May 30, 2015

Channel Surfing: "Nightingale"

David Oyelowo
Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
It seems like not being nominated for an Oscar was what fueled David Oyelowo's popularity. Following the outcry of snubbing, Selma became a film that embodied richer societal conflicts such as the events of Ferguson and more recently with Baltimore. Selma was a film that became more than its initial content, thanks in part to Oyelowo's fantastic performance as Martin Luther King Jr. as he marched for freedom in Selma, Alabama. In his latest, the HBO Film Nightingale, he tackles an issue that is just as prevalent as Civil Rights. For this outing, he tackles his own ego.
In a one man story played out over 80 minutes, Oyelowo plays a man alone in his home quibbling about his own life, friends, and family. He starts off well mannered but by the end is met with a home that he both built and destroyed. In between, he is full of nuanced menace as he loses his grip on sanity and acceptance from his peers. While it may not seem like an exceptional story, it is an excuse to see an actor flex his range. If the art of acting is to react, then Oyelow masterfully acts against one-sided phone conversations and to an unidentified audience whom he speaks to via online videos. He is a man grappling with his identity in ways that are both too specific to be interesting and too relatable to be isolating.
The real merit comes down to Oyelowo's performance, which does manage to convey a lot with a little. Simple actions such as organizing a house or complaining about his religious, impulsive mother are elevated thanks to well placed moments of overacting. His slow, nuanced fall into insanity has enough memorable moments to make up for the lack of interesting story that makes up the film at its core. One can easily say that nothing happens. However, it is a moment to showcase Oyelowo as an actor that can captivate without a costar. He knows how to manipulate moments almost too well and his embodiment of mental decay is impressive.
If the film has any shortcomings, it is that it is a one man show about the fragile nature of sanity. While we get these elements that are introduced gradually through phone calls and unpleasant package deliveries, it is mostly a film in which Oyelowo is required to react to his placement in life. There isn't much to it. By the end, the moments could be seen as predictable and maybe even a little too self-centered. One who hasn't experienced isolation would even wonder why he doesn't find more optimistic ways to pass the time. It is the tragic beauty of the film. What starts off as an average character comes to embody the simple root that leads many down depressive routes. It isn't pretty or at all cinematic, but with an unflinching performance, it can become striking and even haunting.
As a whole, Nightingale isn't necessarily a masterpiece. Its tension is wrought from the frustrating moments. Its bottle episode structure manages to create claustrophobia, which the director understands how to handle. There isn't much else to really distract or captivate. This is Oyelowo announcing his presence as an actor with chops. He can play great historical figures as well as challenging everyday men. It may not get acclaim for how simple the story inevitably is, but the performance becomes a thankless task as a result. Never forget the genius of creating something from nothing, no matter how frustrating it is. In this case, we are seeing a talent who is on the verge of becoming a bigger and more important mainstream actor. It's about time that we heralded him in.

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