Judas and the Black Messiah
One good thing about the year 2021 in movies is that we might get two Oscar seasons. Usually the deadline to qualify for a year’s Oscar race is the end of the calendar year, so December is often loaded with awards-chasers. But because there were so many releases pushed back in 2020, the Academy has decided to extend the deadline two months, so last-minute Oscar bait is actually opening now, in February 2021. Hopefully the system can be restored by the end of the year, meaning that we’ll get one margin of Oscar eligibility that lasts fourteen months followed by one that lasts ten months. “Judas and the Black Messiah” is a film that is shrewdly positioning its release date at the end of the fourteen-month frame. And it is wise to do so, because I can see this film doing very well in the Oscar race.
The film follows the Black Panther movement in Chicago in the late 1960’s. Illinois State Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) is spouting the kind of fiery rhetoric that could lead to social and political upheaval. What he wants is nothing short of a revolution. This naturally freaks out those dedicated to maintaining the status quo, like the FBI, led by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, in yet another onscreen depiction of Hoover that involves horrendous makeup). Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemmons) taps lowlife car thief William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) to infiltrate Hampton’s circle and serve as an informant in return for dropping some criminal charges. Technically the betrayer O’Neal is the main character of the film, much like how the antagonist Salieri is the main character in “Amadeus,” minus the whole “insane jealousy” angle.
Hampton is under no delusion that he’s not under constant surveillance or that his life isn’t constantly in danger. He knows he’ll probably be assassinated like fellow leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. But he wants to make a difference while he can, setting up educational programs for disadvantaged children and organizing warring gangs into the Rainbow Coalition. When his friends sense that his days are numbered, they give him some money to flee the country, but he turns it over to a comrade, telling him to start a health clinic. This is much to the chagrin of his pregnant girlfriend Deborah (Dominique Fishback), who worries that Hampton is acting without considering the consequences to his unborn child.
O’Neal is very much taken with the charismatic Hampton, and as a fellow African-American, agrees with much of what he says about white oppression. But Mitchell warns him that Hampton’s way is not one of peace, and it can only end badly. Also, he’s still got those charges to work off. The time for him to play Judas to Hampton’s Black Messiah is nigh. O’Neal is so affected by the role he has to play that he’s practically crying when he offers Hampton a tainted drink. A barely-conscious Hampton is later assassinated (sorry if that’s a spoiler for a film whose very title equates Hampton with the most famous martyr in history) in a manner sure to draw comparisons to the domestic murder of Breonna Taylor.
At the heart of “Judas and the Black Messiah” is the fully-dedicated Kaluuya performance, virtually a lock for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, if not the win. I could see Fishback slipping into the Best Supporting Actress race as well, and even the movie for Best Picture. I haven’t seen many of the direct-to-streaming awards contenders, so I don’t know where this film falls in relation to them, but this is certainly a film that screams “award-worthy.” In fact, it’s better than any film released in the year 2020 that I reviewed. And it’s only February. I always recommend seeing movies in theaters for the sake of supporting theaters, but now there’s a movie that’s worth going out of your way to see.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is playing in theaters and available for streaming on HBO Max. The film is rated R for violence and pervasive language. Its running time is 126 minutes.
Since September of last year when the film won top prizes at both the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals, it has been clear that Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” would dominate awards season. Mind you, awards season itself was in question, with all the delays and compromises that affected all institutions in the last year. But whenever awards season was going to take place, “Nomadland” was going to be there to pounce on it and devour its many accolades. Now the film has opened, both in theaters and streaming on Hulu (try to see it in theaters if you can, though with my work schedule I had to settle for Hulu), and it’s frankly it’s not doing too well at the box office. But I have a feeling that things are going to change this coming weekend with the Golden Globe Awards, and even more in a few weeks when Oscar nominations are announced. People are going to want to see this film that is all over those programs.
The film follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow from a mining town so economically downtrodden, its zip code was recently decommissioned. Unable to find work and seeing little value in her house, she sets out on a new life living out of her van. It’s no ramshackle operation – she makes it rather homey, given the circumstances – but nobody is going to mistake this thing for a full-scale mobile home. Characters throughout the film debate whether she should be counted as “homeless,” and there’s a good case on both sides of the issue.
There’s no one central conflict or storyline to this movie, we’re simply along for the ride with Fern as she bounces around from place to place. Other characters are almost entirely other nomads. There’s David (David Strathairn, much more subtle here than with his usual broad/theatrical roles), who becomes Fern’s boyfriend of sorts, convincing her at one time to move to a small town and become a waitress. Bob (Bob Wells) is the prophetic leader of the nomad community who sees the movement growing as the economy continues to tank. The film is set ten years ago, and one can’t help but wonder how it will fare in this era, maybe even because of this movie. Swankie (a mononymous actress named Swankie) is a seasoned nomad determined to not let life pass her by. You may have noticed that most of these characters are named for their actors. Fern may very be well be short for Frances (it’s got the consonants in the right order), and there’s a quick mention of a reservation being under M-C-D.
As played by McDormand, Fern is a memorable character, but she’s also incredibly relatable. Her van could be parked across the street from your house and you would consider her an unofficial neighbor. There’s no swinging-for-the-fences Oscar baiting here, which ironically is what people respect about the performance and why they want to reward it. McDormand has a Best Actress Oscar all but in the bag at this point, and it’s worth mentioning that I could also see Strathairn getting into the Best Supporting Actor race and maybe even Swankie for Best Supporting Actress.
Not much happens in “Nomadland” besides simple conversations and contemplative looks at scenery. Yet so much passion is put into every scene and shot that it seems like there’s zero fat on this movie. It’s like reading Shakespeare – it’s probably not high on the list of things you “want” to do, but if you push yourself to take it in, you’ll appreciate its brilliance.
NOTE: The film’s R rating for “some full nudity” is a joke. There’s about three seconds where Fern bathes in a lake. I highly doubt that any kid who can handle a PG-13, heck, PG movie can’t handle this scene. While I don’t realistically see many kids clamoring to see this movie, I don’t think it should be disqualified from family viewing based strictly on its rating.
“Nomadland” is playing in theaters and available for streaming on Hulu. The film is rated R for some full nudity. Its running time is 107 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.