Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Naively, I hoped last year’s bizarro movie distribution vortex might make for some exciting, unconventional Oscar nominations. Instead, it seems most of this season’s frontrunners are typically-awarded Prestige Dramas that weren’t available to the wide public two months into the next calendar year. It’s impressively stubborn. Since The Academy is unlikely to ever change the type of movies it tends to award, the best we can apparently hope for are changes in subject & cultural representation. Enter Judas and the Black Messiah, an Awards Season historical drama about a charismatic, radical Black Panther Party leader who was assassinated by the FBI when he was only 21 years old. If the Oscars nomination machine is only going to recognize sobering dramas & grim actors’ showcases, then at least we can celebrate that one of this year’s chosen few is a Trojan Horse for leftist, Revolutionary politics.

Daniel Kaluuya stars as Fred Hampton, the aforementioned Black Panther organizer who was murdered in his sleep by the FBI (a real-life biographical detail that recalls the recent police-state execution of Breonna Taylor). Hampton’s internal life is kept at a careful distance here, as the movie is more interested in his Political Importance, especially in his ability to captivate & motivate large, diverse crowds with passionate speeches about wealth distribution & racist police-state violence. Our POV character is the undercover FBI informant who sold Hampton out to the pigs, Bill O’Neal, played by LaKeith Stanfield. At its most enthralling, the movie focuses on Stanfield’s self-conflicted & self-loathing inability to stop the momentum of Hampton’s assassination once he’s already pushed those events in motion. He gradually realizes how insidious of a lie it is that the FBI frames the Black Panther Party to be just as hateful & anti-American as the Ku Klux Klan (a lie that I remember being taught as a kid myself), but by then his betrayal has already snowballed out of his control, which accounts for most of the film’s dramatic tension.

Judas and the Black Messiah is caught between two extremes; it achieves neither the thrilling undercover-cop genre subversion of a BlacKkKlansman nor the exquisite art-film portraiture of a If Beale Street Could Talk. In most ways it’s a firmly middle-of-the-road actors’ showcase meant to earn Awards Season buzz for its two central performers, something the movie even directly jokes about when an FBI agent muses that Stanfield’s informant “deserve(s) an Academy Award” for his deception. Kaluuya & Stanfield both deserve awards; they’re among the best working actors we’ve got. It’s just that they most often traffic in the kinds of high-concept genre films that don’t typically get recognized by the Academy (titles like Get Out, Widows, Sorry to Bother You, and Uncut Gems). This is the kind of work they have to put in to earn mainstream accolades, so the best we can do is celebrate that they’re not being used to voice mainstream rhetoric.

Judas and the Black Messiah is at least not a birth-to-death biopic of Fred Hampton; it’s a snapshot of him at the height of his power, arguing for the effectiveness of Revolution over the empty promise of Gradual Reform. Using the Awards Season movie machine to get people re-incensed over Hampton’s execution is a genuine, real-world good. The format might be a little dusty & traditional, but the politics are as relevant & vital as ever.

-Brandon Ledet

Bright Young Things (2003)

It’s incredible that I didn’t catch Bright Young Things when it was still fresh in the mid-aughts. I was in college at the time, and hopelessly attracted to mid-tier indie films about queer libertines who made fabulously debaucherous lives out of indulging in drugs & gender-fuckery: Party Monster, Breakfast on Pluto, The Naked Civil Servant, etc. (as well as their better-funded equivalent in titles like Velvet Goldmine and Hedwig & The Angry Inch). A portrait of wealthy 1930s socialites enjoying the lull between wars with some lavish drag parties, booze, and cocaine, the semi-historical biopic Bright Young Things would have majorly appealed to me at the time. It’s basically a slightly classier, extremely British version of Party Monster — distinguished only by its staggering cast: James McAvoy, Michael Sheen, Emily Mortimer, Stockard Channing, Dan Aykroyd, David Tennant, Jim Broadbent, Peter O’Toole, Richard E. Grant, Jim Carter, and one-time director Steven Fry. Even watching it for the first time now, I enjoyed the film far more than I should have. If I had seen it as an impressionable young lush in desperate need of fabulous, crossdressing wastoids to look up to, I almost certainly would have worn that cheap-o second-hand DVD to dust.

