West Side Story Review

By Olivia Sterenfeld

Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited rendition of West Side Story has finally reached theaters nationwide. Although the film has not found success at the box office, it is a much-needed re-telling of the iconic 1950s New York version of Romeo and Juliet. While I have never seen the stage musical and thus cannot discuss the potential outdatedness of it, I have seen the 1961 film adaptation and can confidently say it needed an update. The music has always been the star of the movie, with clarity of plot taking the backseat, and rightfully so, given the brilliance of Leonard Bernstein’s music and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics. The story itself, however, is worthy of the improvements it received in this adaptation. Coincidentally, what a way to pay tribute to Sondheim, given his death in late November. 

Spielberg’s West Side Story resolves all points of plot confusion from the original movie, primarily due to Tony Kushner’s writing. The film opens with a shot of the plot of land that will become Lincoln Center, a cluster of buildings that houses the performing arts. We see a poster displaying a model of Lincoln Center outside of a construction site where buildings are being torn down. These opening images instantly make clear the slum gentrification of the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Paired with these shots, references in dialogue to the increasingly gentrified surroundings throughout the rest of the movie build an important context for the pressure on competing gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, to fight for the limited land left, the land that remains unrenovated. Kushner’s screenplay also provides a clearer sequence of events in the film, which, in addition to the context for the rising tension between the gangs, creates a more compelling story. Maria’s (Rachel Zegler) infamous “I Feel Pretty” does not feel as trivial given that immediately after the scene ends, she runs into Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), who reveals the tragic news about a loved one. The juxtaposition of Maria’s glee to sorrow and confusion emphasizes the latter emotions. For the audience, “I Feel Pretty” follows this sad scene, making the song already upsetting to watch, given that we know the tragic news Maria does not yet know. Ultimately, Kushner’s screenplay not only provides us with a more engaging story but situates the music in the plot in new, necessary ways.

Visually, the film is striking. Justin Peck’s choreography seamlessly blends dance and action so that the feel of a musical was not lost but did not dominate the screen time. The scene in which Tony and Maria sing “Tonight Tonight” on Maria’s fire escape, for instance, flows like a dance number without much of any dance occurring. The use of grating on fire escape balconies to separate Maria and Tony, who struggles to reach Maria on her platform, conveys the nature of their relationship as star-crossed lovers. The divide of the two by bars, on the escape’s stairs and railing, builds tension to the moment when they are finally face to face, in each other’s arms, on the balcony. The song simultaneously escalates to this moment, forming a truly romantic, exciting scene for the couple. 

Paired with choreography, the use of color in costumes contributes to the stunning visuals of the movie. In the school dance scene, the white couples wear blue and the Puerto Rican couples wear red and yellow. Maria, however, is dressed in white lace, wearing only red lipstick and Anita’s (Ariana DeBose) red belt to connect her to her Puerto Rican community. She is even seen wiping off the lipstick before Bernardo sees her. The white lace dress and removal of lipstick communicate Bernardo’s, and, accordingly, everyone else’s, view of her: a young and inexperienced, with the subtext of sexually pure, woman. We see, though, that she wants to be treated as a mature adult and wants to make her own decisions, demonstrated in not only her attitudes that she conveys to Anita but in that she tries on the lipstick in the first place. The white costume also helps her stand out for the audience, making her easier to spot among the crowd at the dance. Maria’s costume is nearly identical to the 1961 counterpart, so this choice is nothing new but is certainly effective. 

The visuals are supported by audio that lends itself to authenticity, further conveying the need for this updated version of the film. While autotune is inevitably used, compared to many other movie musicals, it does not feel so overdone. There are still moments where we can hear the unadulterated voice of each character, especially allowing them to sound genuine in instances of strong emotion, which is not uncommon in this story. It certainly helps that many of the actors are professionals in musical theatre, such as Zegler, DeBose, and, of course, Rita Moreno, who plays the added character of Valentina. The film also, necessarily, includes characters speaking Spanish, contributing to the authenticity of this version. After all, the 1961 movie did not cast a Latinx Maria, instead opting for the famous Natalie Wood. The actress could not even sing, therefore requiring a ghost singer, Marni Nixon. Although Spanish is spoken throughout the film, subtitles are not provided. There is no need for subtitles, however, because the acting and action reveal all that the audience needs to know. Transitions from dialogue spoken in Spanish to English are cleverly incorporated, having frustrated police officers yell at the Puerto Ricans to speak in English as a means of understanding them and Anita demanding that Maria and Bernardo use English in order to practice speaking the language for their own benefit. The effort to cast Latinx actors and use Spanish in scenes with Puerto Rican characters contributes to the more accurate depiction that is this version of West Side Story.

