Welcome to WeeklyWilson.com, where author/film critic Connie (Corcoran) Wilson avoids totally losing her marbles in semi-retirement by writing about film (see the Chicago Film Festival reviews and SXSW), politics and books----her own books and those of other people. You'll also find her diverging frequently to share humorous (or not-so-humorous) anecdotes and concerns. Try it! You'll like it!
Birthday dinner in downtown Austin at Fogo de Chau.
This will be a stream-of-consciousness retelling of last weekend’s Birthday Weekend in downtown Austin.
It was my husband’s birthday AND we had secured appointments for our second Pfizer Covid-19 shots at the HEB store on 7th Street. That is truly something to celebrate, since we are supposed to fly to Mexico in early April and who wants to fly to a foreign country if unvaccinated?
We started our weekend adventure about 11:15 a.m. (for a noon appointment) and went to HEB first (did you know that the last name of the owner of HEB is Butts? Just wondering…). There was really no line, so we were done there in record time and picked up all kinds of stuff for our room: pop, beer, fruit plate, doughnuts (for the morrow), vegetable plate and dip, chips, etc.
We then drove to the hotel on Rainey Street and checked in early. We found out upon checking in that it was going to cost an additional $50 to park the car overnight. Later, we would find out that it would cost an additional $20 to watch a movie in the room. So, the tab was now soaring to over $550.
Our first shot weekend, the entire bill was $150, at the Stephen K Austin Sonesta Hotel downtown on Congress Avenue, and it was quite quiet there.
Jessica and I celebrate at the Hotel VanZandt in downtown Austin.
The “live” band across the street played until midnight and then some idiot outside kept revving a motorcycle until 2 a.m. I had forgotten my omnipresent wind machine. Also, there had been no mention of their much-vaunted pool deck being under construction. (The one I show in my photo is an apartment building across the street). Nor did they mention “work on the outside of the building,” which meant that we were to keep our blinds closed unless we wanted to flash someone. I will attach a photo of the bathroom, which had a large tub overlooking the city—or, in this case, the workers outside.
There are robes in the room, but mine did not fit. There were no coffee pots. We asked that one be brought up when we checked in. It took 7 hours to get it. It made one cup of coffee and then would not work.
So, we hunkered down with the son, daughter-in-law and granddaughters to enjoy our goodies and watch Iowa in their first round of play. That went well, although Iowa would subsequently lose to Oregon, so there goes the season.
We also took advantage of the wine happy hour (5 to 6 p.m.) and, after that, went to Fogo de Chau, which I have probably misspelled, and ate.
Rainey Street on March 20-21st, Austin, TX.
This is directly across the street from the Convention Center downtown and was fairly busy. It is a chain (Brazilian Steakhouse). I think the price was $54.95 per person, but this was the son’s treat for his father’s birthday, and it was delicious. Waiters circle throughout the room constantly with roasted meats (sirloin, prime rib, chicken, pork, lamb) and they bring a very small dish of mashed potatoes to the table. Then there is a salad bar. Weirdly enough, they issue you a plastic baggie thing to use on your hand, like this is (somehow) going to protect you from spreading germs, were you to be infected with a disease of any kind. I don’t generally do much salad bar stuff, but I did take some potato salad (very bland) and two olives and some bread with butter packets. It was good that I took the bread, because the girls mainly wanted to eat bread and, at one point, they ran out of bread, which is odd. (Later, they brought some additional bread to our table, by request).
The dinner was delicious and very much appreciated. We then went back to the hotel, where we rented “Let Him Go” (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) and Craig—who had his shot first on Saturday—experienced some after-effects—(fever, chills) that put him out early. I stayed up until 2 a.m. and was very sorry that I had not brought my wind machine. I was finally forced to press my phone into service, as it has a not-that-satisfactory version of my wind machine on it.
Hotel Van Zandt, Austin, Tx.
Hotel VanZandt. Corner room. Austin, TX.
