Skip to main content

Is this a goddamn revolution or not?

Judas and the Black Messiah

(SPOILERS) Several movies in contention for this year’s Oscars concern individuals or groups of individuals targeted by the intolerant or outright diabolical State. It’s an area guaranteed to stir passions and engender indignation – the Woke Oscars have to do their globalist bit – which makes it all the stranger how lacking in urgency these offerings are. The Trial of the Chicago 7, for all its sugar-coated Aaron Sorkin gloss, knows how to push the necessary buttons, but both The United States vs. Billie Holiday and Judas and the Black Messiah are left stranded, dramatic beached whales oblivious to the incendiary events they’re depicting.

Judas and the Black Messiah does finally develop some mettle and drive at the very end, with the raid on Fred Hampton’s apartment. But by then, it’s much too late. Perhaps my expectations, given the material’s potential and the raves, were too high. I naively expected coherent character studies of (Illinois chapter) Black Panther Party leader Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and his lieutenant Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), the titular Black Messiah and Judas respectively. I expected an attempt to understand O’Neal’s motivation, accompanied by the Donnie Brasco-esque tension of an undercover guy (be that police or FBI informant) maintaining a gruelling deception. I expected an exploration of the relationship between the two men. Shaka King’s film offers at best lip service to such goals. He isn’t even able to energise Hampton’s message. Sure, Kaluuya is given a grand chance to showcase his oratory skills; indeed, Judas and the Black Messiah stops in what tracks it has to indulge Hampton’s largely banal rhetoric. But there’s no sense of his life here, or of his greater impact. Judas and the Black Messiah may as well have been a filmed play.

It doesn’t help that the leads are very actorly presences, further displacing any sense of immediacy into the realm of the performed period piece (not as much as Ma Rainey’s Fat Ass, although there at least excuses to be offered in that case). Or that they are a decade too old for their characters. Which isn’t to suggest either Stanfield or Kaluuya look old old – neither are Warren Beatty in Bugsy laughable – but neither do they seem like twenty-year olds (O’Neill was only seventeen when first approached to be an informant, and if you’re able to relay that, you’ve done much of your groundwork right there). Kaluuya is a fine actor, but he’s unable to locate an interior life for Hampton. It isn’t his fault. Everyone in King’s film – from a screenplay by Will Berson and King, the story credited to the pair and Kenny and Keith Lucas – is similarly thinly sketched. There’s an outline of the key situations, relationships and events, but only rarely is there flesh on the bones.

Stanfield never convinces in the role he’s supposed to be inhabiting (you know, the one other than being the snitch). Indeed, he spends the proceedings wearing his usual all-purpose, sorrowfully egg-bound duck expression. Much more noteworthy are those around the edges of the plot: Dominique Fishback, Dominique Thorne, Amari Cheatom. Martin Sheen adds to the artifice as a prosthetically hooterised J Edgar Hoover, resembling no one so much as Miracle Max from The Princess Bride. Jesse Plemons is outstanding, as ever, as Roy Mitchell, the FBI handler manipulating O’Neal; you respond emotionally to his various dealings, but he’s the only one.

Judas and the Black Messiah feels long. It’s respectful, but overly so, such that it diligently fails to raise a pulse. In contrast to the efforts of Sorkin and Lee Daniels, it appears King’s film is relatively true to the facts. Perhaps it should have been less so, if it would have helped tell a better tale. This relative fidelity serves to make the title seem that much more misplaced; it heightens the nature of the relationship and the decisions made by O’Neill to iconic/mythic proportions; what we see is very ordinary and underpowered.

Another bone to pick is the use of actual footage. It really gets my goat. If you’re going to make a documentary, make a documentary. Don’t throw in some interview footage of the actual O’Neill at the very end as a cheap device to demand “This is real, you know” respect from the viewer. Spike Lee habitually pulls that card, although in his case, it simply makes his content look more laughable. With King’s film, it serves to emphasise how dramatically undercooked the proceedings are, and how Stanfield hasn’t risen to the challenge. I noted this is also the second of this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees where Bobby Seale hasn’t been able to catch a break. Judas and the Black Messiah has an excuse, at any rate.

Of which – Oscar nominations – I won’t be too surprised if Judas and the Black Messiah goes home empty handed. Kaluuya appears to be favourite to take Best Supporting Actor, but squaring off against his co-star may let someone else through. It has no chance at Best Picture, and both Original Screenplay and Cinematography look like outside chances. Best Original Song? Perhaps. That would be the level of mediocre recognition the picture deserves.


Popular posts from this blog

Lieutenant, you run this station like chicken night in Turkey.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) (SPOILERS) You can’t read a review of Assault on Precinct 13 with stumbling over references to its indebtedness – mostly to Howard Hawks – and that was a preface for me when I first caught it on Season Three of BBC2’s Moviedrome (I later picked up the 4Front VHS). In Precinct 13 ’s case, it can feel almost like an attempt to undercut it, to suggest it isn’t quite that original, actually, because: look. On the other hand, John Carpenter was entirely upfront about his influences (not least Hawks), and that he originally envisaged it as an outright siege western (rather than an, you know, urban one). There are times when influences can truly bog a movie down, if it doesn’t have enough going for it in its own right. That’s never the case with Assault on Precinct 13 . Halloween may have sparked Carpenter’s fame and maximised his opportunities, but it’s this picture that really evidences his style, his potential and his masterful facility with music.

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984) If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights  may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box ’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisi

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.

He must have eaten a whole rhino horn!

Fierce Creatures (1997) (SPOILERS) “ I wouldn’t have married Alyce Faye Eicheberger and I wouldn’t have made Fierce Creatures.” So said John Cleese , when industrial-sized, now-ex gourmand Michael Winner, of Winner’s Dinners , Death Wish II and You Must Be Joking! fame (one of those is a legitimate treasure, but only one) asked him what he would do differently if he could live his life again. One of the regrets identified in the response being Cleese’s one-time wife (one-time of two other one-time wives, with the present one mercifully, for John’s sake, ongoing) and the other being the much-anticipated Death Fish II , the sequel to monster hit A Fish Called Wanda. Wanda was a movie that proved all Cleese’s meticulous, focus-group-tested honing and analysis of comedy was justified. Fierce Creatures proved the reverse.

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

You absolute horror of a human being.

As Good as it Gets (1997) (SPOILERS) James L Brooks’ third Best Picture Oscar nomination goes to reconfirm every jaundiced notion you had of the writer-director-producer’s capacity for the facile and highly consumable, low-cal, fast-food melodramatic fix with added romcom lustre. Of course, As Good as it Gets was a monster hit, parading as it does Jack in a crackerjack, attention-grabbing part. But it’s a mechanical, suffocatingly artificial affair, ponderously paced (a frankly absurd 139 minutes) and infused with glib affirmations and affections. Naturally, the Academy lapped that shit up, because it reflects their own lack of depth and perception (no further comment is needed than Titanic winning the big prize for that year).

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.