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Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Fred Hampton was the deputy chairman of the Black Panthers in Chicago and was only 21 years old when he was murdered in 1969 by federal agents. Judas and the Black Messiah is about Hampton and his life in political activism cut short, but it’s also another tragedy, one far less known. Bill O’Neal was a federal informant who was manipulated into betraying Hampton to the FBI and ultimately setting up the man’s execution. Both men are given consideration and brought to life by great actors, Laketih Stanfield as O’Neal and Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton. O’Neal is tasked with getting into the trusted inner circle of Hampton and the Black Panthers without blowing his cover, or else he’ll be going to jail for years on potentially pending charges. The FBI agent in charge (Jesse Plemons) is under pressure by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), and this all provides even more pressure onto O’Neal, who is a pawn of the higher-ups who only care about neutralizing the growing power of the Black Panthers. The film plays out similar to an undercover mob movie, like The Departed, and much of the drama follows whether O’Neal will get caught, how he will navigate the tenuous territory he is in, and the paranoia of being in danger at all times and from multiple sides if he succeeds or fails. I appreciated the attention given to O’Neal and the consideration that he too is another victim. He is eager to succeed and thinks he might use his service as an introduction into the Bureau for legit work, but he also very much wants to be accepted by the Panthers because he agrees with their philosophies and is looking for a community that welcomes him and provides a sense of direction. If I had a complaint, it is simply that we get a lot more Judas here than we do the Black Messiah. It feels like we’re getting a rather simplified summation of Hampton and scrubbing clean some of his personal leanings (having him identity as a socialist rather than a Marxist) that would make him more controversial. By all definitions, Hampton was executed by agents of the state to pacify institutionally racist fears about powerful and gun-owning black Americans, but putting so much emphasis of the story on the man who betrayed him creates an imbalance in presentation and risks mitigating the depth of Hampton. After Hampton returns from prison, the movement he’s been so heavily involved with seems to dissolve onscreen, focusing solely on setting up our deadly climax. He is seen as a martyr first and foremost. There are two extended shootouts in the second half that don’t feel at all in keeping with the first half of the movie. Kaluuya (Get Out) is electric in public and awkward and sweet in private with his beloved girlfriend. It hints at much more that could have been explored away from his fiery public persona. Stanfield (Knives Out) has the more multi-dimensional role and yet even given the grand Shakespearean tragic proportions of his position, I can’t help but feel like O’Neal feels a tad underdeveloped. There’s a subtle ambiguity that follows his character’s motivations but many of his moments revolve around whether he will be accepted, fool someone, or get caught. There are greater questions of whether the mask he wears is real. The characterization gets a little lost because of the nature of the subterfuge. This movie is over two hours but has the potential to be an epic tragedy and could have sustained a limited series of storytelling. As it is, it’s a tense and powerful movie with great acting and an ending that will rightfully outrage and disquiet. Judas and the Black Messiah is stirring but I feel like it had lost potential by transposing its story and conflicts into two hours and with two central underwritten figures of tragedy. It’s quite good but man this could have been amazing.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Detroit (2017)

Something akin to an art house exploitation film, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit is a pressure cooker about the horror of institutional racism, but it’s also a limited drama that lacks any sense of catharsis for an audience. Set among a hellish series of days in 1967, the film follows the events at the Algiers Motel, where Detroit police officers killed three innocent black men in their pursuit of what they believed to be a sniper. An all-white jury then acquitted the officers. Will Poulter (We’re the Millers) plays the lead racist cop and instigator, the man who tries using every effort to get a confession. His bad decisions lead to further bad decisions and miscommunication and then cold-blooded murder. It takes a solid 45 minutes to establish the various supporting characters, the fragile tinderbox that is Detroit during a series of riots, and getting everyone to the fateful motel. Afterwards, it’s like a real-time thriller that’s extremely harrowing to watch. It’s very intense and very well made by Bigelow and her go-to screenwriter Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty). Like Get Out, it turns the day-to-day  black American experience into a grueling horror film. I was squirming in my seat and felt nauseated throughout much of the movie. I wanted to scream at the screen and tell people to stop or run away. However, it’s a movie with a lower ceiling, whose chief goal is to provoke primal outrage, which it easily achieves, but it feels like there’s little else on the artistic agenda. The characterization can be fairly one-note, especially with the racist cops who stew over white women hanging around virile black males. It’s victims and victimizers and we get precious little else. Your blood will boil, as it should, but will you remember the characters and their lives, their personalities, or mostly the cruel injustices they endured? It’s an intense, arty, exploitation film, and I can perfectly understand if certain audience members have no desire to ever watch this movie. It’s not so much escapism as a scorching reminder about how far race relations have come and have yet to go in this country. Detroit is a movie with plenty of merits but I think it’s the least of the three major Bigelow-Boal collaborations.