When we awakened the next morning, my phone was nearly dead and we had to check out immediately to make it to my 12:30 appointment back at HEB. We were supposed to check out at 11 a.m.. but had asked for a slightly later check-out, so we left at 11:30 a.m. As a result, we got there around noon and—fortunately—there was no one there but me, at first. They were looking for someone named “Emily.” Another Hispanic gentleman signed in with his paperwork right after me. He was first; I was second, and then the MIA Emily showed and was given her shot, following mine. It is now Monday and I have not had any fever or chills or unusual fatigue or headaches, all good things.
So, we are both vaccinated for Mexico and the birthday—which included shirts, an Amazon gift card, a Home Depot gift card, and the room, itself, (with a complimentary lime pie dessert at the restaurant) feted Craig’s 76th year on the planet.
“Demi Lovato: Dance with the Devil” (Credit: OBB Media @ the SXSW Online Film Festival 2021.)
The opening night film for this year’s SXSW Online Film Festival was the documentary “Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil.” It premiered on Tuesday night, March 16th and was directed by Michael D. Ratner.
Last year, on March 6th, SXSW in person was canceled. In 2019 the festival’s financial benefits to Austin were estimated to be $356 million, up 1.5% from 2018’s $351 million. A loss of that magnitude has been catastrophic for Austin’s live music venues, its hotels, and its restaurants. Some festival-goers are angry that they are being offered future admissions to the festival, rather than their cash back. Tickets for the online festival went for $1,600 the last year it was held in person (2019); a ticket this year for the all-online festival goes for $325.
The films this year are primarily documentaries, and “Demi Lovato: Dance with the Devil” is the opener, featuring an attitude of complete disclosure from Lovato and her staff. One staffer on the hot seat says, “I can’t believe you all are doing this. This is just lit, but okay.” She and the others—including fey best friend Matthew Scott Montgomery—proceed to describe the near-fatal overdose. There is also film from a 2018 documentary that was shot while Demi was on her “Tell Me That You Love Me” World Tour, but never released. There is footage of D.J. Khalid praising Demi’s 6 years of sobriety as she sits at the piano. Super-imposed is the information that one month later, she relapsed. Three months later she was fighting for her life in a hospital intensive care unit.
Demi’s overdose involved smoking heroin laced with fentanyl. She suffered a heart attack, three strokes, brain damage that has left her visually impaired, pneumonia and multiple organ failure. If her former assistant Jordan Jackson had not entered her bedroom when she did, Lovato would have died within five to ten minutes. The world quickly learned that Demi Lovato had overdosed, but most did not realize how serious her overdose was. As her assistant related, she looked completely blue when found and the doctors had to re-circulate her blood through a large machine in the intensive care unit to purify it before returning it to her body.
As the documentary continues and we learn of Demi’s heritage from her father, I feared for her continued health. Indeed, near the end of the piece, she claims that she is going to try the “moderation” route and former addict Elton John testifies that this approach just does not work.
Demi’s own father—who suffered from both bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia—was an alcoholic, a drug addict, and physically abused Demi’s mother, Dianna DeLaGarge (who was a former Dallas Cowboyscheerleader). Demi shares that he died alone of a drug overdose and his body was not found for days, if not weeks.
Demi says, “You really figure out who is there for you when your whole world falls away under your feet.” It appears that there are many faithful friends in Demi Lovato’s life. She was also fortunate to be able to afford expert help at the Cirque Lodge Rehabilitation facility. Demi also shared information of two previous rapes, one by the very drug dealer who brought her the near-fatal overdose that night.
I fear for Demi Lovato’s continued good health and wish her and everyone else suffering from addiction issues the very best. The incidence of fentanyl abuse has increased 540% over the past three years.
“Recovery,” a film written by Whitney Everton and Stephen Meek was my first film of Day #2 of SXSW Online Film Festival. Two sisters, Jamie (Whitney Call) and Blake (Mallory Everton) Jerikovic stage an across-the-country trip to rescue their Nanna from an old folks’ home during the pandemic.
It is one of the few—-perhaps only—films I’ve seen that completely embraces Covid-19 in its storyline. I don’t mean documentaries, of which I’ve seen several, but a feature film with Covid as a central storyline with the emphasis on the light side.