It feels like more screen time, however, is given to the Jets, the white gang, and some of it could have been cut. There is a scene, for instance, in which they buy a gun for the climactic fight. The seller recognizes Riff (Mike Faist) as being similar to his father, which ultimately supports the idea that the Jets have bums for parents and how it is such a shame that they have not found their way out of poverty. The scene drags on for too long, though. Whereas the Jets receive perhaps too much screen time, the Sharks could have been allocated more of it. The musical number “America,” sung by Anita and her friends, was shortened. While it is likely that several songs were shortened for the sake of time, every one of the ingenious lyrics in “America” deserves to be heard and probably could have been if a few of the Jets’ dialogue scenes were shorter.

Otherwise, West Side Story was thoroughly entertaining and well done. Hopefully, it will be shown on streaming services sometime soon and receive the widespread attention it deserves. For those who grew up on the 1961 original and those who have barely heard of the musical alike, this adaptation is worth seeing.

Consensus: 4.5/5

Mank Review

by Will Johnson

“Mank” follows the eponymous screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman, as he rushes to finish writing “Citizen Kane” in only 60 days. However, “Mank” is not just a movie about a movie. Director David Fincher is far more interested in Mankiewicz’s complex life as an alcoholic, washed-up writer who speaks his mind too often, only to hurt himself and those around him.

Fincher took obvious care to ensure that the film displayed the same look and feel as “Citizen Kane” by shooting in black and white and by mimicking techniques like structure and cinematography. “Mank” utilizes a similar non-linear narrative which follows Mankiewicz writing for Orson Welles in 1940 while his life unfolds in a series of flashbacks taking place between 1930 and 1937. This is instantly recognizable as the same structure that “Citizen Kane” used where Charles Foster Kane dies in the opening scene, but his life is explored through flashbacks. By paralleling the structure, “Mank” provides an intimate and thought-provoking look into the way that reality influences film.

“Mank” is overflowing with style that all works beautifully to display its setting in the Golden Age of Hollywood and screenwriting aesthetic. Flashbacks are shown as scene headings, giving a unique spin to the often bland use of on-screen text. Fincher never wants the audience to forget that screenwriting is at the heart of this film, and creative decisions like this allow for the visuals and story to seamlessly blend together. Also, through extreme attention to detail in the costuming, music, and set design, “Mank” serves as a wonderful ode to the Golden Age of Hollywood without ever glorifying the time period. Characters like Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg are shown in an appropriately complicated light and their treatment of lower-level employees at the studios are boldly captured. Similarly, mentions of Nazism, anti-Semitism, and Hitler remind the audience that the era was not as glamorous as many films at the time made it appear.

Additionally, “Mank” handles the politics in the film studios at the time phenomenally. The audience sees the magic of movies through scenes taking place in writers’ rooms, on sound stages, and on sets, but “Mank” is also unafraid to show the darker side of Hollywood. Laborers take pay cuts while the wealthy studio heads party at mansions and executives forget their ethics to achieve their selfish goals. These ideas are best shown through the use of Upton Sinclair and the 1934 California gubernatorial election. This incredible plotline allowed Mankiewicz’s hidden noble nature to be seen while also exploring the façade of Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s.

The performances are a major highlight of “Mank,” most notably with Gary Oldman, who is perfectly cast in the lead role. Supporting actress Amanda Seyfried shines as Marion Davies and is successful in separating the real figure from Susan Alexander Kane, who has too often overshadowed her legacy. Even a minor role like Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst becomes memorable within the short screen time that he is given. One monologue delivered by Dance at a dinner party near the end of the film is a haunting scene that emphasizes how powerfully the actors and actresses take over the screen. Even though only a few key performances are mentioned here, there are no actors that are noticeably weak, making the casting one of the strengths of this film.

