Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

A film that came out earlier this year, and got some Oscar nods (including a win for Kaluuya), is this impressive biopic. It’s hardly perfect but it’s put together well with some fine performances, and shines some light on an underappreciated aspect of revolutionary American history.


This feels in many ways like a pretty traditional biopic showing all the strengths and weaknesses of that genre, with its arc through to someone’s death, and though it’s not clunky or badly directed, it really stands or falls on the quality of its actors. Luckily Daniel Kaluuya as Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield as FBI informant Bill O’Neal, along with (notably) Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson, the partner of Hampton, all do brilliant work. Kaluuya’s is the more up-front role, the more direct angry young man, but it’s Stanfield who particularly impresses as this fraught character (the ‘Judas’), torn in many directions who communicates that well without big speeches, but just in these quiet scenes between himself and his handler (Jesse Plemons), that means the epilogue about the real life Bill O’Neal somehow comes as no real surprise while also being quite shocking. But the greatest shock of the epilogue — and something not fully conveyed by the film and its casting (however fine the actors) — is just how young all these people were. Hampton was 21 when the film ends. It’s a film not just about his work with the BPP but also about the policing culture (at the time, though I think we all know that time hasn’t changed much in that respect), and about the way this authoritarian power was directed at those trying to make positive change and resist the racist, capitalist narratives of the mainstream. Ultimately this is still a studio product, but it allows for those voices to be heard, that protest to be enunciated, and as protest this is striking.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)CREDITS
Director Shaka King; Writers Will Berson, King, Kenny Lucas and Keith Lucas; Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Martin Sheen; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Tuesday 16 March 2021.

One Night in Miami… (2020)

It turns out I quite like a stagy talky film (like Fences), but that’s probably just because it’s good when a film project starts from having a good script with words that have already been proven. The fact that this one still feels like a play is almost beside the point, because this is an imaginative act of putting four iconic Black figures from the 1960s together in a room and having them riff off one another. The film opens with a bit of contextualisation for their respective situations in early 1964, and then spins its drama off from that. There’s a lot of fluid and carefully thought-out use of the camera in the largely confined space of the small motel room in Miami, but the bulk of the film rests on the shoulders of the actors, and they all deliver with conviction to the point I can’t really single out any one of the ensemble cast, but each of these characters gets their own fully realised arc and is never reduced to a mouthpiece for the familiar cliché about each.

One Night in Miami... film posterCREDITS
Director Regina King; Writer Kemp Powers (based on his play); Cinematographer Tami Reiker; Starring Kingsley Ben-Adir, Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Lance Reddick; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), Wellington, Sunday 17 January 2021.

Sylvie’s Love (2020)

This didn’t make my favourites list last year, but it was recently released on Amazon Prime streaming, and it’s a gorgeously-mounted period piece about Black people in New York, which makes a change from the usual 1950s NYC milieu.


There’s a lot I really like about this romance film, most of which boils down to the sumptuous setting. It’s late-1950s to early-1960s New York City, and Tessa Thompson is our lead actor, as she falls for the rather earnest (and a little bit wooden) saxophone player Robert Holloway (Nnamdi Asomugha). It’s not ironic or winking at us in any way, nor is it a romcom. I don’t know why I associate this genre primarily with African-American themes, but maybe it’s because some of the greatest recent examples of romance films have been from filmmakers like Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball is practically a template) or have been films like Love Jones. This is hardly as well-written or developed as either of those classics, but is played entirely straight, a period drama that doesn’t pivot around virulent violent racism, but instead is a story about two people in a place learning to navigate their feelings for one another. It’s very sweet, and entirely lovely.

Sylvie's Love film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Eugene Ashe; Cinematographer Declan Quinn; Starring Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Aja Naomi King, Lance Reddick; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at hotel (Amazon streaming), Picton, Monday 28 December 2020.