The traveling sisters (Whitney and Mallory) have actually been best friends since the age of nine in real life. The delightful home-made videos at the end confirms their easy familiarity. They are also sketch comedy veterans of “Comedy C” and do a wonderful job of embodying their characters and (for Mallory) in writing the screenplay. Comedy is not easy to write. It needs to be as light and fluffy as a souffle. These two seem like the likely heirs apparent to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.
When the film opens, Jamie (Whitney Call) is celebrating her 30th birthday. The coronavirus is not yet a thing. Jamie is a teacher of 4th graders. She is thinking about buying airline or hotel stock and investing in a pricey gym membership. Sister Blake (Mallory Everton) has just had a one-night stand with a cute guy named Scott; that is another topic of conversation. They are unaware that they are about to be frozen in time by the pandemic. In the background of the next few scenes we hear the disheartening news of 51,000 deaths on March 30 of 2020. (If nothing else, this film will be a great, but not depressing, time capsule.)
Upon learning of the ravages of coronavirus on Nana’s nursing home, the pair, headquartered in New Mexico, at first are counting on their older married sister, Erin (Julia Jolley), who lives in Washington closer to Nanna, to ride to the rescue. Paulina Jerockova (Anna SwerdHansen), their beloved Nana, needs to be moved out of the nursing home as quickly as possible—a plot point that is factual, as one-third of all deaths in the United States took place in the close quarters of nursing homes.
The husband of Whitney Call, Stephen Meek, helped write and direct this light-hearted film, and I recommend it for those who want to see the comedy stars of tomorrow.
Unfortunately, Erin (Julia Jolley) is off on a cruise with her husband. (“The tickets were so cheap,” to which the sisters in New Mexico respond, “Yes, because it’s a death trap!”)
There are so many funny things in this 80-minute film that I enjoyed, even if I did have to watch it at 10 a.m. after covering some late-night films. I was relieved to discover that it wasn’t a grim documentary about surviving some horrible illness (since I had forgotten exactly what I signed up early for), but a light-hearted distraction that audiences perfect for our time.
First, there is a sub-plot about the fourth grade class pet mice. Before the duo rides off to rescue Nana, Jamie must make arrangements for the mice to be cared for by one of her students’ families. Student Jacob Harper promises to take care of the mice, Bert and Ernie. It turns out that Ernie should have been named Ernestine and gives birth to mice babies. This does not go over well with Mrs. (Ainsley) Harper, who threatens retaliation. This plays out as a cell phone conversation
There’s a funny bit about the girls really getting into their music while driving and pounding on their car horn as they tool down the Interstate. Next to them on the highway is an elderly man on a motorcycle. The girls roll their window down to explain their innocent exuberance. Thinking that they are honking AT him, the Hell’s Angel Senior spits through the open window of their car. The panic over strange spit is merited and very funny.
There is the potential hottie “Scott,” of whom Blake says, “I seriously met him at the worst moment in history.” After sending Scott several funny (but meant to be endearing) memes, she gets a text from Scott’s roommate, saying Scott has died of Covid-19. Now THAT doesn’t sound “funny,” so….
Scott has simply panicked. He tried to think of a way out of responding appropriately to Blake’s memes. His idea of an “appropriate” response is, [after revealing that he is NOT dead], sending an inappropriate personal picture and then texting Blake to ask her for her Hulu password. (Someone calling himself “LibraryGuy” once sent me a totally unwelcome pic. Use your imagination on this one.)
The excuse for Scott’s inexplicable behavior? “He’s probably just stressed about Covid.” That, or he is incurably out-of-it, but the lengths to which Scott has gone do come off as funny in the expert comic hands of our two leads.
Then there’s Nana’s dog Bruce. The girls need to collect Bruce—who has been farmed out at at an acreage with a completely weird dog-sitter— along the way. Nanna has also been very fond of Fred, a fellow inmate in her nursing home. Fred has been making nightly visits to Nanna’s room. The girls are explicit about telling Nanna NOT to let Fred in, as he may have the coronavirus. The adventures retrieving Bruce and repelling Fred are enjoyable.
Blake and Jamie are trying desperately to be the first family members to reach Nanna’s nursing home before Erin, the older sister from the cruise ship, arrives. That, too, presents some humor, which the girls explore to the fullest. [I could really relate to the cruise ship scenario, having just come back from a cruise to Alaska before all hell broke loose.]