Nate’s Grade: B

Hidden Figures (2016)

hidden-figures-posterAfter the end of 2012’s Red Tails, I said to myself that those men of history deserved a better movie. By the end of Hidden Figures I was thinking the same thing for the unheralded African-American women of NASA in the 1960s Space Race. It’s an inherently engrossing story that the public knows precious little about, and the biggest problem with director/co-writer Theodore Melfi’s (St. Vincent) film is that is rarely breaks free from its formula for feel-good mass appeal. Rather than allowing us to absorb the complexities of the three women featured (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae) the movie wants us to just know about their struggles over injustice and inequality. That’s a fine starting point but rarely do these women become fully fleshed out. They’re kept as symbols, put-upon figures, and less as people. That allows them to have their Big Acting Moments where they uncork a snappy retort to institutional prejudice that is the kind of stuff meant for Oscar clip packages. Henson is given the most significant part but even her math genius feels like a crude Hollywood extrapolation of a stereotypical movie nerd. Monae was the one who left me most impressed with her feisty attitude and swagger. It’s all a pleasing and moderately entertaining package but the presentation and artistically stilted character development hinder the movie’s message. I would have preferred a documentary on the same subject, something that would allow further depth as well as the direct testimony of those women involved. I believe Henson’s character is still alive and in her 90s, so there’s no time to waste. Hidden Figures is a safe yet still appealing biopic that hits some of the right notes but lacks greater ambition. Not all films have to try and redefine their genre, but when you’re giving the titular hidden figures of history their much-deserved spotlight, maybe a little more effort is deserving and necessitated.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Help (2011)

Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling publishing phenomenon has now become a box-office smash. In 1963, Jackson, Mississippi, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) is coming home after graduating from college. Her ailing mother (Allison Janney) is convinced that she will die without any grandchildren and pressures Skeeter to find herself a man. Instead, she finds herself a job writing for the city newspaper. She answers reader household and cleaning questions as “Miss Mryna.” She seeks help from Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a middle-aged woman who’s worked as a maid to rich white people her whole life. Skeeter soon changes her focus and wants to interview other maids about the indignities they experience. She wants to get their story out there. This is a time where it was actual Mississippi law that anyone working against segregation could be imprisoned. They try reaching out to Minnie (Octavia Spencer), a maid recently fired from the services of Mrs. Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the queen bee of the Southern belles. Minnie is much more outspoken and her mouth causes her to get into trouble. The only job she can find is in the household of Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain, The Debt), a woman ostracized by Hilly’s forces. Skeeter transcribes the life stories of a dozen maids and the results become an anonymous bestseller that sets Jackson tongues a waggin’.

The Help enlists a colorful cast of characters (no pun intended) and tells a familiar story about people taking a stand during a tumultuous time in history. This is traditional classic Hollywood storytelling with the respective characters banding together, leaning upon one another, building camaraderie and victory, and then finally able to stand up to their antagonists, which in this case is really just Howard’s snooty racist character. It’s well told, well directed (both credits to Terry Tate, childhood friend of the author), very well acted by every member of the cast, and watching all 145 minutes is like being fed a heaping helping of home cooking. You leave feeling full and sated, and some may even feel nourished. You feel good about yourself. I tried to resist but resistance was futile. I can’t help but enjoy The Help. And even though I walked away liking the film, something stuck in my craw. It felt a little too prefabricated, too eager to be liked, to go down easy, gentle, a sweet Southern story about women taking a moral stand and finding their voices. But what is the film’s real focus when it comes to race relations?

Naturally nobody is going to look as The Help as an exhaustive document of the Civil Rights era, but the movie seems to seriously downplay the intensity of that struggle. Sure it pays lip service to Medgar Evans assassination but by this time there were riots, churches being bombed, children being killed, open collusion between law enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan, and the Freedom Riders were being met by violent mobs. There are a lot of bigger things going on than black maids sitting down for interviews with a college girl. Come on, this is Mississippi we’re talking about here, the home of racism. I understand that the Civil Rights movement had thousands of anonymous acts of courage and the actions of these (fictional) women should not be out rightly discounted. However, the parting message of the film seems to be not about the courage of the black maids but the tenacity of Skeeter, a middleclass white woman who herself grew up with “help.” The Help’s mixed message on race relations reminds me of a similar situation with 2009’s beloved The Blind Side. That movie wasn’t so much about the triumph of a black athlete so much as a glowing picture to how great rich white people can be. And Sandra Bullock got an Oscar for it; that’s how great a white lady she was. The Help is another example of Hollywood taking a story primarily about minorities and having white people necessary to tell that story. Why are white people always necessary to tell some other race’s stories? Skeeter is an open-minded gal that speaks her mind and stands up to the Jim Crow South. That’s how she starts. By the film’s end, she’s now… an open-minded gal that speaks her mind and stands up to the Jim Crow South and now she has a publishing career. Good for her! Good for heroic white people! They had so much to lose back then.