However, despite all of the accomplishments of the film, “Mank” feels like it too often relies on the influence of “Citizen Kane” in order to work thematically. The latter tells the story of a man whose life is too complex to be summarized by just one word. “Mank” clearly wants to deliver a similar theme, going so far as openly acknowledging the inability to capture a person’s life in only two hours. Yet references such as this, or discussing the issues with telling a non-linear story, come too early within the film to feel impactful. It seems as if the writers are using the viewers’ understanding of “Citizen Kane” to deliver major themes before putting in the actual work. This does not mean that “Mank” fails in accomplishing its themes, only that it would not have been as successful without its comparisons to that movie.

Another major issue is the way “Mank” structures its scenes. The writers want to portray Mankiewicz as a complex character who can never truly be understood, but this is not as powerful as intended due to a lack of diversification in the scenes. Flashbacks consist mainly of Mankiewicz having drunken outbursts that anger the powerful figures who employ him. Yet these scenes begin to feel tired and overdone by the end of the film. There are some scenes that attempt to shine a different light on Mankiewicz through his attempts at preventing suicide or fighting against a smear campaign, but it all feels too altruistic to be effective. Another issue with repetition lies in the manner in which Mankiewicz is written. His dialogue mainly consists of snide, yet genius comments delivered at the expense of those around him. Unfortunately, that veil is almost never lifted, giving the viewer too few instances of a genuine Mankiewicz, rather than the one who hides behind his enormous intellect.

The writers also seemed to be slightly confused on what kind of movie they wanted to make. It clearly explores Mankiewicz’s life more so than a behind-the-scenes look at “Citizen Kane.” But by only showing the parts of his life that inspired his writing of that movie, it feels like it lands someone in between a biopic and a movie about a movie without ever truly being either. On top of that, the demographic of this film is unclear. Real-life figures and historical events have very little contextualization requiring a significant amount of background knowledge on the audience’s part in order to completely appreciate this movie. By needing an intense understanding of the studio landscape at the time and all of the key figures, “Mank” becomes a difficult film to recommend.

Overall, “Mank” is a powerful and moving film that explores a troubled yet influential figure and the dark, frequently unseen side of early Hollywood. It effectively captures the era through stylistic decisions and extreme attention to detail. Yet “Mank” willingly chooses to intertwine itself with “Citizen Kane” which occasionally hurts the film. Its mimicking of structure and themes are emotionally moving, but make it feel as if “Mank” is destined to be nothing more than a companion film to “Citizen Kane.”

Consensus: 3.5/5

The Father Review

by Nick Cochran 

“The Father,” written and directed by Florian Zeller, is a masterpiece in almost every way imaginable. It explores how dementia affects everything: from you to your life to those around you. “The Father” tells the story of Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) as his daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), attempts to get him the care he needs. However, this film does not simply tell his story; it forces you to understand what dementia is like. This is done through many different tactics including the brilliant screenplay and the unconventional editing choices.  Along with these filmmaking techniques, Hopkins’s acting, complemented by the wonderful supporting cast members, enables this movie to truly achieve what it wants to achieve, and the chemistry between Hopkins and the rest of the cast does not go unnoticed. 

The screenplay for “The Father” is what truly confuses viewers and throws them for a loop as you try to understand what is going on. It creates a puzzle and fills in the pieces randomly so over time you start to see some parts of the whole picture, but you don’t see the full thing until the screen goes dark and the credits roll. At first, this feels weird and unusual, but as you get further into the film, you will realize it is forcing you to share Anthony’s dementia for an hour and 37 minutes. 

Another hugely important, but more subtle, method of confusing viewers is through the editing choices. Unlike other films, “The Father” doesn’t use its editing to give the viewer an indication that time has passed or that the location has changed. Rather, it is edited in a way that leaves the viewer uncertain of the date, time, and location. In doing so, it breaks down what you already know until you are left wondering what to actually believe. The film also utilizes establishing shots in conjunction with the ever-changing environment to throw the viewer for a loop. When in one shot, you think you understand the environment, in the next, the production design has been subtly changed to indicate it may be a completely different one. 