LFF 2020: Shirley (2020)

The director of Madeline’s Madeline, one of my favourite films of a couple years ago, is back with another film, this time about the horror author Shirley Jackson, with a bravura performance from Elisabeth Moss. Hopefully this means it gets a bit more widespread acclaim, because I think it deserves it, not that it’s always easy to watch, given the mind games going on amongst the protagonists.


Director Josephine Decker has made some of my favourite films of recent years, developing a distinctive, corporeal and impressionistic aesthetic. It feels a little different here, presumably because she’s working with a different cinematographer from her earlier works, and so this feels a little more classical than her erstwhile experiments in trying to get directly inside someone’s head. It’s still stylish in evoking a mid-20th century New England setting, and comes across at times a little like Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, and while that film had its psychosexual overtones, Shirley really pushes hard into some dark territory in essaying the relationship between the titular writer and a young woman whom she at first fears her flirtatious and philandering academic husband has his sights set on. Things develop into a four-way entanglement between these two couples, all of which is brought out ultimately by the committed performances of the ever-mercurial Elisabeth Moss as Shirley and Australian actor Odessa Young as her protegee of sorts (plus of course Michael Stuhlbarg, who really makes the most of his beard and his paunch to create a memorable professor).

CREDITS
Director Josephine Decker; Writer Sarah Gubbins (based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell); Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen; Starring Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Friday 9 October 2020.

Global Cinema 14: Bangladesh – The Clay Bird (2002)

Though the island locations of The Bahamas have been seen in any number of 60s and 70s James Bond films, in Jaws: The Revenge and Splash, amongst many others, there isn’t much of an indigenous film industry to speak of. A local director who has made something of a name for himself, particular of the LGBT festival circuit, is Kareem Mortimer, whose 2009 film Children of God is my chosen film to represent The Bahamas. It represents a noble attempt to confront LGBT struggles and prejudices on the islands.


Bangladeshi flagPeople’s Republic of Bangladesh (বাংলাদেশ)
population 161,376,700 | capital Dhaka (ঢাকা) (8.9m) | largest cities Dhaka, Chittagong (2.6m), Khulna (665k), Sylhet (526k), Mymensingh (477k) | area 148,460 km2 | religion Islam (90.5%), Hinduism (8.5%) | official language Bengali (বাংলা) | major ethnicity Bengalis (98%) | currency Taka (৳) [BDT] | internet .bd

A country in South Asia, the eighth most populous in the world and one of the most ethnically homogeneous (the modern borders were set along ethnic and language lines). Geographically, it is dominated by the Ganges-Brahmaputra river delta, but has hills to the east. The name is believed to come from Vanga, an ancient kingdom on the delta, and the term Bangla started to be used around the 9th century CE. Bangladesh forms the eastern part of the Bengal region, with habitation dating back 20,000 years, and major urban settlements by the mid-first millennium BCE. It was ruled by a number of ancient Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms (like the Gupta Empire, the Pala Empire, the Harikela Kingdom and others), and repelled Alexander the Great when he tried to conquer the region. The Bengali language developed around the 8th century CE, and the Islamic conquest began in the 13th century. The Bengali Sultanate was formed in 1352, becoming a major trading nation, and taken over by the Mughals in the 17th century. The East India Company arrived in the mid-18th century with Robert Clive. Following partition in 1947, it was unified with Pakistan as East Bengal (later East Pakistan). The Bangladesh Liberation War led to independence in 1971, which was secured upon victory in the war on 16 December 1971. It has had its turbulent periods since, but is currently an elected democracy in which the ceremonial post of President invites the leader of the largest party to become Prime Minister.

The cinema industry (sometimes called Dhallywood) dates back to the silent era, though filmmaking began right at the outset of the 20th century. The 1950s saw a great expansion with a film development corporation that has continued its work post-independence, though there was a decline in quality and quantity in the 2000s, with a small resurgence since, although Bangladeshi mainstream movies don’t tend to make much of a mark in the West.