Smartly, the film chooses an outsider who aspirationally looks up to the Bright Young Things as its audience-surrogate protagonist, matching the wide-eyed admiration of its target audience. It’s easy to piss away your youth and inherited wealth if you’re born into affluence. It’s a much more difficult trick to pull off for a starving artist who’s living a Bohemian lifestyle because of their class rather than their whims. The best our protagonist writer in search of a steady paycheck can hope for is to be taken in as an amusing pet by his fabulously wealthy friends (while scrounging up some chump change publicizing their decadence in the tabloids under the pseudonym Mr. Chatterbox). It’s a grift that can only last so long, which works out fine since the Bright Young Things themselves could only use London as their personal playground for as long as the world was willing to sit idle between wars. It’s a brilliant POV for the film to take, since the writer’s main motivation is to tag along as his crossdressing, gin-guzzling friends quip and party-hop from one novelty amusement to the next. His “journey” as their adopted working-class pet lands close enough to the ideal audience’s POV to highlight the film’s main attractions (boozy fancy dress parties where jaded artsy types complain “I’ve never been so bored in my entire life” despite the never-ending carnival enveloping them), while also bland enough to not get in their way.

There’s probably an excellent movie to be made about how privileged, unfulfilling, and spiritually toxic the real-life Bright Young Things’ debauchery truly was, but this isn’t it. It makes some last-minute gestures towards that kind of criticism as the party inevitably ends, but its heart really isn’t in it. The movie is much more vibrantly alive in its earliest stretches where everything is champagne, cocaine, drag, and roses, which makes it more of an aspirational wealth fantasy than anything genuinely critical or introspective. And that’s okay! The cast is brimming with delightful performers, all allowed by Fry’s hands-off direction to be as exuberantly charming as they please (with only Tennant being tasked to play a slimy turd so that there’s a vague shape of a villain to feign conflict). I might have been charmed to the point of obsession had I caught this aspirational lush fantasy as a teenager, but even now I was charmed to the point of enjoying the film far more than it likely deserves. Everyone loves a good party, and unfortunately it takes a certain amount of money & lack of self-awareness to throw one. As a frivolous adult who has worn a tuxedo & lipstick combo to a party this year (pre-COVID, mind you; I’m not a monster), I was helpless to enjoying the spectatorship of these staged parties in particular, despite my better judgement.

-Brandon Ledet

Pride (2014)

Sometimes political action looks like putting a brick through a window or spitting in the face of abusive cops who could (gladly) do much worse to you in return. We’re currently living through such urgent times, where the public execution of George Floyd has incited mass #BlackLivesMatter protests around the globe, which have been needlessly escalated by police. This is coincidentally happening at the start of Pride month, when political protest annually takes the form of parades & parties, a celebration of communities whose mere existence is in opposition to oppressors who’d rather see them dead. Both of these grandly conspicuous forms of political action are valid – vital, even. That’s a point that’s worth remembering in a time when major media outlets & self-appointed pundits at home will actively attempt to discredit them for demonstrating in “the wrong way.”

The 2014 film Pride opens with depictions of similarly conspicuous political action: a mass of ruthless bobbies beating down a crowd of working-class joe-schmoes for daring to stand up for themselves during the 1980s U.K. miners’ strike, followed by a dramatic recreation of a 1980s London Pride march. To its credit, though, the film doesn’t fully glamorize political organization & protest as romantic, action-packed heroism for the majority of its runtime. It instead paints an honest picture of what the bulk of political action looks like on a daily, boots-on-the-ground basis: it’s tedious, thankless, and mostly uneventful. Pride is realistic about how unglamorous the daily mechanisms of year-round protest are. It focuses more on the distribution of pamphlets, the repetitive collection of small donations, and the under-the-breath verbal mockery from passersby that make up the majority of political organization, rather than extraordinary moments like now, where more drastic actions are necessary. And it manages to make these well-intentioned but mundane routines feel just as radical & punk-as-fuck as smashing in a cop car window. It proudly blares Pete Seger’s union organizing anthem “Solidarity Forever” in the background as a rousing call to arms for a life decorated with chump-change collection buckets & hand-out leaflets that are immediately tossed to the ground.

