simple, homespun viewpoints. It hails his lack of education (the film dances around where on the education spectrum Richard would be placed today), social awareness or even opinions as something which somehow makes him more “real” than anything else. This attitude, to be honest, becomes both trying and even a little patronising in its bluntness and sense of importance.

Just in case we are ever in danger of ever forgetting that he is a working man, the film can’t go longer than about five minutes without showing Richard laying some bricks. Mildred gets a little more engagement with the social issues of the 1960s – and the film does a good job of suggesting that she was a woman of considerably more hinterland than her husband, but who loyally followed his lead in the world. But neither of them come into focus as truly engaging characters. And because they are so hard to invest in, because the story and their film gives us so little personality for either of them to latch onto,  in the end you don’t get as fired up by the injustice of their case as you should do.

Instead you are left thinking at the end that this sort of racism is bad because, well, we know it was at the start. Following the story of two basically boring people who were in the right place at the right time to become the face of overturning some terrible laws, doesn’t make them interesting and doesn’t make a story that focuses on their lives at the cost of any of the wider issues or actual battles that were being fought, suddenly interesting either.

Malcolm X (1992)

Denzel Washington dominates in Spike Lee’s masterpiece Malcolm X

Director: Spike Lee

Cast: Denzel Washington (Malcolm X), Angela Bassett (Betty Shabazz), Albert Hall (Brother Baines), Al Freeman Jnr (Elijah Muhammad), Delroy Lindo (West Indian Archie), Spike Lee (Shorty), Roger Guenveur Smith (Rudy), Theresa Randal (Laura), Kate Vernon (Sophia), Lonette McKee (Louise Little), Tommy Hollis (Earl Little), James McDaniel (Brother Earl), Steve White (Brother Johnson), Ernest Lee Thomas (Sidney), Christopher Plummer (Prison Chaplin Gill), Peter Boyle (NYPD Captain Green)

In the early 1990s, Norman Jewison was attached to direct a biopic of Malcolm X, the powerful African-American activist, tragically assassinated in 1965. It was the project of Spike Lee’s dreams – and Jewison conceded he did not have the vision for the film that Lee clearly had. Lee stepped in – and thank goodness, as this is perhaps a film only he could have made. It splices together Lee’s customary political savvy and (accurate) sense of the injustice Black Americans have faced with a surprisingly adept use of the cinematic language of David Lean and other sweeping epics. In bringing these together, he created a superb biography, a great piece of epic cinema and a vital piece of American film-making.

The film covers the life of Malcolm X in three clear stages. Firstly his young days as a tearaway in Harlem, with drug addiction and crime, all with best friend Shorty (Spike Lee), a local gangster whom he admires (Delroy Lindo) and white girlfriend Sophia (Kate Vernon). The second act is his conversion to Islam under the guidance of (fictional) Brother Baines (Albert Hall) and his rise as an incendiary speaker with the Nation of Islam under the influence of its leader Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jnr). The final act covers his disillusionment and departure from that organisation after a host of scandals and political disagreements, his pilgrimage to Mecca and his return looking to work with other civil rights movements before his assassination by former members of the Nation of Islam.

It’s hard to know whose film to call this, because Spike Lee and Denzel Washington both invest this film with so much passion, director and actor working in perfect synchronicity, that it’s impossible to imagine the film without one or other of them. Washington’s performance is quite simply extraordinary. He spent over a year of focused preparation on the film, and every pore of his body seems to have soaked in the mood, manners and attitudes of Malcolm X. It’s a transformative performance of purest emotional commitment: impassioned, empowering and enthralling, charismatic in the extreme. He never shies away from the anger and the faults of Malcolm X, but so engrossingly human is his work that he brings to life in a way few people had before Malcolm’s humanity, his generosity, his love, his decency. It’s a performance that seems to have transformed the actor into the man and the film works so well because Washington completely involves you in his story. 

Washington should have won the Oscar that year – it went instead to Al Pacino – and Malcolm X also should have been nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, far more so than Scent of a Woman nominated in both categories. It’s a film that builds its audience’s empathy so successfully with its lead character, and so clearly understands what Malcolm was trying to do, that you come away from it full of respect and admiration for the man. Even when the film was made, many people saw Malcolm X as a divisive, even dangerous figure – but watching the film you forget that and invest in him as a man.

It’s also inarguable – as n-words and racial bias from many whites in the film litter the screen – that it opened the eyes of many people as to exactly how harsh living in America was at the time if you were black. Put simply, it was a country labouring constantly under injustice, persecution and suffering where a black life was worth less than a white one. It’s a theme that Lee has returned to time and again in his work – and quite rightly – and it’s the sort of masterclass of simmering political anger that powers the best of his work. Would any other director under the sun have chosen to open this film with footage of the Rodney King beating? Would anyone else have thought of ending it with a coda in South Africa, as Nelson Mandela (yes the real Nelson Mandela) addresses a classroom full of children about the importance and power of Malcolm’s vision of black people taking pride in themselves and their heritage – a pride beaten out of them still today, as Lee’s Rodney King footage shows.

Lee’s direction is quite simply superb, a wonderful fusion of his own styles with a classical sweep of David Lean, spiced with the textual play of Oliver Stone. The photography from Ernest Dickerson is wonderful, the film is beautifully cut and assembled and the recreation of period detail from set to costume is remarkable. Lee’s style is sublime, from a riotously fun Harlem song and dance routine (really impressive) with Malcolm others dancing a superb Lindy Hop, to the harshness of prison, through to the intelligent and acute analysis of growing divisions in the Nation of Islam (Al Freeman Jnr is fabulous as Elijah Muhammed) and Malcolm’s developing political stance.

Lee’s film is even-handed on the whole – Malcolm’s real opponents are ideological disagreements, the film dramatizes a moment Malcolm considered a great regret where he rudely brushed aside a white college student keen to help his cause, and the film makes a lot of play over his controversial opinions on Kennedy’s assassination (essentially that he deserved it). But it also builds a superb sense of Malcolm’s personal life alongside, and the film is crammed with moments of quiet intimacy and a wonderfully developed performance of supportive love from Angela Bassett as Betty.

But the Lee touch is in that sense of anger. The politics and fury of Malcolm’s speeches and his message to black people today to save themselves and find pride in themselves carry through the whole film. Lee was sick and tired of the “white saviour” film and he triumphantly made here a film that was by black people, about black people but had something for all to hear. Malcolm X is a superb piece of biography cinema that leaves you with justifiable admiration for a man it’s easy to misjudge, engrosses you in a complex and disturbing era, angers you at racism and its impact, and also leaves you entertained. In many ways the most classical of Lee’s films – but a reminder that he is a unique and compelling voice. He thought he was the only one that could tell this story. He was right.