Review: Judas and the Black Messiah (King, 2020)

Starring: LaKeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Jesse Plemons

Rating: B

The Black Panther Party is inarguably one of the most important political groups to form during 20th century America, so I don’t blame anyone walking into this film scared that they will be portrayed poorly and flat out inaccurately (the Hollywood conservative wet dream of Forrest Gump comes to mind). Thankfully, Judas and the Black Messiah shows the peerless organization for what it is: a revolutionary collective of individuals fighting the oppressive capitalist state’s blatantly racist system with mutual aid, education, and solidarity. A system still as prevalent as ever today, making this film essential viewing with consideration of the vicious murders of unarmed Black Americans George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others by the police. 

LaKeith Stanfield plays Bill O’Neil, a low level crook who’s taken in by Hoover’s FBI to go under cover at the Black Panther Chicago chapter. Influenced by both extortion and a little cash, Bill takes the bait and quickly joins the ranks of the revolutionary group as an informant. Leader and extraordinary figurehead Fred Hampton, played with endless charisma by Daniel Kaluuya, keeps Bill within a tight circle as they bring marginalized groups of Chicago together with inspired speeches and action of legitimate solidarity. 

O’Neil’s conflict as he grows closer to Hampton while maintaining his relationship to FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Plemons) makes every sequential scene grow with anxiety and despair. We know how this is going to end, and the bumps along the way make it harder to watch. Seeing Stanfield, a great actor, play Bill, a not-so-great “actor” in situations to prove himself to his comrades, is legitimately thrilling, and watching Kaluuya channel Hampton’s natural leadership to perfection is inspired. 

The film, however, can only find fault in that it has too much trust in its audience. The two hour runtime could’ve afforded an extra half-hour or more to add weight to both Hampton and the Black Panthers in general. It presupposes the audience is already familiar with Fred and his group (as we should), but we’re given very little to see them in action. When we do, the results are mixed. There’s an undeniably goofy sequence in which Fred and the Panthers crash a confederate flag draped all-white community meeting, and in less than five minutes, he has the crowd clapping along to Fred’s speech of working class solidarity to the Black Panther movement. The message itself is no doubt great, but the pacing in which this otherwise confrontational group can be swooned is a bit much. 

If anything deserves an epic-scaled runtime, it’s this important true story of America’s past and present efforts to dismantle class and race consciousness. We deserve more of Kaluuya’s masterful leadership, more of Stanfield’s viscerally felt conflict, and more Black revolutionary storytelling. Would this have worked better as a longform HBO Max miniseries? Maybe, but what we got is still worth writing home about. 

Review: Minari (Chung, 2020)

Starring: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Youn Yuh-jung

Grade: A

Watching Minari feels like a miracle. This movie is so quiet, so delicate, and yet so profound, it’s as though we don’t deserve it in this haunted brink-of-extinction timeline of rotating despair. Our collective cynicism makes scoffing at narratives about family and faith easy, while stepping into culturally sensitive subjects with trepidation. This story of a Korean family starting a farm in Reagan-era Arkansas on the insistence of masculine stubbornness is so achingly human, it could win over the most critical viewer who typically brushes off any affirmation of sentiment.

After ten years of working in a California hatchery, Korean immigrants Jacob (Yeun) convinces his wife Monica (Han) decide to move to Arkansas to fulfill his dream of starting a farm on his own terms. Their adolescent children, David (Alan S. Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho) make up their family unit, living all together in a dilapidated mobile home on their five acre property. With little help besides the devout Christian farmer Paul (Will Patton), Jacob begins the process of growing Korean vegetables on the land, hitting roadblock after roadblock, while Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh-jung) comes to stay with them. 

The family dynamic of generational divide anchors Minari – Soonja speaks no English, Jacob and Monica some, and David and Anne are fluently bilingual. The disconnect of Soonja and David is the most prominent, at one point David heartbreakingly argues that he does’t want to share a room with his grandmother because she “smells like Korea”. Her traditions frighten him, her literal foreignness highlighting his first-generational experience from such a young age that pits Americans against the “other”, for him, his own family. 

So how can someone be at once Korean and American? The otherizing by the white populace of Minari cuts deep. From the patronizing fetishizing of churchgoers describing Monica as “adorable” to a young boy nonchalantly asking David why his face is flat, the family is always the investigative focus of white Arkansasan eyes. 

