‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

Judas and the Black Messiah” is certainly a timely film with all of the issues that exist in the world today regarding racism.  Even though some strides have been made, we still have a long way to go until things are where they need to be in this world.  Systemic racism is a serious issue, and it doesn’t seem like there is a day that goes by where we are not hearing about a black man or woman being killed by someone in a position of power.  It is why films like this one are so important.  Many people do not watch or read the news.  When they see it in a major motion picture, it can sometimes raise their level of awareness.  That is the power of cinema at its finest.

Our film starts off in the late 1960’s when we meet William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a small-time criminal who goes around waving a badge in order to steal cars.  As he says in the film, the badge carries more weight than a gun because everyone knows there is an army behind that badge. When he is caught, he is forced to enter into a deal with Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to work undercover for the FBI.  If William does not accept this deal, he is facing eighteen months in prison for stealing a car along with five years for impersonating an officer.  He has to go undercover to keep an eye on what is happening with the Black Panther Party in Illinois, which is run by the charismatic and powerful Fred Hampton played by Daniel Kaluuya in an Oscar-winning performance.

Both Kaluuya and Stanfield were nominated for Best Supporting Actor for their work here, but I would have to say that I’d give the edge to Stanfield as he has to play a dual-role as a member of the Black Panther Party while also trying to keep Roy and the FBI happy.  While Kaluuya had to give more of a boisterous and in-your-face performance, Stanfield has to balance all of the moral dilemmas his character has to endure throughout the film. He wears all of this on his face and on screen with his stunning performance.  That being said, I understand it can be difficult to compare performances in different films let alone the same film and the same category.

As soon as Fred Hampton starts to gain some steam and bring people together to form the Rainbow Coalition, which is all-inclusive and a real threat to the infrastructure, greed, and abuse of power which is happening all around Illinois, he is sent to jail on some phony ice-cream theft charges.  This is when William O’Neal starts to have more responsibility put on his plate with the Black Panther Party.  He is up for the task, and he holds his own especially when it comes to security.  There is another element for Fred to consider and that is his budding romance with Deborah (Dominique Fishback).  She gives a vulnerable yet commanding performance as a young woman who is not afraid to have Fred’s back.

When Fred is finally released from prison, things get even more complicated with the Black Panther Party and the FBI’s director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen).  They are starting to see that Fred Hampton is a real threat and is bringing about real change for people.  The fact he is able to unite so many people of different races and cultural backgrounds is nothing short of amazing. He’s a true hero. At this point, William O’Neal is forced to make some difficult decisions for himself.  He has the Black Panther Party, which is, at times, suspicious of him.  He also has the FBI, which wonders if he really believes in what Fred Hampton is fighting for, each and every single day.

I’m a huge fan of the adult drama that is inspired by true events in Hollywood.  I think whenever a film can entertain and educate an audience, it’s really something to behold, and this film really stayed with me long after it was over.  It’s a powerful piece of filmmaking that is one of the best films of 2020. It features fantastic performances from top to bottom.  I mentioned the two supporting actors earlier, but to me, they are both the leads in this film.  I just feel as though Stanfield is on screen longer and has a meatier role than Kaluuya in this film.  There also must be credit given to Plemons.  Even though he is the bad guy in the film, there are a lot of layers to him.  It’s not a cardboard cutout bad guy. It must also be noted from a historical point of view, this was the first film with an all-black producing team to be nominated in the Best Picture category at the Academy Awards.  This is a well-acted, well-written, and supremely intense film from start to finish. I can’t recommend it enough.

* * * * out of * * * *

Blu-Ray Special Features:

Fred Hampton for the People

Unexpected Betrayal

Blu-Ray Info:

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is released on a single-disc Blu-ray with a digital copy from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment.  The film has a running time of 126 minutes and is rated R for violence and pervasive language.

Video/Audio Info:

The film has a 1080p/2.39:1 High-Definition transfer which really enhances the look and feel of the late 60’s into the early 70’s.  The audio is featured on the following formats: DTS-HD MA: English 5.1 and English Descriptive Audio with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is the kind of film which reminds me of why I love moves in the first place.  This is not a feel-good movie if you are familiar with the story at all, which I was not prior to watching it, but it proves a serious point that needs to be made.  It creates conversation, and it shows off some of the best acting I’ve seen in a very long time.  As mentioned earlier, I’ve always felt film is at its best when it tells stories which are worth telling and can open minds to what others in the world and are going through in their day-to-day lives.  The Blu-ray looks and sounds great, but I would have enjoyed a few more special features and maybe a detailed documentary on the real-life story.  Still, this is a film that you should add to your collection for the phenomenal acting and storytelling which is on display throughout.

‘Widows’ is a Fiery Thriller and Not Just Another Heist Movie

Widows movie poster

It’s always cool when a filmmaker sneaks something up on you when you least expect it. On the surface, “Widows” looks like an average heist movie to where I went in thinking it would be another “Ocean’s Eleven,” but I can assure you this is not the case (and we did already have “Ocean’s 8” earlier this year). While this film provides audiences with the requisite action and violence, it cannot be boiled down into one sentence as it deals with themes of class divisions, political corruption and of the lengths many will go to just to make ends meet. What results is a hell of a thriller, and it’s a timely one as the struggles these characters face is all too real in this day and age.

