Jesse Plemons

Judas and the Black Messiah

25/03/21

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

El Camino

18/10/19

Billed as ‘a Breaking Bad Movie,’ this Netflix orginal plays more like an extended episode of the much-loved television series, but that’s no bad thing. There are some loose ends that need tying up and writer/director Vince Gilligan gives it his best shot here. The titular vehicle is, of course, the one in which Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) finally makes his escape from the evil Nazi villains who have kept him locked up for so long.

Immediately, there are a few problems. The actors have clearly aged considerably more than the few minutes that are supposed to have elapsed since we last saw the characters. This is particularly evident in the case of Todd (Jesse Plemons), who now has an entirely different physique. However, once this abberation has been taken on board, the film motors along at full throttle, as Jesse sets about trying to engineer his disappearance off the face of the planet.

His first port of call is with old comrades, Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), the latter delivering what is probably the film’s most poignant line. As Jesse struggles to put together enough money to fund his disappearing act, the narrative becomes ever more convoluted, ever more dangerous – and there are regular flashbacks that allow deceased characters to make cameo appearances. Some fare better than others, and its a shame to note that the one we wanted to see more than any other, doesn’t really have an awful lot to add to the story. And fans of Better Call Saul are, I’m afraid, set for disappointment.

Gilligan’s familiar tropes are here: the big skies and sun-blasted landscapes of Alburquerque; the focus on the endearing oddities of the characters; the idiosyncratic dialogue. Despite his changed appearance, it’s Plemons who shines most as the psycopathic Todd, never more interesting than when he’s at the wheel of his car, singing serenely along to a slushy ballad while he transports the body of his latest victim to its last resting place. Sad too, to note the final performance from the recently deceased Robert Forster as the mysterious Ed.

This keeps me engaged right through to its tender and rather touching conclusion but, while it serves as a decent curtain-closer to the series, it doesn’t exactly blow me away. Perhaps too much time has elapsed since I last engaged with Mr Pinkman and co – or maybe those loose ends just don’t offer enough knots to unravel.

3.9 stars

Philip Caveney