Thus the growing of Korean-native vegetables in American soil. The trials of tribulations that Jacob puts his family through to make it work, the strain it puts on his family despite his unmoving stubbornness, this tactile conflict of person and earth and where we put our roots. All of it so subtly and beautifully handled by writer-director Lee Isaac Chung. It’s no wonder he has stated this film is semi auto-biographical, the film moves like a dream, like a personal memory gently blowing through the grass, like that of the family farm.

When David reluctantly follows his grandmother to a nearby creek, she plants minari seeds close to the water, claiming that their resilience allows them to grow anywhere. A poetic detail that mirrors the strength of their family, American immigrants, and people as a whole. 

Review: Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Hittman, 2020)

Directed by Eliza Hittman

Starring Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold and Sharon Van Etten

Rating: A

One of the rarest achievements in American cinema is landing the social-realist drama. Far too many feel hammy, forced, and have more in common with the melodrama of Douglas Sirk (unintentionally) than the manufactured authentic dire straits of De Sica. Not only does Hittman’s latest film Never Rarely Sometimes Always succeed in the balance of authenticity and drama, it surpasses it to be an essential and expertly crafted narrative, perfectly encapsulating the decaying moral ineptitudes of patriarchal structures that oppress all women in the United States. 

When seventeen year old high school student Autumn (Flanigan) finds out she’s pregnant, she has no support system to get an abortion in her rural Pennsylvania town. The city’s clinic vehemently opposes the procedure, and being underage makes it next to impossible to get help. With the support of her same-aged cousin Skylar, the two sneak away from their families to New York City to visit a Planned Parenthood. 

The camera almost never leaves Autumn’s point of view, with the frame sticking to close-ups and medium shots so that her perspective is how we experience her journey. The dark cloud of misogyny follows her from the start: being called a slut by fellow students, her father’s casual sexism, and the world which prevents young women from receiving essential medical services. Autumn’s decision for an abortion is hers and hers alone, with her agency constantly being called into question. The claustrophobia of her world is captured stunningly in the similarly breathless cinematography – we follow her journey in the tight oppressive corners, always trapped and rarely letting us breathe. 

At one point, the camera leaves her point of view and enters that of a young man staring at Skylar’s backside, and the male gaze is directly confronted, having the shame of un-consensual stares being called into question. It’s a brilliant move that clearly places the antagonist of the film as systemic patriarchal misogyny. The men of the film are the way they are because their world normalizes their behavior. There are no big, explosive scenes where the two leads confront these despicable actions. Rather, they give each other a look of solidaritythat says all you need to know.

It’s that specific quietness that makes Never Rarely Sometimes Always so essential. The uphill battle of unnecessary roadblocks for basic healthcare is exhaustive, and the film makes sure that we truly feel it. 

Review: Rewind (Neulinger, 2020)

Rewind-Documentary-PosterDirected by Sasha Joseph Neulinger

Rating: A-

The armchair expert psychological analysis of social media is that the uploader chooses what their audience sees. Basic media literacy leads to the understanding that, while someone’s life on a surface level could be terrific, it’s just a small glimpse of their day-to-day. The same can be said for the advent of cheap filming equipment, introduced to mass markets in the 80s to record directly to VHS tapes. There’s a scene early on in Neulinger’s searing documentary about familial abuse in which the subject’s father, who filmed Sasha’s childhood extensively with an aforementioned household camera, explains to him that it was only brought out to film during happier moments – celebrations, birthdays, events. As Neaulinger sifts through these old tapes, the veneer of a happy life is quickly diminished to reveal the horrific sexual abuse that he, and his sister, dealt with growing up by the hands of their family members.

Rewind is much more than the question of “how did this happen?” To rewind is to relive moments of time encapsulated with modern technologies. For someone whose earliest memories are of pain and broken trust, the bravery to rewind, to relive, is astonishing. While the film itself takes us through Sasha’s story of abuse, it also reveals deeper truths of the abuse of power and the chain of generational trauma. The childhood tapes are watched, and re-watched, with loved ones who either didn’t know or simply didn’t want to acknowledge the possibilities. The dark truth is always hiding in plain sight, enunciated with a striking ending title card that reveals that 90% of abused children know their abuser.

By making a film of these traumas is to re-contextualize the pain. No longer are these filmed documents a stain of immeasurable shame, but rather a tool to help audiences learn that this type of familial violence is rampant and needs attention. Rewind is a shout of bravery from Sasha, and simultaneously a profound documentary about the limits of documenting the truth in that of itself. We choose to show our truth with how and what we film, and this film is Sasha’s ultimate truth.