Anthony Hopkins, however, is the reason this movie is a must see. His performance is easily one of best of the year. Portraying an old man with dementia believably it is an extremely difficult feat, but Hopkins does just that. He pulls viewers into his world in ways that few others are able to do. He makes you believe everything you see, and even the tiniest of details don’t go unnoticed with his performance through a range of emotions. Most of all, he makes you feel every emotion that Anthony feels. It is also vital to mention the wonderful supporting cast of Olivia Colman, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell, Olivia Williams, and Mark Gatiss. All five actors, led by Colman, support us along the way as we struggle right alongside Anthony. That is to say, they make us believe every twist and turn in this story and enable Hopkins to take us on the wild ride that is “The Father.” It is also Anthony’s relationship with these other characters, supported by Hopkins’s chemistry with each actor, that strengthens the bond the viewer feels with each character. 

Nothing about this movie presents any major problems or stumbles on the way in telling this story. That is why “The Father” is a masterpiece and well worth the watch. My only recommendation is that you prepare yourself, as this movie is not an easy watch and will bring many to tears. Viewer discretion is also advised for those who know/have known someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s as this movie could possibly be very difficult to watch for those individuals.

Consensus: 5/5

Sound of Metal Review

by Jacob Zito

Although “Sound of Metal”  was not created with the intention of being dropped during the midst of a global pandemic, it is a film that captures the spirit of the world at the time of its release. The film follows Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a heavy metal drummer and recovering drug addict who unexpectedly begins to lose his hearing while on tour with his partner, Lou (Olivia Cooke). Immediately, the genuine nature of this story stands out.  Writers Darius Marder and Derek Cianfrance’s story makes every character, whether they are in a starring role or just a single shot, feel well lived-in. Ruben and Lou could have easily been written off as one-dimensional punks that have to navigate the hardships that come with hearing loss; in fact, this is how they are seemingly set up in the first scene, but as the movie continues, it is clear that much more respect is given to crafting the identities of these two musicians, giving the audience an intimate peek into their lives. The space that they live in, the meals that they share, and the conversations they have create an environment that feels exceptionally sincere, making it especially heart-wrenching to watch Ruben’s world crumble in a matter of hours.

It is hard to imagine anyone else but Ahmed being able to portray Ruben’s grief in a hauntingly honest way. His performance, from his subtle expressions to his violent outbursts, exposes all the vulnerable actions and reactions of a man experiencing the painful realization that he can no longer continue his passion due to unpredictable loss. It is near impossible to not feel worried for Ruben as he walks the line between nervous composure and complete breakdown. This concern is perfectly reflected in Cooke’s performance of Lou because, much like Ahmed, Cooke is able to capture the beautiful intricacies of a relationship and the ultimate anxiety that comes with watching a loved one become vulnerable to relapse. Whilst on the film’s top performances, Paul Raci’s portrayal of Joe, a tough-loving rehab center manager who lost his hearing in the Vietnam War, is phenomenal. Any time Joe is on screen, he radiates a calm, safe energy that allows Ruben to accept his condition and begin his new journey as a man who can no longer hear.

Undeniably, the most remarkable aspect of the film is how it captures the jarring nature of hearing loss through sound design. From the beginning, the film emphasizes noises ranging from the booming cacophony of drums to just the minuscule drip of a coffee pot, so that when Ruben is suddenly plunged into the deafening ringing of hearing loss, it dawns on the audience just how much we take the safe consistency of life for granted. The auditory contrast of ordinary life to the muffled silence that eventually takes over Ruben’s psyche is chilling, and it is through fine-tuned use of sound that we truly empathize with the characters.

The one small issue with this film is the pacing. “The Sound of Metal,” of course, is not intended to be a fast-paced drama but rather a slow-burn character study. There are moments that feel particularly bloated in their use in runtime in the second act; however, if you are a fan of slower cinema or are just willing to experience the tranquillity of Ruben’s journey, it won’t be a problem at all. 

“Sound of Metal” comes out at a time after all of us have had to refine our lives to recontextualize what normal even means. In an instant, the pandemic made everyone lose a fragment of who they once were. We all had to wrestle with new, bleak prospects and reflect on a way of life that seems long gone, and it is in this way that we can all relate to Ruben. We all process grief in our own individual ways, and it is not always a straightforward trajectory; sometimes it can be messy. Just as you think you have adapted to strange circumstances, something comes along that sets you back, and that is okay. If “Sound of Metal” teaches anything, it is that every day is a new day, and we just have to appreciate those moments of stillness along the way.

