Tag Archives: Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Believing Takes Practice

A Wrinkle in Time

by Hope Madden

It was a dark and stormy night.

With this cheeky line, Madeleine L’Engle began an odyssey that entertained and emboldened, taught us to take responsibility for our own choices, highlighted the drawbacks of conformity and showed us how to be warriors for the light.

L’Engle’s novel, A Wrinkle in Time, though massively popular and never out of print since its 1970 publication, had its critics. Not Christian enough to be Christian, too Christian not to be, it was also among the first SciFi novels with a female point of view. This wasn’t taken super well by adults in 1970, but it was immediately and forever beloved by its intended audience.

A Wrinkle in Time was smart and groundbreaking, which, of course, makes it the ideal tale for Ava DuVernay.

Can the filmmaker who landed two near-perfect punches of social commentary in the last four years (Selma, 13th) bring this imaginative, vibrant, lovely classic of adolescent literature to life?

Yes and no.

With the help of scripters Jennifer Lee (Zootopia) and Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Terabithia), DuVernay remains faithful enough to L’Engle’s vision without being limited by it. But she stumbles to translate some of the more dated concepts in the book, creating a conclusion that feels a bit rushed and confused.

Her picture looks glorious, though, conjuring images and movements vibrant enough to stand up to our own imaginations.

Of course, the casting is where DuVernay, with little fanfare and no disruption in the story, breaks the most ground. Storm Reid (Sleight) turns out to be the best choice the director makes, offering the perfect mix of adolescent self-loathing and smarts as our reluctant hero, Meg.

On the fourth anniversary of the disappearance of her NASA scientist father, Meg is called on a mission across time and space to find him. She’s joined by her genius little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe, perfectly precocious and/or creepy, depending on need), a cute (and, let’s be honest, needless) boy from school (Levi Miller) and three unusual women (Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling).

Their adventure is colorful and beautiful. It’s also full of lessons that feel less like a sledgehammer than reasonable nudging. (“You can do this. You’re choosing not to.”)

The supporting cast—Zach Galifianakis, Michael Peña, Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw—balance the fantastical with the heartfelt. Galifianakis is particularly impressive.

Yes, there are more than a few corny, too-precious moments, but it is a kids’ movie. DuVernay can be credited with keeping that audience in mind to create a lovely film unabashed enough to bear-hug L’Engle’s message of positivity.

Swampland Rebellion

Free State of Jones

by George Wolf

For all the onscreen battles in Free State of Jones, a more persistent one dogs the film throughout, as writer/director Gary Ross struggles to find cohesion for elements that too often conflict. The historical drama at the film’s core is so vast, it feels as though Ross just couldn’t bring himself to restrain any part of it.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Newton Knight, a farmer near Jones County, Mississippi who deserted the Confederate Army during the Civil War. As the numbers of fellow deserters grew, Knight led what came to be known as the Knight Company, a small army of Southerners that battled the Confederacy in an attempt to establish the “Free State of Jones.”

Historians still argue over Knight’s true motivations, but the film is less than nuanced at the outset, clearly drawing Knight as a poor man refusing to die in a rich man’s war, and unable to accept “any man telling another man what he’s got to live for, or what he’s got to die for.”

Ross (The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) does find more subtlety as the film progresses, but Newton’s heroically righteous nature, albeit delivered through a committed and moving performance from McConaughey, feels manufactured. Ditto the minimal racial tensions present in a unit mixing runaway slaves and AWOL Confederates.

Conversely, amid this idealism, the film is effectively brutal in its depiction of war and the deep, ugly roots of racism. But even here, the pendulum eventually swings back to manipulation, as Ross’s aim seems to be less about learning from history and more about being proud of how badly we feel.

Sparring tones continue, most specifically when the Knight Company uprising is woven through details of a decades-later jury trial involving one of Knight’s descendants from his marriage to a former slave (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Bridges between each thread are built with dry, history-lecture sequences that are equal parts salient info and narrative distraction.

Ross’s passion is understandable. This truly is an incredible piece of America’s history, but one so expansive that an approach this broad is hampered from the start. Free State of Jones leaves fine performances and effectively-crafted sequences strewn across the battlefield, but the emotional connection needed to bind them remains just over that next hill.





Counting Down the Women of Film, 2014

Of the many excellent trends in movie houses this year, our favorite was the focus on female directors. Here we celebrate our favorite films of 2014 helmed by women.

Selma: Ava DuVernay’s account of the civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama doesn’t flinch. You can expect the kind of respectful approach common in historical biopics, but don’t let that lull you. This is not a laudable and forgettable historical art piece, and you’ll know that as you watch little girls descend a staircase within the first few minutes. Selma is a straightforward, well crafted punch to the gut. It opens in Columbus on January 9. Do not miss it.

The Babadook: A familiar tale given primal urgency, the horror fueled by compassion, the terror unsettling and genuine – this film is more than a scary movie, and it immediately ranks among the freshest and most memorable the genre has to offer. It also marks first time feature filmmaker Jennifer Kent as an artist to watch.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: Ana Lily Amirpour’s first feature – also Iran’s very first vampire film -is a gorgeous, peculiar reimagining of the familiar. Amirpour mixes imagery and themes from a wide range of filmmakers as she updates and twists the common vampire tropes with unique cultural flair. The result is a visually stunning, utterly mesmerizing whole.

