Tag: lakeith stanfield

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.

Knives Out


Knives Out (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The funny thing is, for a whodunit picture, it is not difficult to figure out the person, or persons, responsible, directly or indirectly, for killing Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a renowned mystery novelist who has so much wealth, his grown children cannot help but to act like vultures even before his barely cold body is in the ground. Needless to say, it is also not at all a challenge to determine the motive for the murder. The joy, however, is embedded in the question of how. The answers are so specific and executed with so much vitality that when they are revealed eventually, they kind of just take your breath away. This is the writer-director Rian Johnson that I know, the mind behind inspired works like “Brick” and “Looper.” He is in top form here.

Funnier still is that the more I tried to answer the questions using only my brain, substantive solutions prove to become more elusive. Therein lies its source of enjoyment: Because Johnson is aware that we will approach the puzzle in this manner, he must create enough kinks in the screenplay that upends our expectations. It seems we are dealing with an ordinary mystery—and in plenty of ways it is—but it is far more self-aware than it purports itself to be. Even those most experienced with mystery stories are likely to have a ball with this.

We are introduced to a slew of colorful characters with abrasive personalities—every one of them suspicious. There is, of course, Harlan’s children: eldest Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) who found success in the real estate business and youngest Walt (Michael Shannon) who functions as the acting CEO of his father’s publishing company. The middle child, Neil, passed away years prior, but his spouse Joni (Toni Collette), a lifestyle guru, remains highly connected to the family. The expertly paced initial interview shows us three facts: 1) their relationship with the deceased is strained but complex, 2) they are capable of lying—even though they may not be very good at it, and 3) they are hardwired to protect the family legacy. Putting on a successful front is an absolute must; when it is threatened, they react as though it is a national calamity. Clearly, these people, including their offsprings (Chris Evans, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell), are born and bred in privilege. It is the only lifestyle they know.

The investigation is led by Detective Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and he is supported by private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). I wished the former had more of the central role in the case despite the latter’s sterling reputation as an investigator. I did not get a definitive impression of how Elliot thinks, specifically his style of deduction. It would have been preferred to show the duo working together, even clashing on occasion. Blanc, on the other hand, is full of personality. He is attentive, quick-witted, and amusing in the way he underplays his dry sense of humor. When he speaks, it is often to make a point. And when he is silent, well, he remains a presence. He is the type of person with whom you wish to know his take. Craig plays Blanc with gusto, charm, and urgency. It is one of his more memorable roles in a while.

Another crucial piece of the mystery involves Harlan’s nurse named Marta (Ana de Armas). From a Latin immigrant family, she is our conduit to the Thrombey’s posh bubble. The script is peppered with timely social commentary in regards to how white folks of privilege tend to look down on ethnic minority groups by way of kind words and actions. “You’re almost like a part of this family.” We are meant to cringe and feel uncomfortable. And laugh, too, at its honesty.

The intelligently written and thoroughly entertaining “Knives Out” never betrays the audience despite numerous high-stake left turns. It invites the viewers to look closely, to recognize possible red herrings, to understand how characters think and predict how they might respond. We hang onto every line because a clue may be lodged in there.

Sorry to Bother You


Sorry to Bother You (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

One can tell that “Sorry to Bother You” is made by a first-time writer-director because it is willing to utilize a variety of techniques, from claymation and voiceovers to hallucinatory imagery and coming into contact with an entirely different genre, to get a range of laughs—big laughs—from the audience. Even though these tools do not always work, sometimes the courage to employ them is what counts because they shake the boredom out of some of the more familiar avenues of the plot, particularly in portraying the rift between our protagonist and his friends as he begins to climb the corporate ladder of telemarketing.

The picture is written and directed by Boots Riley who possess an exciting eye for detail. Shot on location in Oakland, California, he is willing to show the more unsightly areas of the city, how colors and life dominate even the poorest of neighborhoods. Graffitis on walls often have a political message, signs on the streets are clever, and even jewelries worn offer their own personalities. Notice how the extras who must utter a line or two of taunts while off-camera sound exactly like residents of Oakland. So, you see, although certain images are initially unattractive, like unmowed laws and unpicked garbage on sidewalks, there is beauty in its honesty and simplicity. The film is a comedy in which the setting is vibrant and real.

This is important because the material is a satire, often embracing extremes in order to deliver a punchline. The setting, more than the story or the performances, anchor the film in something that is true and relatable. And so when the plot and tone undergo wild fluctuations, viewers are less likely to feel lost, confused, or frustrated. Unlike Hollywood mainstream comedies without flavor or ambition, those designed solely to pass the time, perhaps a chuckle here and there, Riley’s work is able to take big risks while retaining the viewers’ interest.

It is a challenge to describe the plot without revealing its wonderful, bizarre surprises. It is best to dive into it blind. Just know that it starts off with a black man named Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) who lands a job as a telemarketer. He discovers that by employing a “white voice,” callers are more likely to stay on the line and make a purchase. His recent successes capture the interests of upper-management. From there, the screenplay commands intoxicating energy as it satirizes corporate culture, the media, and politics.

What I admired most about it, however, is its willingness to show how it is like for a person of color in a country that values whiteness. The “white voice,” for example, is played as a joke, but it is sharp commentary, too. After all, when there is implication that “white voice” is valued over brown or black voices, what does that say about how brown or black skins are actually seen? Still, despite what it has to say about a range of topics, the film is entertaining first and foremost.