Consensus: 4.5/5

Minari Review

by Elizabeth Saliba

Minari. A plant native to Korea that doubles as a weed and a vegetable. According to Lee Isaac Chung, director of the film holding the same title, Minari “grows very strongly in its second season, after it’s died and come back.” From the title of the movie to the countless nuances throughout the plot’s development, every aspect of “Minari” seems delicately intentional. For that reason, the film is up for six Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Score.

“Minari,” set in 1980s Arkansas, and captures the experience of a Korean American family in search of a fresh start and the American dream. Jacob Yi, patriarch of the family, played by Steven Yeun, views their home on wheels and abundant farmland through rose colored glasses. Monica, played by Yeri Han, questions her husband’s optimism and his ability to support their two children, David and Anne, played by Alan Kim and Noel Cho. Jacob attempts to soften the family’s arduous life transition by inviting Monica’s mother, Soonja, into the picture.

The cinematography beautifully captures Jacob’s perspective through shots of radiant sunlight melting into vivid greenery. The soundtrack acts in harmony with the cinematography, tastefully adding another layer of emotion emitted by the natural landscape. If a scene is subtly building into a larger event, the soundtrack foreshadows through a dynamic sort of ambience that has to be felt for yourself to truly be understood. Piano solos, typically dominating the mood, were complemented by a light humming that made the viewer feel like a dainty piece of grass in an Arkansas field, whimsically overcome by the force of a light breeze. Similar melodies repeat in their own forms throughout the course of the move; like the plant minari, this symbolizes nuanced growth and development over time.

One of the highlights of “Minari” was the evolution of the grandmother-grandson relationship between Soonja and David. David, a first-generation Korean American child, had set polar opposite expectations for his grandmother, hoping for a cookie-baking, sweet-talking old woman when instead he got a foul-mouthed, highly-competitive jokester. This relationship adds a silver lining of humor to the serious circumstances the family faces. It also outlines an underlying identity crisis faced by David when assimilating to a new culture, which is emphasized by his preference of the American “water of the mountains”, otherwise known as Mountain Dew, over most anything else. 

Digging deeper into the idea of assimilation, Cheung presents the Yi family’s situation in a very interesting way. The viewer is provided no reference to Jacob and Monica’s previous life in Korea. The only presentation of their Korean heritage is through food and language, surface level things that can be perceived effortlessly. This seemed to remind viewers that the human experience is repetitive and familiar, despite surface level variations that are easy to label as stark differences among groups.

Overall, “Minari” was a very well done film. However, it would have been interesting to delve deeper into Anne’s experiences and perspectives. Anne was weighted with a great responsibility of taking care of David and appeared to be a poised, obedient, and selfless daughter. Nonetheless, she was just a child reveling through the family’s experience in her own way. Anne’s role as a side character (while all other family members take leading roles) seems to parallel the reality of being a side character in her parent’s eyes. 

It will be interesting to see how “Minari” is recognized at the Oscars after winning best foreign-language film at the Golden Globes. Controversy arose after this win; while the film did not meet the 50 percent English language requirement, “Minari” was filmed in the United States by an American director, and it was financed and produced by the American companies A24 and Plan B, respectively.  This categorization prevented the film from receiving Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture. In response, Chung told New York Times, “Maybe the positive side of all of this is that we’ve made a film that challenges some of those existing categories, and adds to the idea that an American film might look and sound very differently from what we’re used to.”

Consensus: 4.5/5

Promising Young Woman Review

by Olivia Sterenfeld

The previews are eye-catching and the plot, engaging. Without giving away too much, “Promising Young Woman” is about a woman, Cassie (Carey Mulligan), who devotes her life to seeking revenge after her lifelong friend, Nina, was raped when they were in medical school. At first glance, “Promising Young Woman” might seem like a cheesy revenge chick flick that exploits the societal issue of rape as a means of creating entertainment, which just seems ignorant.  After watching the first few minutes of the film, however, it proves to be much more, shedding light on the contrast between the ease with which bystanders forget about instances of sexual assault, while victims, and those who care about them, can’t help but remember.

