‘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.

The Help Does Not Seek To Shamelessly Manipulate Our Emotions

The Help” was released with some controversy back in 2011 as it was based on a 2009 best seller by Kathryn Stockett, a white woman who wrote about African American maids’ experience working in the houses of white people. Many would have preferred to have had a black man or woman write this story, but it is important to note Stockett was herself raised by a black maid who instilled her with a strong confidence which proved to be unwavering, and this was all while her mother was absent from her life. Plus, Stockett, as represented by the character of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, captured the voices of these ill-treated black women with really piercing honesty, and she made herself a vessel for their voices to be heard. From the start, she made it clear to the world that this book was about them and not her.

The movie version comes to us wrapped in a bow of beautiful colors and a very appealing movie poster. I kept think of Rob Reiner’s “Ghosts of Mississippi” which blew the opportunity to make audiences aware of who Medgar Evers was at the expense of some truly bland while characters, and neither Alec Baldwin or James Woods could not save the movie from its inescapable banality. “The Help” looked like it would make the same mistakes, but thankfully it does not. Regardless of whatever flaws it has, it is still a deeply felt motion picture which revisits a painful part of American history people have either forgotten or are sick of revisiting.

At its center is Skeeter (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate who gets a job writing a housekeeping column for the local paper in Jackson, Mississippi. After reuniting with good friends in her hometown, she finds herself perturbed by the senseless racism which has divided the blacks and whites in an almost unspoken way. Skeeter also becomes concerned as to the whereabouts of the maid who raised her, Constantine, as she has vanished without a trace. These events compel her to start writing a book of the travails black housekeepers go through, and she is determined to capture their pride, heartache and deep-seated anger resulting from their thoughtless mistreatment.

This could easily have been a manipulative motion picture filled with cloying emotions, but the filmmakers have given us a variety of characters, black and white that are complex and who never come across as simply caricatures. Each one has their own needs and desires which conflict with those of others, and after a while it becomes clear their problems do not always have to do with race.

The black maid Skeeter leans on the most is Aibileen Clark, played in a powerhouse of a performance by Viola Davis. Just as she did in “Doubt,” Davis inhabits her character with a pride which, while wounded, remains defiantly strong. While her voice projects a kindness and understanding on top of an obedience to her employers, Clark’s face and eyes betray a huge resentment which has long since reached its boiling point.

The next black maid who contributes to Skeeter’s book is Minny Jackson, played in another great performance by Octavia Spencer. She proves to be the most outspoken of the bunch which results in her getting fired quite often, and yet she is reluctant at first to talk with Skeeter about her experiences. We later see Jackson getting her revenge in a way which somehow feels inspired by episodes of MTV’s “Punk’d” or “Jackass.” Spencer gives “The Help” a great sense of humor it might have otherwise not had, and she is every bit Davis’ match.

Minny also develops a highly unusual relationship with the hopelessly naive Celia Foote. Unlike other working relationships, she gets the opportunity to be blunt with Celia and tells her what she needs to hear. I found the friendship between them to be one of “The Help’s” most welcome surprises. Jessica Chastain brilliantly portrays Celia Foote, and she has long since proven to be one of the best actresses working in movies today.

As for Emma Stone, she proved to be a revelation here, and she holds her own against a large number of acting stalwarts. Stone imbues Skeeter with a hard-won independence which never waivers. I love how even in Stone’s eyes you can see her determination in proving how strong a woman Skeeter is and of the sincere goodness in her heart. If she has not proven herself as a dramatic actress before this movie, she certainly did here, and now she has an Oscar to make this clearer to those foolish not to pay attention.

The majority of the white characters in “The Help” could have all been one-dimensional idiots, and while several of them make assumptions which are as ridiculous as they are racist, we see other sides of their personalities as well. One white character who can be seen as the movie’s chief villain is the snobby Hilly Holbrook, played in a truly gutsy performance by Bryce Dallas Howard. Her superiority against the black maids turns out to be driven more by fear than anything else, and realizing this at the film’s end gives Hilly a dimension we weren’t sure she had in the first place.

Howard has done phenomenal work over the years, and she was a good reason to actually see some of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies like “The Village.” She has also given us reasons to sit through “Jurassic World” and its sequel as well as “Spider-Man 3.” While those movies failed to reach the heights of greatness, she gave you a reason to watch them in the first place.

Other great performances in “The Help” come from Allison Janney as Skeeter’s mother, Charlotte, who goes from being a stubborn mother desperate for her daughter to get a man to someone who regrets the decisions she has made in her life. Sissy Spacek is a hoot throughout as Hilly’s mother, Mrs. Walters, who delights in her daughter’s misfortunes as her dad made the unforgivable mistake of spoiling her rotten. One underrated performance comes from Chris Lowell who plays Skeeter’s eventual boyfriend, Stuart. He starts off as an arrogant young man who thinks he has women all figured out, but he later comes to his senses thank goodness.