“Widows” starts off with an introduction to the wives before they lose their spouses. Veronica (Viola Davis) shares an especially passionate kiss with her husband Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) haggles with Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) over money she needs for her clothing store, Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki) cannot hide the black eye her abusive husband Florek (Jon Bernthal) gave her, and Amanda Nunn (Carrie Coon) is busy with her newborn baby as her significant other Jimmy (Coburn Goss) darts out the door. These scenes are interspersed with these men pulling off a robbery which goes horribly awry and results in their fiery deaths. The editing by Joe Walker is one of the best I have seen in any 2018 movie as he interweaves the different vignettes in a way which feels especially powerful.

From there, the four women attempt to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives as reality comes down hard on them in ways they are not prepared for. Things are especially precarious for Veronica when she is visited by crime boss and aspiring politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) who informs her Harry robbed $2 million dollars from him, and this money was lost in the fire. Jamal demands Veronica pay back this debt sooner rather than later, and the way he holds her dog during this scene will have pet owners gripping their armrests. Following this, Veronica gets together with the other widows to carry out a robbery which will net them the money they need to pay off said debt, and we watch as they take matters into their own hands in a way they never have previously.

I have a confession to make; this is the first movie by filmmaker Steve McQueen I have watched. McQueen has previously given us “Hunger,” “Shame” and “12 Years a Slave” which won the Oscar for Best Picture a couple of years ago. I certainly need to catch up on his work as his flair for filmmaking is clearly on display in “Widows.” Some of the long shots he pulls off here are amazing as the actors are forced to maintain an intensity which is not always easy to do in front of a camera, and it results in highly suspenseful and shocking moments which had the audience I saw it with gasping audibly.

At the center of “Widows” is Viola Davis who has long since proven to be a force of nature. Ever since I first saw her in “Doubt,” she has proven to be a no-nonsense actress and her performances are never less than stunning. As Veronica, she provides the story’s center of gravity as she forces the other women to join with her in a mission no one can easily prepare for, and she does this even as her heart is shattered by a grief she cannot keep inside forever. Even in moments where she doesn’t say a word, Davis makes us see what is going on in her mind without having to spell it out for us. Watching her here, I was reminded of the lethal presence she gave off in the disastrous “Suicide Squad” and of how she would have made a better Joker than Jared Leto.

One actress who really needs to be singled out, however, is Elizabeth Debicki. As Alice, she takes her character from being an abusive pawn for her husband and her equally nasty mother Agnieska (a wickedly good Jacki Weaver) to becoming a person who finds the strength and self-confidence which has eluded her for far too long. She makes Alice’s transition both natural and subtle to where she inhabits the character to where you can never take your eyes off of her.

McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn of “Gone Girl” fame adapted this movie from the British miniseries of the same name, one which I’m fairly certain my parents have seen. In this movie’s 129-minute running time, they manage to fit in so many different layers to where “Widows” feels much longer than it already is, but I never lost interest in what unfolded. We get a strong sense of the desperate lives each character leads as they live in a world where no superhero can save them. The two have also moved the story from England to Chicago and, as David Mamet once said, “In Chicago, we love our crooks!”

An interesting subplot which emerges in “Widows” involves a political campaign between Jamal Manning and Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), for alderman of a South Side precinct. We already got a glimpse of Jamal’s criminal activities, but Jack is not free of corruption himself. Even worse, his father Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall, great as always) does nothing to hide his racist attitudes and believes this office is theirs by blood regardless of what the voters end up saying. Farrell is terrific as Jack in showing the shadowy corners he is forced to navigate through in politics. It’s a position he doesn’t want to be in, but he is stuck in the shadow of his incumbent father who is not about to see his son lose the election, and he proves to be as morally compromised, if not more so, as his political adversary.

This also leads to a brilliant scene as McQueen follows Jack as he gets into a car with his associate, and the camera stays outside as we watch them travel from the poor neighborhood he is campaigning in over to the affluent neighborhood where he lives. Is there another scene in a 2018 movie which shows the disparity between the haves and have nots without the use of words? If there is, I haven’t seen it.

Michelle Rodriguez remains as badass as ever, and its great fun watching her hold her own opposite Davis. Cynthia Erivo, who showed us what a great voice she has in “Bad Times as the El Royale,” is furiously good as Belle, a babysitter and beautician constantly running off to the next paying gig as her desperation to keep her head above water keeps her apart from her daughter. And Daniel Kaluuya, who had scored one hell of a breakthrough with “Get Out,” is a devilish delight as Jatemme Manning, a cold as ice psychopath who doesn’t think twice about ending someone’s life, and his presence is enough to frighten the most jaded of filmgoers.

Does “Widows” have plot holes? Perhaps, but I was too caught in the story and performances to really give them any notice. Any questions this movie proved to be refrigerator questions. As for the meaning of that, look to Alfred Hitchcock. This is a thriller which digs deep into the lives of those undone by history and inequity, and it’s hard not to root for them as they take matters into their own hands in a desperate attempt to reach for the life they dreamed of but which is cruelly denied to them. It is full of surprises, many of which I did not seem coming, and McQueen holds us in his cinematic grip from start to finish.

