Tag: daniel kaluuya

Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)
★★★ / ★★★★

Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.

In most movies that revolve around an informant, viewers end up empathizing with him or her one way or another. This isn’t the case in Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah.” The story opens with William “Bill” O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) choosing to be a rat for the FBI—under the superintendence of Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons)—after he is caught stealing a car and pretending to be an FBI agent. And by the end of the story, Bill is not only a rat but a traitor who served a critical role in the killing of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Black Panther Party in Chicago.

Hampton is so slick with words that he is capable of uniting not only black Chicago gangs but also multiethnic militia groups who are tired of being treated as second-class Americans. As a collective, The Rainbow Coalition demands progressivism from a government that excels in maintaining not only status quo but oppression of the poor, the marginalized, and people of color. It is no wonder Hampton is regarded as a national threat.

Right from the opening minutes the work proves propulsive. Themes regarding appearances tending to deceive, that real power is held by folks hiding in the shadows, and that one of the government’s greatest weapons is persuading people who belong within a community to turn against their own. This is done in subtle and often entertaining ways. Particularly efficient is when Bill sits in an interrogation room, face dripping with blood, as Special Agent Mitchell reminds the powerless black criminal in front of him that he has no sensical choice but to become a slave for the US government; it is a scene in which a black man sells his soul to a white devil.

I choose powerful words—pointed words that carry heavy judgment—but make no mistake that picture never paints circumstances in black and white. Even Mitchell is shown to be human, that although he is an FBI agent and that the organization he works for is filled with racists, he is also a man with his own beliefs about race and racial tension in 1960s America.

He is also a father. There is a revealing and terrifying scene between Mitchell and Special Agent Carlyle (Robert Longstreet), the latter asking what the former will do if his daughter ever brought a black man home. King languishes in tight, uncomfortable headshots. We can hear a pin drop as the cornered Mitchell is forced to provide a response. There is the answer in Mitchell’s head, somewhere along the lines of, “Why would it matter if she did?”, and then there is the “correct” answer, the one that his colleague needs to hear.

The Hampton character is given even greater complexity. He is a wonderful orator; he can survey a room full of people, find its pulse, and adapt his words into messages that will resonate. I found it so fascinating that the key issues that the man fought for are issues that progressives are fighting for today: closing the gap in regard to food insecurity—particularly in children, free healthcare for all, free education. You see, those in power remain in power when people are hungry, sick, and uneducated. This role is a strong addition to Kaluuya’s increasingly impressive resume. He creates personas: a public figure, a leader, and a man. Each persona is worth close inspection. And there are times when the identities bleed into one another.

It is most disappointing that the pacing slows to a crawl during the latter third. It is the point where Bill must make a decision on whether or not to betray the man with whom he had grown to have great respect for. Since the material spends the majority of its time with Hampton as well as the Black Panthers as a group but only fleeting moments between Bill and Mitchell, we do not have a deep and thorough understanding of the informant. The title reveals which course of action he will take and so tension must come from somewhere else. But because he is not layered enough—and I think he is meant to be—the battle within himself is not compelling; it simply feels drawn out and repetitive. At one point I thought, “Just get on with it already.”

Regardless of this shortcoming, “Judas and the Black Messiah” delivers a story worth our time, attention, and consideration. It is without question that the film is about race. But it is also about the working class attempting to rise up and the establishment feeling threatened so it feels the need to squash the bugs. Surely it is so annoying when commoners want equality. Why can’t they just be thankful for the crumbs they are given? The story told here happened in the 1960s. But make no mistake that the story continues to this day. That’s the power of the establishment.

Queen & Slim

Queen & Slim (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Taking inspiration from real-life events of police shooting unarmed African-Americans across the country, Melina Matsoukas’ debut picture “Queen & Slim” simmers with anger, but that is not what makes the work interesting. Instead of unleashing its fury, it allows the audience to witness and digest the injustices of racial profiling and murder. It is a powerful movie, certainly a sad one, that does not need to shout in order to highlight the importance of what it has to impart.

