Donald Trump

Judas and the Black Messiah


Apple TV

The ‘Judas’ in this story is Bill O’Neil (LaKeith Stanfield), a petty car thief who habitually pretends to be an FBI officer in order to ply his trade. Arrested by the police, he’s approached by genuine FBI Agent, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who points out that O’Neil is now facing a lengthy stretch in prison – six months for stealing a car and five to six years for impersonating an officer.

Or, he might prefer to do the Feds a favour and become their snitch, posing as a member of the burgeoning Black Panther movement. Agree to that and he can walk free.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Bill chooses the latter option and, provided with a decent automobile by his new chums, he’s soon acting as driver to the ‘Messiah’ of the story – Black Panther Chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Hampton is a charismatic and influential mouthpiece, who has his eyes resolutely fixed on the emancipation of Black America. With this in mind, he sets about uniting the various gangs of the city into something he calls The Rainbow Coalition. The white powers-that-be are getting decidedly nervous as the Panthers’ power steadily grows and, of course, there will be consequences…

Shaka King’s slickly directed film is set in a grimy, neon-lit vision of Chicago in the 1960s, an urban powder keg perpetually battered by rain; the city almost becomes another character in the narrative. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that Plemons’ smug and smirking Roy Mitchell looks uncannily like Donald Trump and that Martin Sheen’s oily turn as J. Edgar Hoover eerily evokes the oleaginous style of Rudy Giuliani – but I’m inclined to think otherwise. At any rate, the screenplay makes no bones about it. These are power-mad Machiavellian types, who will stop at nothing to assert their absolute authority.

Daniel Kaluuya’s career has soared meteorically since starring in Get Out and he certainly makes the most of his role here. Hamptons incendiary sermons make it easy to understand why he holds so much sway over his disciples – and why the white rulers of America are terrified of his influence. Little wonder the performance has generated substantial Oscar buzz. Stanfield too is excellent in what is arguably the more difficult role, clearly showing in every frame how conflicted his character is, how degraded by participation in Mitchell’s schemes. As well as providing a thrilling narrative, Judas and the Black Messiah is also extremely informative, filling in many of the gaps in my knowledge of the Black Panther movement. When I was a youngster, its members were always painted as evil troublemakers. In retrospect, it’s easy to see that right was on their side.

The list of injustices meted out to Black Panther members is long and shameful – a callous list of beatings, wrongful imprisonments and murders, mostly inflicted on people whose main ambition was to be free. It’s sometimes hard to believe that the incidents portrayed here happened in my own lifetime – and it’s also sobering to reflect that so little has changed since then.

And, lest I try to console myself by saying, ‘well, it was another time,’ the film’s poignant coda reveals exactly what happened to O’Neil, decades after the turbulent events portrayed here.

Shame is clearly something that lasts a lifetime.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney



It was perhaps inevitable that #MeToo would eventually inspire a movie and it’s rather ironic that the first one out of the gate has been written and directed by men – moreover, the director is Hal Roach, previously best known for the Austin Powers films, a franchise that never troubled itself overmuch with the subject of women’s rights. Nonetheless, Bombshell is a powerful and prescient story that takes a close look at the Fox News scandal and the people who lived through it.

Charlize Theron plays Megyn Kelly, Fox’s most influential news anchor, who, at the film’s opening, is exchanging excoriating words with one Donald Trump, an event that will put her on the Republican party’s shit list for an entire year. Kelly has long ago learned to co-exist with Fox News’s all-powerful boss, Roger Aisles (the usually avuncular John Lithgow, cast against type here as a loathsome philanderer). Aisles constantly keeps an eye peeled for new opportunities and soon finds it with the arrival of ambitious young TV producer, Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie). Kayla has a yen to step in front of the cameras herself. The question is, how much will Aisles demand to help her achieve that ambition?