There is an interlude where Blake races off while divesting of the jumper shorts she is wearing. I don’t know what the accurate term for this fashion choice is, but, when pregnant, I called it my “Humpty suit.” It is largely shapeless, with straps, and very comfortable. Blake takes them off and throws them into a tree, declaring them to have been “too chafey.” You had to be there, but it just “works.”
I also really enjoyed the simple asides about how Nanna used to drive her car by using a mop handle on the accelerator. (I had a friend who used a brick, but nevermind. Really.) And then there’s the “go-to” strategy for distracting older sis Erin by asking her to share “the birth story.” [Every family has a similar story that will set one of its members off on a long stroll down memory lane.]
“Recovery” was genuinely funny and well done. I had forgotten exactly what this one was about. Stumbling out early in the day to view it after struggling through the drug overdose stories, Isis captivity stories and horrible illness films (most notably, multiple sclerosis), I was delighted to start my day with “Recovery.” Try it; you’ll like it.
“Recovery” will help us all to recover our good mood(s).
“Lily Topples the World,” SXSW Online Film Festival, 2021.
Today is March 13th, Saturday, and it sticks in my brain pan as the day that my husband and I went out to see “The Way Back” at a local cinema. The place was deserted and, when I asked about upcoming films, the news was not good.
By that weekend, we were “sheltering in place” and we were going to be sheltering in place for one full year. My hair appointments became non-existent, My nails grew out and became a problem. I was giving hair cuts to my husband. I would not enter a movie theater for 7 months to see “Tenet” at the Regal Cinema (now closed) in Moline, Illinois.
During that long Covid-19 year my husband and I would contract the virus and be sick for two weeks (in October). We would venture out perhaps twice (once to a drive-in) to see movies, but the flow of new films would cease, so the sacrifice that no movies means, to me, as a bona fide movie buff, was slightly mollified by the realization that there were very few new good films coming out. All of us were glued to our respective television sets, and that is where I would cover the Chicago International Film Festival, the Denver Film Festival, Sundance, and, this coming week, SXSW, virtually, online.
I am Press at SXSW, again, and the films I will be seeing from March 16-20 will include the following, (with reviews here and on The Movie Blog.com and perhaps a few on QuadCity.com):
Tuesday- March 16th
“Demi Lovato: Dance with the Devil” (Credit: OBB Media @ the SXSW Online Film Festival 2021.)
“Hysterical – top female comics perform in a special.
“The Oxy Kingpins” – a documentary.
“Aretha” – a documentary about Aretha Franklin
“Lily Topples the World” – young girl sets up blocks to “fall.”
“Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil” – the story of Demi Lovato’s close call with death from a drug overdose.
“The Thing That Ate the Birds” – horror
Wednesday, March 17
“The Return: Life After Isis”
“Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free” (documentary)
Waze & Odyssey” with appearances by George Michael et, al.
Not Going Quietly – feature film
United States vs. Reality Winner – a documentary about White House leaks
Thursday- March 18
“Swan Song” (Credit Chris Stephens, SXSW Online Film Festival 2021).
“Swan Song” – I actually have already seen this one, about a hairdresser called out of retirement in the nursing home to do a dead friend’s hair. The dead friend is Linda Evans (“Dynasty”). The hairdresser is German actor Udo Kier. The co-star is Stiffler’s Mom, from “American Pie,” Jennifer Coolidge. Todd Phillips directs.
“The Lost Sons” – fascinating documentary about a boy kidnapped at birth from Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago only to be returned to his parents 2 years later. Or is the boy found in New Jersey really their son? A fascinating documentary with many twists and a Chicago setting.
“The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Mary Johnson – one of the few feature length films
“Violet” – a Justine Bateman project
“Alone Together” – a documentary about Charlie XCS
“Sound of Violence”
“The Spine of Night” – animated, with voices by Patton Oswalt and others. The last 2 are “midnight fare,” meaning scary films.
Friday, March 19th
“Late Night Girls Club” – Samantha Bee and Amber Ruffin
“Cruel Summer” Q&A”
The festival does not end until Saturday, but my husband and I are scheduled to get our second Pfizer shots on Saturday and Sunday, which is his birthday. We are making a true celebration out of it, staying at the VanZandt hotel downtown in a pricey room and dining out with the son and daughter-in-law, so no closing night film for me. Check back at WeeklyWilson.com for reviews of the above.