Where Pride is incredibly honest about how mundane most political organization is, it’s shamelessly artificial & schmaltzy about the messy lives & passions of the human beings behind those collective actions. This is a feel-good historical drama about gay & lesbian activists in 1980s London who stuck out their necks to show solidarity with striking coal miners in Wales, modeled after the real-life organizational efforts of the Gays and Lesbians Support the Miners alliance. It’s basically an improved revision of Kinky Boots that genuinely strives for authentic, meaningful political observations about the overlapping struggles of queer urban youths and the working-class townies who are socialized to bully them instead of recognizing them as comrades. The only hiccup is that it’s ultimately just as safe (and weirdly sexless) as feel-good queer stories like Kinky Boots that erase the personal quirks & humanistic faults of its gay characters to smooth them out into inspiring, inhuman archetypes. There is no sex, nor sweat, nor unhinged fury in this film – just politics. And it remarkably gets just by fine on those politics alone because it actually has something to say about class solidarity & grassroots political organization, especially in the face of stubborn institutions who’d rather die than acknowledge your comradery.

Part of what makes this vision of community organization in sexless, tedious action somehow riveting is the collective charms of its cast, which is brimming with recognizable Brits. Dominic West is the closest the film comes to allowing a character to fully run wild, as an elder statesman of his queer political circle who’s prone to partying himself into a mad state of debauchery. Bill Nighy is his polar opposite, playing a bookishly reserved small-towner who’s so shaken up by the political yoots who invade his union hall that he comes just short of stammering “Wh-wh-what’s all this gaiety then?” Andrew “Hot Priest” Scott carries the cross as the film’s Gay Misery cipher—suffering small-town PTSD in the return to his childhood stomping grounds in Wales—but he gives such an excellent performance in the role that it somehow lands with genuine emotional impact. A baby-faced George MacKay is deployed as the bland, fictional, fresh-out-of-the-closet protagonist who makes gay culture feel safe & unalienating to outsiders who might be turned off by someone less “accessible”, but he somehow manages to mostly stay out of the way. We check in to watch him gay-up his record collection with Human League LPs and experience his first (and the film’s only) same-gender makeout at a Bronski Beat concert, but he’s mostly relegated to the background. The film’s class solidarity politics are always allowed to stand front & center as the main attraction, and the cast is only there to be charming enough to make standing on the sidewalk with a small-donations bucket seem like a cool & worthwhile way to spend your youth, for the betterment of your comrades.

A lot of Pride‘s historical setting dissociates its political messaging from our current moment. George Floyd-inspired protests aside, gay pride marches meant something completely different at the height of 1980s AIDS-epidemic homophobia than they do now, and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative tyranny has since become more of a political symbol than an active threat. The mundane day-to-day mechanics of community organization have largely remained the same over the decades, however, so the film chose a fairly sturdy basket to store all its eggs in. It’s difficult to make the daily routines of political organization seem sexy & cool, because the truth of it is so draining & unglamorous (until it’s time to throw a brick). Pride doesn’t bother with the sexy part, but it’s got plenty of energizing, inspiring cool to spare, which is at the very least a more useful achievement than what you’ll find in most feel-good gay dramas of its ilk.