Another thing to take into account about “Widows” is how it deals with the five stages of grief. Getting through them is never easy, but you knew this already. Seeing these characters struggle with their individual grief is not something which draws attention to itself right away, but the ending, which features a character breaking out into a smile she worked hard to get to, shows how one can get to the other side and move on. You could say this only happens in the movies, but this one does not take place in the land of superheroes and comic books. Reality can be harsh, and “Widows” never lets you forget that.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Get Out

Get Out movie poster

You know the main characters of this movie are in trouble once they hit a deer. Of this, I speak from my own experience as my dad drove me to the airport one time and ran over a deer which walked into his traffic lane. It was not his fault as the deer came out of nowhere, and there wasn’t any time to hit the brakes to avoid an animal oblivious to the Volvo station wagon heading straight at him (or her). Nevertheless, a week later I got laid off from my job. Looking back, hitting the deer proved to be an omen of bad things to come, and losing my job was one of them.

I was reminded of this as I watched the opening minutes of “Get Out,” an insidiously clever horror movie with the occasional dose of humor thrown in. Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) are driving up an empty stretch of road to meet her parents when they slam into a deer. There’s nothing they can do to help the animal, and the police officer who arrives at the scene asks for Chris’ license even though he wasn’t driving. Rose encourages the officer to let Chris be, and he eventually leaves the scene while advising her to fix her broken rearview mirror. But as the movie goes on, this turns out to be the least of their problems.

I should probably point out that Chris and Rose are an interracial couple, and Chris is concerned Rose’s parents have no idea her daughter is dating a black man. His nervousness is understandable, and it is elevated further when Rose’s parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener) try to make him feel welcome by telling him they would have voted President Barack Obama for a third time if it were possible. Basically, the Armitages are well-meaning white folks who support the fight against racism, but they have yet to understand the damage, however unintentional, they are doing to African-Americans.

Things get even weirder when Chris meets two other black people who work for the Armitages, Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Walter (Marcus Henderson). Both act very strangely and in a manner which threatens to redefine passive-aggressive, and the way they stare at Chris is unnerving as they look like snakes ready to strike at their pray without much notice. It doesn’t take long for Chris to realize something is terribly wrong, but his attempts to escape the Armitage household are not exactly successful.

There is a lot of racial tension burning right underneath the surface in “Get Out,” and this is on purpose. The movie plays on the stereotypes whites have of blacks and vice-versa. Everyone is trying to be polite, but you can sense what’s really going on by looking into the eyes of each character as they project darker intentions or sheer terror, and sometimes both. We are left in suspense as we constantly wonder what the Armitages truly have in store for the helpless Chris, and when their intentions are revealed, it makes a scary, and an oddly amusing, amount of sense.

“Get Out” marks the directorial debut of Jordan Peele, one-half of the famous comedy duo “Key & Peele,” who also wrote the screenplay. It’s a very strong debut as he takes satirical elements and places them into a story which ratchets up the intensity throughout and keeps it up to the end. But Peele doesn’t just give us a flat-out satire as he never set out to play everything just for laughs. He digs deep and touches at our own preconceptions of race in America and plays around with the unintentional ways we reveal ourselves to be more prejudice than we ever realized.

Daniel Kaluuya, whom you might remember from “Sicario” and “Kick-Ass 2,” is excellent as Chris, a young man caught up in a situation we hope he fully comprehends before it is too late. He also has good chemistry with Allison Williams to where you can’t doubt they are believable as a couple. “Get Out” also has the benefit of having two terrific actors playing Rose’s parents, Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener. Both have a warm presence here which eventually turns into something more sinister before you even know it.

I especially have to single out Keener as she remains one of the most underrated actors working today, and the scene where she hypnotizes Chris is a huge reminder of that inescapable fact. She doesn’t have to do too much to get our attention, and as Missy, she seduces us to a place we didn’t plan on going to, and it’s a place where we fear we will never rise up from.

There’s also a terrific scene-stealing performance from Lil Rel Howery as Chris’ best friend, Rod Williams, a TSA agent who has seen it all. In any other movie, Rod would be the one to overact in the most annoying way possible, but Howery turns the character into a welcome form of comic-relief the movie needs to ease the at times unbearable tension, and he is hilarious.

In many ways, “Get Out” is a clever riff on movies of the past like “The Stepford Wives” which dealt with the unusual behavior of female residents in a little Connecticut town, and Peel takes risks with the material you wish other filmmakers would take on a more regular basis. What results is a motion picture which is not perfect, but still a very good one which will stay with and unsettle you in the way a good horror movie should. It also plays with the ways white people try to show how non-racist they are and yet fall into an inescapable pit of hypocrisy before they even know it.

And for the record, I’m a white guy and I would definitely have voted for Barrack Obama for a third term as President. Think what you will of that statement. I’m just going to leave it here.

* * * ½ out of * * * *