Former Trump administration neo-Nazi and Breitbart spawn Steven Miller has been invited to address GOP members of Congress about the Democratic plan for an 8-year path to citizenship for illegal aliens.
This won’t be Miller’s first time trying to stop pro-immigrant legislation. Back when he worked for then-Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, Miller “played a key role in ensuring the failure of a comprehensive immigration bill introduced by a bipartisan group of senators who became known as the Gang of Eight,” the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) said. Miller in fact “drafted a 30-page memo that Mr. Sessions shared with the House Republican caucus,” [The New York Times, 2019].
While the Senate under former Democratic Sen. Harry Reid passed legislation by a wide, bipartisan 67-27, former Republican House Speaker John Boehner blocked it in his chamber. Now House Republicans are bringing Miller back.
“This comes on the heels of news that Donald Trump’s will address immigration in his upcoming CPAC speech. Clearly, the Republican Party is still the Party of Trump,” immigrant rights advocacy group America’s Voice said. “The GOP is doubling down on ugly xenophobia and racism rather than trying to grow its appeal and reclaim lost suburban voters.” They are also trying to clamp down on absentee voting and are actively trying to gerrymander districts that didn’t go GOP in the last presidential election.
The organization said that the “ongoing political transformation of Georgia captures the perils of this approach.”
“In Georgia, a multiracial majority—sparked by the combination of bottom-up organizing by Stacey Abrams, Republican extremism, and changing demographics—delivered two Senate seats for Democrats and flipped an important electoral college state for President Biden,” the group said in the statement. It points to a new NBC News report finding that Democrats’ most significant gains from 2008 to 2020 came from three suburban Georgia counties.
In a testament to this shift, one of those Georgia counties, Gwinnett, elected a sheriff who ran and won on ending a racist and flawed agreement with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.
Joining Miller to “brief” House Republicans are two other notoriously anti-immigrant officials from the previous administration: former acting ICE director Tom Homan, and former acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan. Mark recently became an official hate group member, joining the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti-immigrant organization deemed a hate group by the SPLC, as a “Senior Fellow.”
“Instead of changing course, working to reclaim suburban voters, and trying to expand their appeal, Republicans seem intent on speaking only to the cul-de-sac of the Trump base, re-emphasizing that white power is the beating heart of the party,” America’s Voice executive director Frank Sharry said. “They seem to gloss over the fact that Trump’s demonization of immigrants and refugees backfired badly, helping the Republican Party in the past four years to lose the White House, the Senate and the House.”
Jimmy Kimmel and Trevor Noah touched on the issues Texas has faced this week after a winter storm overwhelmed the state’s power grid, leaving millions of people without hea
“I know people were praying for Texas to go blue, but not like this,” Noah joked. “I mean, is it too much to ask for just one apocalypse at a time?”