“Promising Young Woman” receiving a Best Picture nomination may confound some, given that it is up against such realistic depictions of life as “Minari”, “Nomadland”, and “Sound of Metal”. The portrayal of Cassie is stylized: her schemes are always successful, making men she meets at bars feel foolish and acquaintances from medical school feel guilty; she keeps a journal full of tallies for every man she goes home with after feigning intoxication, dramatically scratching a tally mark into her journal after each conquest; her posture even comes across as stylized, such as in the first shot of her, alone on a couch in a bar, pretending to be too drunk to stand. It is important to remember, however, that not every movie aims to be realistic. Thus, these movies cannot be compared on the basis of realism. “Promising Young Woman”, alternatively, can be viewed as a subversive revenge movie, tackling the topic of sexual assault with the guise of thoroughly entertaining revenge. This presentation begs the question: Why must social issues be conveyed realistically? “Promising Young Woman” gets its point across and is able to be “dark” while still selling tickets to perhaps a larger audience than the typically slower, less stylized, everyday depictions that tend to accompany movies focused on serious social issues. The over-the-top quality of this film just might make it accessible to viewers who would not normally choose a movie about such a serious, important issue, reaching more screens and thus raising awareness for more people.

            The film successfully incorporates cliché and realistic moments, however, allowing for comedy and vengeful satisfaction, but also for occasions in which the viewer feels an overwhelming sense of empathy for Cassie and disdain for her targets. This movie does not discriminate on the basis of gender when it discusses Nina’s assault, forcing men and women to reflect. This seems to defy an expectation of only focusing on the men involved in rape, which would, in turn, make men the enemy. Many times throughout the film, men are portrayed as the enemy, and rightfully so. It is men who Cassie attracts and convinces to take her home when she is found alone and drunk at a bar. It is men who were involved in Nina’s rape. However, this does not cause Cassie to ignore the role unsupportive women also played in Nina’s experience, as can be seen in the scenes involving a female peer in medical school and the school’s dean of students.

 The dialogue can be cheesy, but this does not detract from the eerily realistic conversations interspersed between such clichéd moments. For instance, in conversations between Cassie and her love interest, played by Bo Burnham, the dialogue feels rehearsed, its lack of authenticity associating the film with traditional rom-coms. In other scenes, though, especially during conversations between men, the dialogue is so realistic that it becomes creepy, as though one is overhearing yuppies objectify women a few feet away in a bar. The combinations of cheesy and realistic dialogue and of antagonizing men but also blaming female characters lend the film to a subversive reading. Yes, this is a revenge movie, and, as such, yes, it is flashy and entertaining. But it also treats the issue of rape with solemnity and moments that feel authentic. Emerald Fennell, writer and director of the film, seems to have found the sweet spot between glitzy entertainment and nuances surrounding topical issues, namely rape and rape culture.

             The setting of the rape at the time that the main characters were in medical school seems odd. Based on typical portrayals of college as opposed to the norms of medical school, it would seem more fitting to situate the rape at the time of college. This incongruity is mainly because of how the characters refer to their medical school experiences. Several times, characters claim they blacked out every night in medical school, portraying it as one giant party. They also repeatedly note that they were “so young back then.” People typically attend medical school in their mid-twenties, and this movie takes place just a few years later, around the time of Cassie’s thirtieth birthday. The timing of medical school instead of college is perhaps used to impress the viewer with Cassie’s intellect, as though establishing her as only a college dropout instead of a medical school dropout would belittle her intelligence. This technique seems to demonstrate a need to prove to audiences Cassie’s credibility. In order for it to be convincing that a female character is shrewd, evidence that she has pursued a challenging degree and career is provided in order for her to be taken seriously. The choice of medical school instead of college, however, could be used to mock the bystanders: perhaps, their  justifications of their actions, specifically their reckless behavior, by attributing it to their immaturity while in medical school is meant to show the absurd nature of these repeated claims. As such, the film may use the setting of medical school to further expose the lack of validity behind characters’ claims of not knowing right from wrong as young adults in medical school as reasoning for either encouraging or remaining neutral about Nina’s rape.

Consensus: 4/5

Judas and the Black Messiah Review

by Jakob Mueller

Last year in film, there was one historical figure so important that he was portrayed in two of the films nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. That figure is Fred Hampton (depicted in both “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7”). 

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is a riveting portrayal of the rise of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) as a political and communal leader as he ran the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party. It also tells the parallel storyline of the infiltration of that same party by the FBI through informants and friends of Hampton such as Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), which leads to a tragic conclusion. This film has received widespread critical acclaim, and was nominated for 6 Academy Awards, including 2 nominations in the Supporting Actor category for Stanfield and Kaluuya’s extraordinary performances. 

