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.

Moonlight (2016)

I am hardly the person to attempt a critique of this film, for so many reasons, at so many levels, so take my comments as just a brief personal response to a film that will be sure to be in many top-10 lists this year and next (it’s not officially released in the UK until February).

I found a great deal to appreciate in the filmmaking, which, for all the limitations of its budget and shooting/rehearsal time (as the director talked about in a Q&A after my screening), has clearly been constructed with a lot of care. It follows a tripartite structure, three ages of a character, three different acts in one life, which is also refracted as multiple lives in a sense. The first character we see (Mahershala Ali’s Juan, whose role is confined to the first part of the film) is a reflection of the man the protagonist Chiron (at that point called ‘Little’) becomes by the film’s third part, and it’s tempting to read some of the same feelings into Juan that Little/Chiron/Black is grappling with.

The milieu the director is playing with at once seems all too familiar (something almost of clichés, and certainly of too many bad ‘ghetto’ dramas) but never follows the expected contours, such that the scenes are infused with the constant expectation of violence, and even when they don’t play out that way, a strong sense of trauma is still conveyed, a sense of an experience lived in this place, which is also (partially) the director’s own.

Ultimately, for all its formal gravitas — the polished lighting, the (presumably intentionally) dizzying camerawork, the music and orchestral score, the structure — despite all this, the heart of the movie, and what I liked so much in it, was in the acting: all three of the actors playing Chiron at different ages (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and then Trevante Rhodes) do wonders with very few words. The character of Chiron and the way he develops puts across the generational pain of toxic masculinity in a powerful way. It also, I hope — I really hope — augurs more films exploring its particular intersection of identities, because it also feels like a film that’s trying to make up for a lot of missed opportunities.

Moonlight (2016)CREDITS
Director/Writer Barry Jenkins (based on the play In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney); Cinematographer James Laxton; Starring Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 5 December 2016.