“Some people are putting up Scotch tape and blankets. That’s not how people should keep heat in their house; that’s how you hide the weed smell from your R.A.” — TREVOR NOAH
The electricity crisis in Texas, which has its own grid to avoid federal regulation, was largely caused by freezing in the natural gas pipelines that provide the majority of the state’s power supply. But conservatives and fossil fuel advocates have blamed wind power and even the Green New Deal, a climate proposal co-sponsored by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“The main reason Texas has plunged into darkness is that its natural gas industry has been crippled by this storm. And that might — might — have been preventable, except that Texas deregulated its power supply in the ’90s, which was clearly not the wisest decision. I mean, trust me, as a man who lived through the ’90s, you should probably rethink most of the decisions you made in that decade.” — TREVOR NOAH
“And this just goes to show you, you can’t put profits over quality and safety. Money’s not worth a whole lot if you have to burn it to keep warm.” — TREVOR NOAH
“I mean, this is the state that prides itself on its oil and gas industry, and now, that industry has failed spectacularly. This would be like Jason Momoa needing help opening a pickle jar, which is probably why state officials and their allies on cable news are working so hard to blame someone else.” — TREVOR NOAH
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas “has been working hard to somehow push the blame to Democrats and the Green New Deal, which doesn’t even exist yet. And Tucker Carlson is helping him out by blaming it on windmills.” — JIMMY KIMMEL
“These guys are so desperate to just let fossil fuels off the hook, that they’re blaming A.O.C. and the Green New Deal — which, by the way, hasn’t even happened yet — for something that’s happening in Texas right now? But this just shows you, no matter what happens, no matter how far removed she is from the problem, conservatives can and will always find a way to blame the boogeyman, A.O.C. Rick Perry could have broken his arm as a kid and he would have blamed it on A.O.C.” — TREVOR NOAH
“Let’s kick off the show with the coronavirus pandemic. It’s the reason you keep refreshing vaccine websites like they’re selling Coachella tickets.” — TREVOR NOAH
“Last night, Biden promised the vaccine will be available to every American who wants it by the end of July. And then we can get back to spreading the old stuff — herpes, gonorrhea and good times!” — JIMMY KIMMEL
“The White House is said to be in talks with Amazon right now to help distribute the vaccine. The way it will work is any Prime member who can prove they’ve watched all six seasons of ‘Bosch’ will get vaccinated.” — JIMMY KIMMEL
“And with over a million Americans getting vaccinated every day, everyone is anxiously looking forward to a time when they can get back to doing normal things again, like going out to eat, or not thinking about the welfare of the people who deliver their packages.” — TREVOR NOAH
“Judas and the Black Messiah,” the bio-pic about Fred Hampton, head of the Black Panthers in Illinois in the sixties, comes to us from a dynamic team. Director Shaka King (“Newlyweeds”) had met Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”) in 2013 at Sundance. Coogler (“Black Panther”) approached Warner Brothers with 50% of the film’s financing in hand to back the picture, directed by Shaka King (“Newlyweeds”) from a story by the Lucas Brothers. They already had the cast in mind and Shaka King had connected with screenwriter Will Berson, who had been researching Hampton for some time. After some major difficulty getting to Jesse Plemons (whose agent did not return calls)—the package came together. Judas and the Black Messiah premiered at Sundance on Monday, February 1st. It will stream on HBO Max beginning February 12th.
The film is bound to earn its two leads Oscar nominations; the film itself will be a strong contender in these Black Lives Matter-influenced times for a Best Picture nomination. As the log-line for the film says, “The story of Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and his fateful betrayal by FBI informant William O’Neal.”
Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”) plays Fred Hampton, (the Black Messiah of thetitle), and Lakeith Stanfield (“Selma,” “Straight Outta’ Compton”) is William O’Neal, the Judas figure who infiltrated the Chicago Black Panthers at the request of FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons).
We follow the action through William O’Neal’s eyes, a small-time petty criminal caught impersonating an FBI officer in order to steal a car. William O’Neal was 17 when he stole the car and drove it across state lines into Michigan. Since car theft carries an 18 month sentence and impersonating a federal officer would earn him a 5 year sentence, the Judas figure in the film’s title is offered the opportunity to infiltrate the Black Panthers rather than go to jail. O’Neal doesn’t forsee that he will be asked to drug Fred Hampton (secobarbital) so that state-sponsored murder can take place in a hit executed by 14 Chicago police at 2337 West Monroe Street at 4:45 a.m. on December 4, 1969.
Martin Sheen plays an almost unrecognizable J. Edgar Hoover. A secret group within the FBI called Cointelpro is responsible for the hit on Fred Hampton’s residence that is authorized by Hoover. Hampton, his 9-months pregnant girlfriend (well played by Dominque Fishback) and several other Black Panthers were there, sleeping overnight. Two were killed in cold blood: Mark Kelly, who was the security guard for the night, and Hampton, who survived the initial assault only to be executed with 2 shots to the head. The Panthers fired only one shot, into the ceiling, when Mark Kelly’s shotgun discharged as he was shot through the door. The police shot 99 times.
A lawsuit lodged in 1970 dragged on for 18 months, but finally delivered a judgment of $1.85 million in 1982. When the foursome behind the film (the Lucas brothers, Ryan Coogler and Shaka King) pitched the film, they compared it to “The Departed” within Cointel.