“The Help” is not perfect and does get a bit too cute at times, but its emotions ring true thanks to the acting and the direction by Tate Taylor who is a longtime friend of Stockett’s. It skirts the conventional narrative to give us something more authentic which is not, if you will excuse the expression, white-washed like so many other Hollywood movies. It covers a subject which we have no choice but to revisit as history repeats itself much too often, and it says a lot about the movie that it jumped from number two to number one at the box office in its second week of release.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Informant!’ Puts a Comedic Spin on an Insanely True Story

The Informant movie poster

“This film is based on real events, but not everything you’ll see is real, some are a fabrication. So there!”

-opening disclaimer

The Informant!” is not just your typical corporate corruption film in which the main characters are on a mission to uncover the truth and expose wrongdoings. The movie is really about getting to the truth of who Mark Whitacre is. As the film goes on, we find he is not only being dishonest to everyone around him, but also to himself. Whitacre ends up being diagnosed with bi-polar disorder which makes clear how far his mental health has unraveled. Soderbergh gets us to trust Whitacre along with Damon, and the rest of the movie involves us getting deeper into his psyche. Whitacre doesn’t just deceive his employees, he deceives the audience watching this movie as well.

Much has been said about how Damon went all Robert De Niro (or Daniel Day Lewis or Christian Bale) on this role by putting on 30 pounds and a mustache to play Whitacre. But he more than succeeds in bringing an everyman quality to this role which is not at all easy with a star like him, known for his good looks (the term actor fits him better anyway). It certainly sets his character apart from Jason Bourne, who Whitacre is clearly not like (he does liken himself to James Bond though). Damon has never been given a role like this before, and it should be considered further proof he is a better actor than many give him credit for.

Soderbergh’s decision to give “The Informant!” a comic tone is an interesting choice, and it is a reminder of how he is still one of the most unpredictable filmmakers working today. Earlier in 2009 he gave us one of his indie film experiments, “The Girlfriend Experience,” which starred Sasha Grey. While this one was done on a bigger budget, my understanding is he shot it almost as fast (30 days to be exact) perhaps because the studio wasn’t sure if people would see it or not. Looking more closely at the script, this could have been Soderbergh’s “Michael Clayton,” but he had taken this story, the kind we see in the papers every day, and made it into something a little different. While the tone is a bit inconsistent throughout, and you are not sure of how amusing the film is meant to be, that may be the whole point of this cinematic endeavor.

The humor throughout is very dry, and it sticks in your throat for good reason. Whereas everyone here looks like they are having a blast with the material, you have to remind yourself once in a while that “The Informant!” is, yes, “based on a true story” and that Whitacre’s conviction gave him a prison sentence three times longer than those he exposed. This may be one of those movies designed to thwart expectations as it has been promoted and advertised as a full out comedy. Still, it is not meant to be a laugh a minute comedy like “Airplane!

When all is said and done, “The Informant!” really belongs to Damon as much as it does to Soderbergh. As Whitacre, Damon never looks like he is just acting or simply doing an impersonation. This is also clearly not a performance that stopped at the physical appearance, but one which really gets into the inner trappings of this bio-chemist’s mind. From start to finish, we keep hearing Damon’s narration about the little things he knows and what he makes of the people around him. I somehow figured this would all lead to a big realization at the film’s climax, but it really illustrates the deteriorating state of Whitacre’s mind. Damon actually makes you empathize with this man even while he comes across as a Bernie Madoff in training.

I also have to say that for the life of me, I cannot remember the last time there was a character which inspired so many dead or befuddled stares from other people. It’s like every single character he comes into contact with has at least two or three moments where they look at Whitacre with their jaws dropping all the way to the floor. Have you ever seen another movie where so many characters look like they are about to say, “Excuse me? Would you mind repeating that? YOU WHAT??!!”

The two actors who end up giving Whitacre the most dubious glares throughout “The Informant!” are Scott Bakula and Joel McHale. Both play off of Damon perfectly, and their expressions mirror our own as we come to discover the secrets of Whitacre’s ways at the same time they do. Bakula gives us a coolly collected FBI agent instead of the intense and easily aggravated ones we see in these movies. But not to worry, he does lose his temper eventually. McHale proves to be even drier here than Bakula, and at the movie’s end, he still cannot figure out if Whitacre has been completely on the level with him. Then again, Whitacre probably can’t figure that out either. Someone once said if you believe in a lie so much, it eventually becomes the truth, and this proves to be Whitacre’s biggest affliction.

The seriousness of the story is offset by the wonderfully breezy music score by Marvin Hamlisch which treats the goings on as a bizarre farce that goes further out of the hand than anyone could have imagined…and then it gets even more bizarre from there. Even as the situation becomes increasingly serious with the walls closing in on Whitacre, Hamlisch’s score remains surprisingly upbeat throughout. Along with the retro opening credits, it’s almost like Soderbergh was trying to give the film a 1970’s look even though it takes place in the 1990’s.

So, while it’s not quite a great movie, “The Informant!” does have a lot going for it, and it is very inventive in how it presents this morally corrupted yet well-meaning character. While Whitacre may think he’s like Tom Cruise’s character in “The Firm,” he is nowhere as lucky as him. Perhaps a more dramatic motion picture could have been made about this man’s life, but none would be anywhere as entertaining as Soderbergh’s.

SO THERE!

* * * ½ out of * * * *