It’s hard to underscore the importance of this film enough, as it provides an alternative history towards that told by the US Government which painted the Black Panther Party as a dangerous threat to society led by violent, evil people. It’s successful in telling a story that creates sympathy around characters such as Hampton and those who followed him, while also functioning as a crime drama that illustrates the ways in which the US government tried to prevent cooperation among a vast array of groups without means and political or economic power. It’s script, nominated for an Academy Award for Original Screenplay, is one of the strengths of the film, creating characters that are layered and complex, and a story that is consistently engaging and enthralling. 

In addition, the performances in this film are phenomenal. Most every important character is given moments to showcase their acting ability. Daniel Kaluuya’s performance is one of the best of his career, as he is able to successfully give a deep sense of humanity and realism to the affective organizer, gifted orator, and deeply selfless individual that was Fred Hampton. He’s also able to grasp Hampton’s frustration, and his understandable motives for vengeance, and portray those phenomenally. It’s quite cliché to say that you feel like an actor is the character that they play, but it’s true here, Kaluuya just feels like he IS Fred Hampton. Stanfield’s performance, while sometimes more subtle than Kaluuya’s, given his secondary nature to the movement itself, is also phenomenal. The conflict within O’Neal is so easily expressed through Stanfield’s eyes, which is one of the most distinct aspects of his performance. Also deserving mention is Dominique Fishback, who plays Deborah Johnson (now Akua Njeri), as she acts in some of the most emotionally resonant scenes in the entire film and is completely revelatory in her performance. 

One place where this film has been undervalued by the Academy is in the category of Directing. Shaka King directs this film phenomenally, largely because he succeeds at pacing the movie quite well and establishing a somber, yet revolutionary and inspiring tone. His vision to depict Hampton as a deeply human character and to focus on the more personal aspects of his life adds a dimension of depth and attachment to this film’s characters that makes the conclusion all the more effective. His inclusion of real-life imagery often makes scenes even more powerful than they already were, as we’re reminded that these events actually happened.

The cinematography of the film stands out at many moments, but it certainly isn’t the most revelatory aspect of the film. The same can be said about the soundtrack and score of the film.  While the score is consistently good,  it’s not the kind that will stay with the viewer long after the film ends. 

There are few negatives to “Judas and the Black Messiah” if one is not politically predisposed to dislike the activist group that sits at the heart of this film, but there is one negative aspect worth mentioning. While the character of Bill O’Neal is interesting and Stanfield adds dimensions to the character through his performance, the viewer never fully comes to understand Bill, what he stands for, or who he is. The audience is not entirely given a reason to root against him, but they certainly don’t have a reason to root for him either. He is given little backstory, and the viewer must assume that many of his actions come out of his self-interest but are still left wondering why he continues to make these self-interested decisions as the film progresses. A slight improvement in Bill O’Neal’s motivations and screen time could certainly have improved the emotional effectiveness of this film and improved one of its most vital characters. 

This film is also extremely relevant because it has become the first film to be nominated for Best Picture that had an entirely black production team. If anything, this statistic points out the failure of Hollywood and the Academy to recognize artists and producers of color for years prior to this and continues to illustrate inherent privilege that white men particularly have within the film industry, as well as in everyday life. 

Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the brilliance of the film’s title in adding an extra dimension of symbolism to the film’s story. It frames the sparsely known story (among many Americans) of Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers within the well-known story (among many Americans) of Judas and Jesus. Viewing the movie through this frame creates an entirely new lens of analysis of the film, and certainly provides an emotional appeal to Christian viewers. The film depicts Hampton as one who brings people of all walks of life together, and as radical as that may sound in a time like ours, it’s possible that it could be an effective tool to bring people together.  This is a film that I would strongly recommend for anyone to see. As I’ve stated, it is necessary viewing for its ability to recontextualize historical events and for its portrayal of a truly inspiring figure that is able to unite people across a multiplicity of lived experiences. Not only is the film an extremely effective learning experience, but it also manages to be a heartbreaking and honest portrayal of the ways in which this country actively works against the interests of its own people and seeks to divide instead of unite. For these reasons, it’s one of the best films of the last year and deserves all the accolades it has and will receive.

Consensus: 4.5/5