মাটির ময়না Matir Moina (The Clay Bird, 2002)

I don’t know but it seems to me if your filmmaking leans on a tradition of humanist concern for displaced and persecuted communities, there are worse models. This one deals with a family in a village during the late-1960s, a period leading up to the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan. The father (Jayanta Chattopadhyay) strictly follows Islamic traditions, he has a wife (Rokeya Prachy) and kids who are trying to get an education, and in the background are the stirrings of change. It keeps its focus on the family and has some lovely cinematography and fine acting from its non-professional cast.

The Clay Bird film posterCREDITS
Director Tareque Masud তারেক মাসুদ; Writers Tareque Masud and Catherine Masud ক্যাথরিন মাসুদ; Cinematographer Sudhir Palsane সুধীর পাল্‌সানে; Starring Nurul Islam Bablu নুরুল ইসলাম বাবলু, Jayanta Chattopadhyay জয়ন্ত চট্টোপাধ্যায়, Rokeya Prachy রোকেয়া প্রাচী; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 22 March 2017.

Three Historical Dramas by Raoul Peck: The Man by the Shore (1993), Lumumba (2000) and The Young Karl Marx (2017)

One filmmaker who has consistently engaged with (usually revolutionary) history is the Haitian Raoul Peck. Many of his films deal with the turbulent times of his home country, a country which has suffered no small amount of turbulence over the last fifty years, as testified by the five-film French DVD box set of his Haitian films (one of which is The Man by the Shore reviewed below). Elsewhere he has turned his attention to thinkers like the American James Baldwin (in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro), to leader Patrice Lumumba (of what was then called the Republic of the Congo, later Zaire and now the DRC, subject of a 1992 documentary as well as the biopic below), and of course to a formative period in the life of Karl Marx.

Continue reading “Three Historical Dramas by Raoul Peck: The Man by the Shore (1993), Lumumba (2000) and The Young Karl Marx (2017)”

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015)

The historical antecedents to the current turbulent relationship between Black people and entrenched white power in the contemporary United States stretch back a long way, obviously starting with slavery, but developing through the Civil War, Jim Crow policies in the South, the Great Northward Migration of the early-20th century (on which topic The Warmth of Other Sons by Isabel Wilkerson is excellent), and then the Civil Rights era. It is during this latter period that the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (they subsequently shortened their name) were a key player. Agnès Varda filmed a short documentary about them in 1968, but a more thorough retrospective work is this one by Stanley Nelson. Incidentally, you can see a bit of their current work in Roberto Minervini’s documentary What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2019). The Black Panthers continue to be committed to supporting their own communities in straitened times. The hope for revolution may have receded, but systemic change is very clearly still very much required, and ever more urgently so.


A solid, involving and engrossing story that is rooted in the displacement and fallout from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s which leads to the formation of the Black Panther Party, which took a rather more militant stance towards (white) aggression but also underpinned it with radical transformative community-based care. It’s in some sense a story of resistance to power, an almost utopian viewpoint albeit one grounded in bitter reality, undone by the forces of the state — and this is where the film’s real bad guys, the FBI (supported by the police), come in. Of course, the story is never really straightforward, and there’s some infighting and fall-outs along the way from within, but on the whole this film is clear about what the Black Panthers were offering, and how tantalisingly close they came to true revolution before being targeted and all-but-destroyed by J. Edgar Hoover’s Feds.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution film posterCREDITS
Director Stanley Nelson Jr.; Cinematographers Rick Butler and Antonio Rossi; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 24 October 2019.

Criterion Sunday 301: An Angel at My Table (1990)