-Brandon Ledet

Suffragette (2015)

EPSON MFP image

three star

Suffragette is a costume drama set in an early 20th Century London in which working class women frustrated with the women’s suffrage movement’s lack of progress gained through years of peaceful protest decide to stake their claim through civil disobedience. You can pretty much guess how the film goes from there, as there are very few stylistic embellishments provided to distinguish the film from the majority of its genre. Much of Suffragette is a dutiful catalog of the daily injustices a typical working-class woman might’ve suffered a century ago, including domestic abuse, the tyranny of the second shift, lack of rights in terms of child custody or property ownership, rampant sexual assault from male authority figures, more work for less pay, and a brutal class system that essentially amounted to lifelong indentured servitude for the less-than-fortunate. In response to these oppressive forces, lofty proclomations are announced for the audience’s benefits, phrases like “All my life I’ve been respectful, done what men told me. I know better now,” “If you want me to respect the law, then make the law respectable,” and “You’re a mother, Maude. You’re a wife. My wife. That’s what you’re meant to be.” “I’m not just that anymore.” The rest of the dialogue is mostly comprised of the film’s “suffragettes” greeting each other by name at various political rallies in long strings of “Edith.” “Maude.” “Violet.” Etc. There’s some genuine tension achieved through the gradual escalation of violence in the women’s various protests, but for the most part Suffragette‘s significance as entertainment depends heavily on how you feel about straightforward costume dramas as a genre. As for me, I thought it was pretty alright.

Perhaps the only real surprise Suffragette brings to the table is the way it also plays like a wartime drama. Filmed in drab earth tones & grimly scored, the film literally pits men & women together as opposite sides in a hard-fought war. Police stations function as war rooms, women train themselves (often through montage) to look tough by not crying & to fight hand-to-hand, violence escalates from smashed window displays of shops to homemade bombs, men detect & dissect weaknesses in their ranks, and so on. Suffragette seems very much aware of its war movie tendencies & draws a distinctly linear, A-B progression from how the idea that “It’s deeds, not words that will get us the vote” leads directly to the assertion that “We burn things because war is the only language men understand.” It’s, of course, a well-justified shift in protest tactics, since the men in charge were highly unlikely to budge from their stance that “Women are well represented by their fathers, brothers, and husbands” without intense physical provocation. As far as war films go, Suffragette is light on both violence & battlefield strategic planning, but that genre context is still undeniable.

If Suffragette suffers one particular Achilles heel that hinders it from exceeding its genre limitations, it’s in the film’s pacing. As a mildly-fictionalized historical overview of a specific moment of tribulation in London’s past, the film feels the need to hit a wide range of plot points like it’s dutifully fulfilling a checklist. The always-welcome Carey Mulligan is perfectly engaging as the protagonist Maude, but the way the movie moves through her various victories & degradations rarely leaves enough room for her moments of crisis to properly land will full impact. Just like how Maude is sort of swept up by the suffragette movement around her without ever intending to become an activist, her run-ins with threatened imprisonment, police brutality, troubled relationships with family & employers, and subsequent public shaming all feel like natural, easy-to-come-by progressions instead of the moments of utter devastation that they could have been if they had allowed to properly breathe. In a lot of ways the sole moment the film allows the proper reverence for is an overblown Meryl Streep cameo in which the universally-loved actress is treated like royalty as she briskly passes through the film (even though she”s prominently featured on the poster). Not helping at all is a steady-as-she-goes score from Grand Buddapest Hotel‘s Alexandre Desplat. The score sounds fine, but it rarely escalates to match the action, so that the whole runtime just sort of runs together with very little tonal distinction.

I almost hate to say it, since it plays into the current cultural tidal shift in media preference, but Suffragette might have been better served as a television show or a one-off mini-series than as a feature film. The movie covered a little too much ground to establish any significantly intimate moments with its characters and as a result I really felt the back & forth war of the sexes would’ve played much better over the course of 20 hours instead of 2. As is, it’s a serviceable genre film that melds the finer aspects of the costume drama & the war film into a just-alright compromise of the two aesthetics. It’s pretty much destined to be mid-afternoon easy-viewing for a certain kind of target audience. And there are certainly much worse fates than that.

-Brandon ledet