I guess my main fault is that this is not Skeeter’s movie. I don’t even think she’s needed. Yes she provides the outlet for the stories and secrets of an undervalued class of people. But did she need to be the co-lead? Does she need her own storyline where she stands up to her mother cowing to racist social norms? She had her own maid (Cicely Tyson) unceremoniously dumped while she was at school. Surprisingly this does not give too many insights to Skeeter’s character. Do we need any scenes of her going out on dates so that we can forever be reminded how ahead of her time she was, how liberal and progressive she was and destined to be unappreciated by a pool of men who were looking for only pretty housewives? As my friend China Gentry said, we’d all like to think we’d be the forward-thinking progressive voice of change in these historical dramas, to make ourselves feel better, but we’d most likely just be another silent face in the background. The boyfriend storyline is a complete waste of time. Skeeter goes out with a drunk jerk, he comes back and apologizes, they go out again, then after she gets published he freaks out and storms out. And that is the last we see of this guy. That’s the end of his story. He apparently puts his foot down when it comes to dating a female author. This storyline adds nothing to the overall narrative or to the character of Skeeter. There’s entirely too much Skeeter in the movie, and I say this as a gigantic fan of Emma Stone (Easy A). It’s not the actress’ fault either because she performs well in her first dramatic film role. This is just not her movie. This is not a movie about heroic white people; at least it shouldn’t be. This is a movie about the help, so let’s devote more time to them, notably Minnie and Aibileen. The movie opens and closes with Aibileen’s voice over. She is the star of this story. Why do I need another character just to coax out her story? Yes, I understand the limitations to a woman in Aibileen’s position in those days, but that’s no excuse. She deserves to be the focus.

Davis crushes in this movie. She is a one-woman force of devastation. You can just see the wear on her face, the tremor in her eyes, the sadness etched into her face. This is a woman beaten down by her position, and Davis is excellent. How good is this woman? She’s so good she got nominated for an Oscar for a single eight-minute scene in 2008’s Doubt. That’s Judi Dench territory right there (Dench famously won a Best Supporting Actress trophy despite only appearing onscreen for about nine minutes in Shakespeare in Love). She has a few big acting moments but mostly she’s not an outspoken woman. She’s more a downtrodden woman used to the many disappointments of her lot in life. She raises other people’s children while seeing very little of her own son. She develops close relationships with those kids, and the kids feel more attached to their maids than their mommies. And there’s the shattering disillusionment that these children, who once loved their maids, will transform into spitting images of their parents. The help gets treated less like family and more like a disposable, impersonal employee. The ease of severing ties can be heartbreaking. And Davis lets you feel all that without even having to speak. Spencer (Dinner for Schmucks), in easily her biggest role of her career, is enjoyable with the more outspoken role. She’s more the mouthpiece for the audience.

As I admitted in my review of 50/50, I don’t think there’s any role that Howard (fun fact: both Howard and Stone will play film versions of Gwen Stacy) can play where I won’t fall in love with her somewhat. This is more a hypothesis than a theory at this point. Hilly is a social queen, the Southern belle who likes things just the way they are. She has influence over the other middleclass wives in Jackson, but she does make for a pretty marginal main antagonist given the time period. She can threaten the livelihoods of the maids, so she is a threat, and her worldview is decidedly racist (she thinks using the same toilets will spread “black diseases”). She’s built up enough to be a threat but not enough to be unstoppable. She’s defeatable, unlike the intolerant ideology so prevalent in the South. We can’t defeat racism but we can topple one racist white lady. Well, we can laugh at her and bring up the fact that she ate something very gross once. I won’t go into spoilers, but this plot point where Minnie gets wreaks personal vengeance on Hilly via baked goods feels out of place for the tone of the film. It doesn’t fit.

I resisted seeing The Help for so long, believing it would be a painful experience with mushy emotions and many life lessons served up on an easy platter. And to some degree, the movie is exactly that. But it’s also hard to dislike the sweep of the old fashioned storytelling. The Help is a nice movie, extremely well acted, and filled with period details that will make the audience sense its authenticity. It’s easy to get caught up in the writing and the acting, so it’s easy to ignore the otherwise somewhat questionable examination on race relations. I don’t know why we still need white people to tell “their story.” The Help is a well-crafted movie but it fails to move the conversation forward. Perhaps that’s an unfair expectation. Not every Civil Rights era story is required to properly educate the public, let alone a work of historical fiction. Maybe I should just sit back and enjoy the story like so many million readers have. But the power of Davis’ performance claws at my memory, telling me she deserves a better movie focused on her character. For once, I’d like to see a Hollywood movie about race relations that doesn’t require white people as a framing device. Let’s let the right people tell “their story” for once.

Nate’s Grade: B

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