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.

Knives Out (2019)

This is very obviously neither an indie film nor exactly is it much related to “mumblecore” in any way, but rather it’s a knowing genre film that uses these familiar murder-mystery whodunit tropes to tell a somewhat sub rosa story of class and race in modern America. At some level I guess I still think of Rian Johnson as indie, perhaps because of his first film Brick (2005), though he very quickly took to rather bigger productions, which this of course is. Still, my blog my rules, so I’m putting it in this themed week.


A very polished and fun whodunit murder-mystery thriller set amongst a rich family at their stately old New England pile, which revolves ultimately around capitalism, class and immigration, though without ever really overtly digging into these topics. In fact, nothing ever feels more important than when it’s prefiguring another twist or leading to some well-crafted satirical repartee, but that’s all part of the film’s easy charm. The old man who has died mysteriously (Christopher Plummer) is a renowned author, and we discover in flashbacks — because the film starts with his dead body being discovered — that most of his extended family basically live off him, much to his increasing chagrin. Saying more about it would be to trade in spoilers, which I do not care to do, but there’s a wealth of delightful little character details, as well as some big chewy roles for the assembled hams to have a crack at (none moreso than Daniel Craig’s Sherlock-like drawling Lousianian private investigator), and some fine casting does a lot of the work, but Ana de Armas as the old man’s nursemaid turns out to be the stand-out role in the starry ensemble. It’s all intricately plotted as you might expect, and its charms are fairly surface-level, but see it in a big audience and there’s plenty to delight.

Knives Out film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rian Johnson; Cinematographer Steve Yedlin; Starring Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Lakeith Stanfield; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Sunday 1 December 2019 (and again at the Genesis, London, Sunday 8 December 2019).

Two Crime Thrillers by the Safdie Brothers: Good Time (2017) and Uncut Gems (2019)

Neither of these films is ‘mumblecore’ or even independent, but the Safdie brothers come from that kind of no-budget background; their first film The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2009, directed by Josh, though Benny was involved in editing) has a very loose narrative centered on a woman who’s a kleptomaniac (I’ve seen it, and liked it, but I barely managed to write more than a sentence). It’s only with their last couple of features that they’ve really broken through, and perhaps that’s the involvement of bankable screen names, but if so their style is still very much firmly planted in the grainy textures of their 16mm roots, harking back to a certain kind of gritty 70s NYC-based crime thriller. In both films, there’s a propulsive energy that rarely seems to let up, as characters make bad decision upon bad decision, compounding their situation ever more precariously as the films continue. These are thrillers, but grounded in the characters and their struggles.

Continue reading “Two Crime Thrillers by the Safdie Brothers: Good Time (2017) and Uncut Gems (2019)”

Three Black American Satirical Films: The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), Chameleon Street (1989) and Sorry to Bother You (2018)

Satire has always been a popular artistic form, especially when confronted with the wealth and ingrained power of the American elites. As a form, it has been utilised by a number of filmmakers over the years, notably African-American artists seeking to attack the privilege and entitlement of the (majority white) leaders, whether of government, the media or the corporate world. Whereas a film like Dear White People (2014) and its subsequent TV series may look at the educational system, the films below cover the institutions that support American power most directly — the FBI and corporate America — and in Chameleon Street suggests the contortions that such power inflict on the (Black) psyche.

Continue reading “Three Black American Satirical Films: The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), Chameleon Street (1989) and Sorry to Bother You (2018)”