Janet Frame is one of those iconic New Zealanders (not least because of her bright corona of red hair) who probably isn’t much known outside the country — or wasn’t until this biopic by Jane Campion. It’s a remarkable work that tracks her life via a tripartite structure (taken from the three memoirs Frame wrote): we see her as a young schoolgirl, then as a teenager, and finally played by Kerry Fox as an uncertain adult venturing out into the world after a period of difficulty. By which I mean that she was sectioned into a mental hospital for eight years of her life, for absolutely no medically-sound reason as it later turned out (just that everyone thought she was a bit odd). Campion does her best to find a balance between the darker elements and a sense of poetic license and even joy, and ultimately the film is about Frame finding her place in the world and her poetic voice. It’s all gorgeously shot and mounted, set in rural Otago before Frame later moves to London and Spain. Fox does well to convey Frame’s withdrawn character in an engaging way, and this is one of Campion’s best films.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is the 10 minute The Making of An Angel at My Table (2002) documentary by one of the producers of the feature which gives some behind the scenes context for the making of the film, mostly told by Campion herself, as well as Campion on her festival and press tour, promoting the finished film.
  • There are six short deleted scenes which add a few more little details to the characterisations.
  • There’s a fine stills gallery with some production photos, including the actual Janet Frame with her three actors.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jane Campion; Writer Laura Jones (based on the autobiographies To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table and The Envoy from Mirror City by Janet Frame); Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh; Starring Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, Kevin J. Wilson; Length 158 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 12 December 1999 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 17 March 2020).

Jasper Jones (2017)

For the next two weeks I’m in Australia, and even though I’ve already done one Australia theme week, here’s another. I probably don’t have enough films left to manage even one more week, to be honest, so I’m not sure what the theme will be next week, but here goes a few more Oz flicks.


Small town Australia in 1969 has the kind of vibe we’ve become accustomed to in American films about the 1950s, of communities made up of like-minded individuals with pent-up issues around women and racism that resolve themselves in violent, self-lacerating ways — the same director has already handled this very time period (albeit in a comedic musical format) with Bran Nue Dae (2009), while Celia (1989) deals with a similar small town vibe (albeit set in the 1950s). Jasper Jones is named after the part-Aborigine boy (played by Aaron L. McGrath) who is distrusted and blamed by most of this small community, but it’s really mostly about a kid called Charlie (Levi Miller) who gets involved with the (possible) suicide of a girl in the town, which he spends much of the movie trying to uncover the truth about. It’s a stylish evocation of a period, and is mostly very successful, with some fine filmmaking and acting (not least from the ever-reliable Toni Collette). After the initial shock of them finding the girl’s dead body, glimpsed only briefly (thankfully), the tone evens out into being a slow-burning drama about the secrets being hidden within this community. It may not perhaps be surprising, but it’s all done very well.

Jasper Jones film posterCREDITS
Director Rachel Perkins; Writers Shaun Grant and Craig Silvey (based on Silvey’s novel); Cinematographer Mark Wareham; Starring Levi Miller, Aaron L. McGrath, Angourie Rice, Toni Collette, Hugo Weaving; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Sunday 22 December 2019.

Rocketman (2019)

This is perhaps an outlier in my themed week of British costume dramas, but it’s a period piece and you couldn’t possibly say it doesn’t have costumes, so I’m including it. Obviously it’s a biopic of the life of Elton John, and it’s mounted with impressive brio (even if maybe it’s not entirely for me, I’m willing to believe it is better than the similar production the previous year about Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody, which director Fletcher took over late in proceedings).


I don’t think I’ve ever specifically chosen to listen to an Elton John album or song, but of course they’ve often been on in the background or on soundtracks and such, so a lot of them remain familiar to me. That said, the point I’m making is I’m not really in the demographic for whom this film strikes any particular chord, as I’ve never been a big fan, but I concede that Dexter Fletcher has a solid touch with a musical and this one is good fun to watch. The performances are all good, and it has some nice set-pieces, such as the one where Elton goes from almost dying to being pushed on stage, seemingly in a single sequence. The framing device — him unraveling at an addicts’ group therapy session — is rather too convenient as a way to pull the narrative through his whole life, and he does a lot of confronting his earlier self and family/friends in feverish flashbacks, but it’s a musical, so it rather trades in elevating the quotidian to a magical and surreal level, and at that it succeeds nicely.

Rocketman film posterCREDITS
Director Dexter Fletcher; Writer Lee Hall; Cinematographer George Richmond; Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Friday 7 June 2019.