Unnamed man (henceforth “Slim” played by Daniel Kaluuya) and woman (Jodie Turner-Smith as “Queen”) go on a blind date after meeting on Tinder. On their way home, they are stopped by a police officer who claims that Slim has failed to execute a turn signal and exhibited some erratic driving. While this is true, it is clear that the cop wishes to bust the black man for something, anything. Without a warrant, the racist cop rummages through the trunk. The situation quickly escalates which leads to Queen being shot in the leg. Out of self-defense, Slim grabs the gun from the officer and shoots him dead. The couple decide to flee Cleveland, Ohio.

The six-night manhunt for Queen & Slim is executed with specific vision. It is not interested in glorifying violence by showing elaborate chases, gunfights, and the like. It is, however, curious about getting to know the couple as complex people who come from vastly different backgrounds. For instance, extended dialogue is presented to us like flirtatious poetry as Queen, initially dismissive of Slim, learns to respect the young man she assumed to be just another brother who wished to get in her pants; Slim, meanwhile, begins to recognize a possible future with Queen. The movie is successful both as a crime drama and romance. The screenplay by Lena Waithe juggles both at the same time, never dropping one for the other at any moment.

The central couple is multidimensional, and so are the supporting characters—however brief we spend time with them. A few standouts include Queen’s uncle (Bokeem Woodbine) who lives with prostitutes with surprising heart and insight about loneliness, a gas station attendant who does not blink once when a gun is pointed at his face, a teenager named Junior (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) who idolizes the outlaws, and the caucasian couple (Chloë Sevigny, Flea) who are aware of the bounty for Slim & Queen but decides to help them anyway. Each interaction is different because every single person encountered has a specific personality and perspective regarding what occurred in Ohio. Everybody has an understanding and appreciation of what has been going on between cops and black people across the country.

Comparisons to Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie & Clyde” makes sense to an extent, but “Queen & Slim” is more modern and it possesses an identity of its own. There is something alluring in how Kaluuya and Turner-Smith are able to harness their chemistry, beginning from a place of awkwardness and distrust then eventually ending somewhere among loyalty, respect, and devotion. Their physical journey can be criticized for having one too many lucky breaks, but I believed their emotional journey completely. While I would have preferred a less blatant ending (which I do not think fits the overall tone of the film), I could find some justification why it was necessary.


Widows (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Leave it to director Steve McQueen to helm a heist film more interested in the people about to pull a job than the actual robbery itself. What results is an elegant, intelligent, character-driven work that commands the precision of high-end thrillers in which the viewer is dared not to blink in order to avoid missing a beat. Notice that the burglary unfolds for a mere five minutes and yet the overall experience is most satisfying. The reason is because seeing the theft is merely cherry on top. We already know that it must be done and how it will be done. And once it is done—I’d even go as far to say that even before it is done—we are more curious about how the characters will choose to move on with their lives.

The picture is filled to the brim with terrific character actors. The leader of the widows compelled to thievery is played by Viola Davis, doing so much and saying more than enough within the span of a few seconds in which the camera is fixated on her face. She need not say a word. Sometimes all she has to do is scream. Her silence, the anger in those eyes, the confusion, the frustration—and the depression—of being left with nothing can be felt with overwhelming clarity. And yet—her co-stars: Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo—shine on their own exactly because the screenplay by Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen ensures that their characters have something important to do or say about grief and/or survival. It truly is an ensemble cast; everyone supports one another. Take away one performance and the final project is not as strong.

I admired how the director navigates through the chess pieces. There is a subplot about mayoral candidates (Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry) attempting to make deals and to pull off overt subterfuge. These players, too, are interesting. Although a heist film, I enjoyed that the material is able to broach the subjects of race, legacy, what power means—how to obtain it and how one plans to wield it. Intriguingly, the material is unconcerned about choosing sides. Both men are questionable and choosing the lesser of two evils is a herculean task. Even though these candidates are given less screen time than the widows, which is appropriate, they are memorable based on the actions they take on. Even a henchman (Daniel Kaluuya) can be fearsome.