Daniel Kaluuya, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne and Lakeith Stanfield appear in Judas and the Black Messiah by Shaka King, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glen Wilson.
The acting by both leads should earn Kahluua and Stanfield Oscar nods. If you watch this at home, you might want to turn on captioning, in order to know what, exactly, Daniel Kahluua is saying. YouTube videos support Hampton’s cadence, rough articulation and fast pace as authentic to the man, himself, but it’s still hard to understand. Stanfield’s William O’Neal is better able to be understood. Both actors are somewhat older than the ages they are asked to portray, with Kahluua, at 31, playing the 21-year-old Hampton. (Stanfield is 29).
Accolades are deserved for both of the film’s leads. For me, the William O’Neal character is the more interesting, portrayed by Lakeith Stanfield as a bundle of contradictions. He seems conflicted about his role from the very beginning. As the plot thickens and he is asked to do even more for the FBI, he seems to have been drawn into a no-win situation that tortured him to the point that, after his one and only television interview about the events of that night, on January 15, 1990, he committed suicide. O’Neal’s words from the “Eyes on the Prize 2” documentary footage were, “I was part of the struggle. At least I had a point of view. I’ll let history speak for me.”
The film portrays O’Neal’s descent into even greater betrayal(s) extremely well, even through the costuming. When O’Neal meets Jesse Plemons for dinner at a fancy steakhouse late in the film (away from the Black Panthers) he is attired in a very fly white suit. Agent Mitchell shoves an envelope with cash in it towards O’Neal, possibly the $300 in extra pay that O’Neal received for special service to the FBI. But when O’Neal depicts a Black Panther early in the film, with leather jacket and beret, he really seems to empathize with the Black struggle, despite Mitchell’s attempts to convince him that the KKK and the Black Panthers are flip sides of the same coin.
It is a tribute to Stanfield’s acting chops and the wise decision to let the most conflicted character carry the weight of the film that elevates the movie. After the deaths of the Black Panthers in the dawn raid, O’Neal was relocated to California under the Federal Witness Protection Program and used the name William Hart until returning to Chicago in 1984. His involvement in the death of Fred Hampton, including drugging Hampton before the planned raid, was not revealed until 1973.
Daniel Kahluua emerged as a star after his role in “Get Out.” He is now 31 and a much more substantial figure than when he played the boyfriend in that earlier film. Fred Hampton was 21 when he was assassinated. Hampton’s background prior to his death was that of a community organizer of exceptional skill, who saw the benefits in uniting all the disparate ethnic peoples of Chicago, the nation and the world. He formed the Rainbow Coalition and brokered deals where his fiery oratory moved the crowds that assembled and alarmed the FBI. The no-knock raid at Hampton’s house in the middle of the night reminds of Breanna Taylor’s recent death. The recent Black Lives Matter protests also serve as a timely backdrop for this socially conscious film.
Deborah Johnson (now known as Akua Njeri) is portrayed by actress Dominique Fishback. The fiancé of Fred Hampton, she gave birth 25 days after Fred Hampton’s death. (Fred Hampton, Jr. is now 52 years old.) Dominique has appeared in “The Deuce” and “The Hate U Give.” Dominique gives a nuanced performance as the poet who applies to the Black Panther headquarters in Chicago to help Hampton improve his speeches. Their low-key courtship adds a behind-the-scenes look at the man whom we see orating like MLK in other scenes. (One question: how would the very white Jesse Plemons character— even while wearing a stocking cap— not stick out like a sore thumb inside the meeting place when Hampton is speaking with ringing phrases like, “You can murder a revolutionary, but you can’t murder a revolution,” or “I’m gonna’ die for the people because I live for the people?”)
Darrel Britt-Gibson, Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield appear in Judas and the Black Messiah by Shaka King, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glen Wilson.
Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (from San Antonio), who worked on “Twelve Years A Slave” and “Hunger,” does a great job of turning late 60s Chicago into a sepia-toned retro landscape. The bar used in the initial scenes and later in the film, Leon’s Bar, reeks of that era. The scenes that involve gun battles (3) are dark and the shooting of a cop near a factory has very interesting angles framing the action.
