Martin Sheen

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

Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut

04/09/19

Some film directors have an unfortunate habit of revisiting their earlier successes and producing new versions of them. But is it always the wisest move?

Apocalypse Now is a good case in point. It’s rightfully acclaimed as one of the greatest war (and anti-war) movies ever made, but Francis Ford Coppola will keep returning to the well and tinkering with his masterpiece. Now here we are on the 40th anniversary of its release and he’s gone and done it again, assembling a version that weighs in at a hefty three hours and two minutes.

I first saw the original in 1979, when it was a mere at two hours and twenty-seven minutes. It had been a weird kind of day. Cycling through Manchester, I was kicked off my bike by a football supporter through the open window of a passing car. Understandably shaken, I found a young policeman, helpfully hiding in a shop doorway, who told me that a visiting football team was running riot in the city centre. He advised me to ‘lie low’ for a while.

A bit further along Deansgate, the ABC Cinema was showing Apocalypse Now, and a war movie felt somehow appropriate. So in I duly trooped and was promptly blown away by what I saw. Coppola’s transposition of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to the jungles of war-torn Vietnam felt masterful. Indeed, I watched it again only a few weeks later at the infamous Aaben cinema, where it was given added mystique by the fact that pretty much everybody at the screening was smoking dope. Er… far out.

But then in 2001 along came Redux and, with it, an extra forty-nine minutes of footage that had been excised from the theatrical release, including the French Plantation Sequence – three words that still strike horror into my heart. This seemingly interminable section where Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) eats a meal and is given a long lecture on Vietnam’s troubled history by the plantation owner has the unfortunate effect of stopping the film dead in its tracks. Was I the only movie fan who, on seeing the words ‘The Final Cut,’ fervently hoped that Coppola had actually shortened the running time by taking a large pair of scissors to this bit?

No such luck. There’s even more of it now. And it fatally wounds the film.

The problem is, it’s followed by the (already glacially slow) final set piece and any goodwill that the previous two thirds has earned itself evaporates all too quickly, as we watch Marlon Brando sitting in the darkness and mumbling incoherently. ¬†Also, it must be said, that the ending – based on Conrad’s colonial-era novel with its white saviour storyline – looks a little dodgy when examined in the cold light of the present day.

A pity then, because – as ever – the film looks absolutely gorgeous, especially on the huge Imax screen. Many of the scenes have passed into movie legend, together with quotes from John Milius’s script (‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’ – ‘Charlie don’t surf!’ – ‘Terminate with extreme prejudice,’ to name but three). The helicopter battle scenes are unparalleled and the film expertly portrays the complete insanity of war, depicting Willard’s upriver journey as a dark descent into his own battle-damaged psyche. Oh, and there’s also fun to be had watching out for early performances by Harrison Ford and Laurence Fishburne in supporting roles.

The original Apocalypse Now is undoubtedly a brilliant and unforgettable piece of cinema. This version (and it almost hurts me to say it) squanders its own strengths by giving its director free reign to put back things that were, for very sound reasons, removed in the first place. Those with weak bladders take note: time your toilet break to coincide with Willard’s arrival at the French plantation.

And take your time. Trust me, you won’t miss anything.

4 stars

Philip Caveney