Meanwhile, another veteran presenter, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), finds her power at the network fading. She’s already been shunted to a less prestigious afternoon slot because of her refusal to kowtow to Mr Aisles’ increasingly sexist demands – and, when she is summarily sacked for no good reason other than she is getting older, she decides to sue Aisles for wrongful dismissal. She hopes that other women who have suffered at his hands will join her cause but, as she soon discovers, many employees at Fox (including Kelly) have too much to lose to risk incurring the wrath of the network…

Charles Randolph’s screenplay does a pretty thorough job of depicting the toxic atmosphere at Fox News during this period. Both Theron and Kidman, sporting convincing prosthetics to make them look more like the genuine players, offer their customary assured performances, but are perhaps hampered by the fact that, when playing real life personalities, finding their inner life can be problematic. It’s therefore Robbie who is the real revelation here. Since her character is a fiction, an amalgam of Aisles’ many victims over the years, she has more freedom to explore the role – and runs with it. The scene where Aisles compels her to ‘give him a twirl’ is an object lesson in understatement, the character’s hidden turmoil brilliantly expressed in every movement and gesture – while later on her tearful phone conversation with a female friend is emotive stuff. Lithgow too is excellent, horribly convincing as the oleaginous Aisles, a man who can make the very act of breathing look unpleasant.

I like the unflinching realism here. There’s no female bonding on display, no sense of the women working together for a common purpose – indeed, the major protagonists of this story barely exchange half a dozen words with each other. It’s a sobering demonstration of how personal ambitions can get in the way of a greater good. But that makes it all the more believable, more like something that could actually happen in such a cutthroat, competitive world.

Watch out for a cameo from Malcolm McDowell as a (pretty convincing) Rupert Murdoch and don’t miss the closing captions, which point out how the guilty parties in this debacle came away with (surprise, surprise) a lot more money than its supposed victors.

Bombshell may be the first film to properly explore the subject of  #MeToo, but I’m quite sure it won’t be the last. And, for a opening salvo, this hits most of its targets.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Fahrenheit 11/9



It’s rare that I emerge from a cinema shaking with anger, but that is exactly how I feel after watching Michael Moore’s latest offering, Fahrenheit 11/9. As you’ll doubtless surmise from the title, it’s his investigation of the phenomenon of ‘President’ Donald Trump. But it’s actually much more than that. This is a documentary that questions the very existence of democracy itself, demonstrating again and again that, in contemporary America, the original meaning of the word has been consistently devalued until it is nothing more than a hollow shell, a travesty of its former self.

The film has been accused by many as being ‘scattershot,’ but I don’t believe it is. True, it  examines a whole range of topics, but they are expertly drawn together to illustrate one central point: Moore’s belief that his country is fatally wounded and rapidly expiring. It is, if anything, a prolonged howl of anger and remorse. ‘How could this happen?’ Moore asks us, repeatedly. ‘How could it be allowed to happen?’

Sure, he takes in the rise of Trump, comparing it to the ascent of the Nazi party in Germany after the First World War, even going so far as to show footage of one of the Fuhrer’s rallies overlaid with lines from Trump’s speeches. It ought to be a cheap shot, but I’m afraid it works all too convincingly.  He also offers footage of Trump in earlier times, where the clues to his repugnant personality were already there for all to see.

Moore returns to the situation in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, the subject of his first film, Roger & Me in 1989, where the mostly black inhabitants were (and unbelievably, still are) being forced to use a water supply that is contaminated with lead. (There is a clean water supply available but it’s reserved… for washing engine parts.)

It looks at the recent situation where teachers – fed up with being paid peanuts and irate at being obliged to demonstrate their fitness regime in order to access healthcare –  were obliged to instigate a strike in order to receive better treatment. And it looks at the Parkland School shooting where pupils came together to protest about what happened and managed to mobilise huge rallies across America. It’s only in these two areas that we are offered any rays of hope, the proof that ordinary people can effect change if they get off their backsides and do something – but, as Moore observes in an early scene, there are over a hundred million Americans who don’t even bother to vote. And why would they, when they look at the sorry cavalcade of greedy, self-serving capitalists that are trotted out as candidates?

This doesn’t make for a pleasant trip to the cinema. It’s a shocking, excoriating journey to the dark side and, worst of all, it isn’t a slice of dystopian fiction: this is happening, right now – in the place that likes to boast that it’s ‘the land of the free.’

If you want a fuller picture of what’s really happening to democracy in the USA, I urge you to go and see this film. But don’t expect an easy ride.

5 stars

Philip Caveney