The film also attempts to deliver great entertainment. Action scenes are well-executed and edited. They look and feel realistic; perhaps most importantly, we always get the impression as though something critical is at stake. The script touches upon professionalism and keeping emotions in check when performing a job. There is a cold detachment to the violence. It is all so matter-of-fact. And because it is this way, we get a sense that anything can happen, that maybe not all of the women are required to survive. We already know it will not have a happy ending. Their loved ones are dead. The best we can hope for is a bittersweet ending, but it feels out of reach.

“Widows” is based on Lynda La Plante’s crime series. It is amazing that the filmmakers manage to create a complicated yet believable world in a span of just above two hours, while at the same time making us wonder what might happen next for those who got what they wanted (or the opposite of what they had hoped for). Those looking for heist films that shatter conventions, look no further.

Get Out

Get Out (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a horror film for people who pay attention to what we see in the movies, what we hear on the radio, and what we experience in our current racial tension-filled America. On the outside it is indeed a horror film, which can be enjoyed for its entertainment value, but another layer reveals a savage comedy in the form of satire. It is daring in that it is actually willing to point at and peer into how white America views, treats, and defines African-Americans. Deeper still, underneath the obvious horror and comedic elements, therein lies anger and frustration because even though history books state that slavery had ended for decades, a strong argument can be made that racism, one of the roots that had allowed slavery to become a norm, still continues to this day but this time through a different output.

Jordan Peele writes and directs the material with intelligence, insight, and confidence. During the first half of the film, I caught myself feeling unimpressed due to many elements that compose painfully standard family comedies and horror pictures. For instance, the setup involving Rose (Allison Williams), who is white, bringing home her boyfriend, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), who is black, to the white suburbs to meet the white parents is taken right off familiar white-washed templates. For a while, there appears to be a lack of a specific voice or perspective; it does not answer why this particular couple in this particular story is worth telling. However, when it finally does take a sudden left turn, the timing is so, so right.

The sharp screenplay provides many creepy details urging viewers to ask questions. For instance, why is it that all visible servants in the suburbs are black? (Surprisingly, this is acknowledged early on by two characters who come from different worlds.) Why is the neighborhood so eerily empty and quiet? Why is it that during a weekend gathering, when Chris is not within the vicinity, all buzzing conversations screech to a deafening halt? Perhaps most importantly, why is it that when Chris interacts with each of the servants privately (Betty Gabriel, Marcus Henderson), it feels as though something about them is suppressed, that they are somewhat speaking in code?

In addition, small and seemingly unimportant scenes, like a breezy tour around the spacious house or a curious interaction with a police officer while on the road to the couple’s final destination, prove to be important later on. This is the kind of movie that one can look at while standing over the completed puzzle and appreciate how the pieces are laid out with such foresight and precision. Too many horror movies do not strive—let alone possess—these qualities. We have been inured to watching tension trickle away as more blood is shed and screams are reduced to desperate, helpless whimpers. The writer-director strives to elevate the genre and as a viewer who loves horror films, it is highly appreciated.

“Get Out” takes its time to set its bear traps but once they are triggered, the thrills are continuous and become synergistic with comedic line deliveries by LilRel Howery (who plays Chris’ enthusiastic friend who works for TSA), thereby turning shock into laughter. The impact is savage, relentless, its social commentary on-point right to the brilliant final scene.

I love horror movies because they usually function either as a reflection of our own fears or our society’s fears. As a person of color living in America, what it reflected to me is the U.S. at the moment is an increasingly less tolerant, certainly less accepting, place than it is compared to only a year or two ago. This trend, unfortunately, shows no sign of changing any time soon. Certainly not while the type of villains skewered in this film are not only charge, they actually promote racist behavior by keeping silent and creating distractions.