Obvious Child: Gillian Robespierre crafts an uncommonly realistic, uncomfortable, taboo-shattering comedy with this one. A romantic comedy quite unlike any other, it succeeds in large part due to a miraculous lead turn from Jenny Slate. Robespierre’s refreshingly frank film rings with authenticity, and is as touching as it is raw.

Belle: Amma Asante’s directorial breakout is the fact-based tale of a bi-racial girl raised by her aristocratic grandparents in 18th Century England. Well told and perfectly cast, with the always flawless Tom Wilkinson playing the family patriarch and a wondrous turn by Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the lead, the film draws parallels you never knew existed between past and present.

Beyond the Lights: Mbatha-Raw impresses again with help from another female behind the camera in this cautionary tale about fame by Gina Prince-Bythewood. What looks like a by-the-numbers melodrama about selling your soul for success does follow a familiar trajectory, but it does a fine job with that journey.

Unbroken: Angelina Jolie’s second effort behind the camera tells the truly amazing story of an Olympic runner turned WWII POW. Her attention to detail benefits the historical epic, and another strong turn by Jack O’Connell keeps your attention.

Beyond the Cliches

Beyond the Lights

by Hope Madden

Don’t let the Beyond the Lights trailer fool you. What looks like a by-the-numbers melodrama about selling your soul for success does follow a familiar trajectory, but it does a fine job with that journey.

Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) teeters at the edge of superstardom: she’s just won a Billboard award for her rap duet with hip hop giant Kid Culprit (a wonderfully sketchy Richard Colson Baker – better known as Cleveland’s own Machine Gun Kelly – in his screen debut), and her first album, releasing in days, is poised to break records. But the troubled star is buckling under the pressures and compromises.

In comes Kaz (Nate Parker), or “Officer Hero” as Noni’s fans come to call him.

Yes, his grounded do-gooder character wants Noni to respect herself, and the big question is whether the pull of fame will tear them apart, which is a wildly predictable set up. But writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) knows what she’s doing. She certainly cobbles together a familiar frame – part Gypsy, part Glitter, part Mahogany – but somehow the final product feels, if not fresh, at least relevant.

Mbatha-Raw stands out in her second powerful performance this year, after her stunning turn in Belle. She never resorts to clichés. She’s able to craft a character with both an entirely believable public persona as well as a blossoming personality of her own. There’s not a false note in the performance.

Parker’s less effective – in fact, though he’s turned in worthy performances throughout his career, here he’s strangely wooden. Still, the two have some chemistry and Mbatha-Raw is so compelling that you’re hard press to take your eyes off her anyway.

Not that Prince-Bythewood doesn’t offer plenty of reasons to look away. Her camera misses no opportunity to draw attention to Parker’s striking physique.

Minnie Driver impresses as the stage mother, and Prince-Bythewood’s script offers plenty for her sink her teeth into. Threadbare plot aside, the writing is sharp and the direction is incisive. The opening scene confirms that this is not going to be a color by numbers affair, and the filmmaker peppers scenes with strong imagery as she gives her cast room to breathe and create memorable, dimensional characters.

The weakness of the central plot is problematic, and though the filmmaker takes advantage of the trope to draw attention to some gaping holes in our current culture, it still leaves a stale aftertaste. But if the storyline isn’t memorable, Mbatha-Raw is – and she’s worth the ticket price.


Portrait of a Lady



by George Wolf


A scandalous affair. An innocent child. A society obsessed with money, power, and its own prejudices.

Belle is the latest historical drama to remind us that sometimes, the past looks pretty familiar.

It’s based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, born in the 1700s as the bi-racial daughter of a slave and an Admiral in the British Navy. She was raised by members of her father’s aristocratic family, standing alone as an anachronistic mix of wealth, prestige, and brown skin.

Actually, the story of how writer Misan Sagay came to find Belle could be a movie in itself.

Inspiration leapt from a painting of Belle and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, that Sagay (who adapted Their Eyes Were Watching God for TV) encountered while in Scotland as a college student. After years of research, Sagay’s screenplay mixes fact with poetic liberties to make Belle’s story truly compelling.

The cast is letter-perfect. In the lead, Gugu Mbatha-Raw delivers a breakout performance, infusing Belle with an effective mix of intellect, wonder, spirit and hurt. As family patriarch Lord Mansfield, Tom Wilkinson is…well, Tom Wilkinson, an actor who’s seemingly impervious to missteps.

Director Amma Asante not only gives the film a fitting majestic sheen, but delicately balances Jane Austen-style period romance with serious social commentary and historical heft. At times, Belle flirts with overplaying its hand on both fronts, but Asante displays fine instincts for restraint before the storytelling takes too obvious a turn.

It is a fascinating story and a completely satisfying film. When Asante finally throws her trump card and you glimpse the inspirational portrait, it’s clear that, whatever barbs historians may throw, they can’t keep Belle from hitting a bullseye.