‘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.

Abortion: Stories Women Tell

Abortion Stories Women Tell poster

Was there ever a time when abortion didn’t seem like such a controversial issue? Well, if there was, that was certainly a long, long, long time ago. Even with the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973, which gave every woman in the United States the right to an abortion, many have still been doing their best to get it overturned. Never mind that the Supreme Court has the final say on issues like this, never mind that Roe v. Wade was passed to stop women dying from abortions, and never mind that abortions make up a very tiny percentage of the work Planned Parenthood does; people are still swayed by their emotions more than they are by facts, and many have to be reminded of the importance of the separation between church and state.

The HBO documentary “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” is not out to take sides on this contentious debate. Instead, it gives women the opportunity to talk about their experiences with both pregnancy and abortion and to tell their own stories without any filters. Some men are heard on this too, but the focus is on women on both sides of the fence as they are the ones who have to deal not just with their decisions, but also the aftermath they are unwillingly exposed to.

The documentary starts off with a pro-life rally in Missouri where supporters chant “all in Christ,” and an elected representative tells them they are making progress in closing clinics in the state as they now “have the ability to look inside the womb.” But the focus then quickly shifts to a title card which states how since 2011, more than half of the United States have significantly restricted access to abortions, and those restrictions have increased from year to year. Abortion opponents may not be able to overturn Roe v. Wade, but they have managed to find ways around it.

Missouri at this time has only one abortion clinic which means the women who live there are more likely to drive many miles across the state border into Illinois to seek help. The documentary looks at the daily happenings at the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois where employees do their best to help women in need of health care even while they are constantly harassed by protestors. None of them have any shame over the work they do, and that’s even if some consider themselves the black sheep of their family as a result.

The stories we hear cover different parts of the spectrum regarding the abortion debate. There’s Amie, a 30-year-old single mom who works 70 to 90 hours a week to make ends meet and cannot afford to have another baby right now. We get to meet Sarah who has discovered her baby will have lungs missing and won’t survive long after birth. Then there’s Kathy whose house is filled with various religious objects, and she is setting up a peaceful pro-life march to get what she sees as God’s message across to others. And there’s no forgetting Alexis who is 17 years old and pregnant, whose mother died when she was just 8 and who gets picked on at school because of her condition. It’s painful to see how isolated all these women are from the rest of society as the stigma of abortion is still all too harsh. Granted, Kathy might not seem as isolated, but there is a strong sense of loneliness about her as she pursues her quest to end abortions.

Director Tracy Droz Tragos, herself a Missouri resident, presents all these women’s stories without any judgment. She has given them a forum to speak their minds, and they all need to be heard regardless of how we feel about this infinitely taboo subject. There’s no narration to be found here as Tragos is not looking to steer the conversation one way or another, and this is even though the number of pro-lifers interview here pales in comparison to the pro-choice advocates. But for what it’s worth, the pro-life women interviewed here come across as very nice and full of much love, and this is in sharp contrast to those protestors (mostly men) who stand outside the clinic berating anybody and everybody who enters it.

But for me, the most important takeaway from “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” is that none of the women featured here take the issue of abortion lightly. Why would they? Many people who oppose abortion treat those who have had one with such disgusting disdain as if to say they never bothered to put much thought into what they were doing. But as Representative Jackie Speier said in a session of congress, the thought that anyone enters into such a decision with a cavalier attitude is just “preposterous.”

It’s impossible not to be emotionally affected by what these women go through. Plus, one cannot but be infuriated at those protestors who hold up signs featuring what looks like aborted fetuses which are disgusting and unforgivably cruel as they do nothing more than try to manipulate the actions of people they have no interest in knowing personally. Tragos briefly gets to interview one of the most outspoken pro-lifers who follows a clinic escort all the way to her car, begging her to repent. He talks about a law in California which punishes someone with not one, but two murders when they kill a pregnant woman. Whoever this person is, he may need to look at the California law book more closely.

With the United States currently entering the most contentious of Presidential elections, the future of Roe v. Wade is in more danger than ever. But watching “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” is a stark reminder of how women are still treated like a minority even though they make up more than fifty percent of the world’s population. This documentary will bring about a fury of emotions for everyone who watches it, but the one thing to keep in mind is all the women featured here are no different from one another. They believe in the same things and have more in common than they bother to realize.

I also have to quote Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times here as he made an excellent point in his review I wish I had made myself:

“The key to understanding why ‘Abortion: Stories Women Tell’ is a quietly powerful documentary is not the first word in the title, but the final three.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.