Mark Isham and Craig Harris handled the music; they do a fine job setting the sixties tone.
The principals behind the film shared in an interview that they worked very hard to make sure the film was accurate. This meant contacting the families of those who were involved the night of the climactic shooting. In particular, Fred Stanfield, Jr., who is now 52 and works on prisoner’s rights, was consulted. The team said, “It changed all of our lives and we’ll be far better off because of it.”
“A badge is scarier than a gun.”
“Political power flows from the barrel of a gun. You need tools, brother.”
“Words are beautiful, but actions are supreme.”
“Every ghetto across the nation should be considered occupied territory.”
“The most dangerous weapon is the people.”
“Our job, as the Black Panther Party, is to heighten our traditions so the people can decide if they want to overthrow the government. Or not.”
“We want land, bread, housing, education, democracy and peace.”
“You can’t shoot your way to equality.”
PRODUCTION TEAM’s THOUGHTS
The team responsible for the movie, including Ryan Coogler and Director Shaka King shared their experiences making the film in a Warner Brothers interview. Coogler said, “There would be nights when I couldn’t sleep.”
On the general public’s lack of knowledge about Fred Hampton until now, King said, “There could be 100 movies on this subject and it still wouldn’t be enough.”
The director and Coogler mused about how, so often bio-pics reach the screen, and the families then protest that the film is totally inaccurate, saying the movie did not reflect the truth about their loved ones. The makers of Judas and the Black Messiah did not want that to happen with their film, so they actually traveled to Chicago and sat at the very table where, 52 years ago, Fred Hampton worked.
Said one of the producing partners: “Coming out of this, I don’t think I’ll ever look at (bio-pic) movies the same way again.”
Filmmaker Sally Aitken took the glorious 16 millimeter film of Valerie May Taylor and her husband, Ron, and has made it into a 95-minute exploration of the fearless team, who braved the oceans of the world to study and photograph the alien world beneath the water, especially focusing on sharks.
It was not their original intention to become conservationists for the dwindling species of sharks, but that is what happened after the two first made their mark at spearfishing. Ron was four-time Australian champion and world champion in the sport and the beautiful blonde Valerie was a Pamela Anderson of the underwater oceans, inhabiting a male culture of the fifties and killing one Great White shark before she realized that the animals were beautiful in their own killing machine way and should be preserved.
In fact, Peter Benchley’s (“Jaws” author) widow Wendy offers up the sobering news that there are only 10% of the world’s sharks still swimming, since 100 million a year have been being harvested for the past 20 years.
Valerie, now in her eighties, tells us that “It’s not that I didn’t want children. I wanted to do other things. I waned to have my own special life.”
That she survived and much more. A polio survivor, she and Ron traveled the world, trying to make a living at what they loved doing most: diving. In 1974 Peter Benchley, who knew about the pair’s exploits, wrote a book about a shark (which his wife did not think would “work”). It became “Jaws” with 29-year-old Steven Spielberg directing in only his second major film.
Spielberg wanted the shark to be 25 feet long, although Valerie and Ron told him that Great Whites were normally only about 13 feet long. “That’s okay,” said Spielberg, “we’ll just make the diving cage half-sized.” This they did, hiring a half-sized actor to play the diver in the steel cage. Unfortunately, the very small man was not a diver and not a shark enthusiast. When he saw a real White Shark, he said, “I should have asked for more money!”
Give-it-a-go Valerie, as she was sometimes called because of her fearlessness, is shown hand-feeding a Great White Shark off the back of a boat and her changed attitude towards preserving sharks is credited with the fact that 80 to 100 bull sharks are now back at the reef off the island of Fiji.
Now widowed after Ron’s death from acute myeloid leukemia, Valerie shares the thought that she will never give up diving and that she will “probably be diving from my wheelchair.”
The film has astounding underwater footage, remastered from the original film shot by Ron Taylor, interspersed with television appearances the duo made on talk shows around the globe. The scenes of a Great White shark getting hung up in the boat apparatus during the filming of “Jaws” is riveting (we learn that it was not in the script, but they used the footage) and the entire project reveals a world beneath the waves of which Valerie May Taylor, herself, said, “It was a different, alien world. I was just a visitor.”