Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Judas and the Black Messiah

99 to 1
Crouching Panther, Hidden Agenda

Judas and the Black Messiah is "based on a true story", which immediately sets one's Truth Squad into overdrive to see just how far afield the fiction is from reality. Such cynicism is matched, but then surpassed, when one learns that the movie is pretty much true, and that it happened very nearly exactly how it's depicted, just as the more pessimistic among us might suspect it did. One takes no joy in this, no sense of triumph that "they did it right for once," but only the despairing attitude that the truth of it is not stranger than an audience might accept (the standard trope for altering a story), but that it is altogether what they've become accustomed to accept.

That's a tellingly depressing bar to admit. But, we're a nation that excels at complacency when it's not in our immediate backyard.

Further still, the truth is actually more stunning than what is portrayed in the movie, and we'll address that fact at the end, because it weighs on the incidents like a stone, evoking feelings of amazement, pride, and shame.
Judas...tells the story of Bill O'Neill (Lakeith Stanfield, who has the toughest but least showy role in the film), a Chicago grifter, caught one night in an unsuccessful car-jacking (the incident didn't happen exactly as portrayed, as O'Neill was probably pulled over for a DWB), with a fake FBI badge on his person. It's one to two in prison for the auto theft, but five years for impersonating a federal officer, so the local FBI guy (Jesse Plemons) makes a deal: go to prison for possibly seven years, or help out the FBI and walk out free. O'Neill can only marvel at his luck, due to his lack of knowing anything about "Faust."
The devil he owes comes in the form of J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, who, despite being encased in even more makeup than Leonardo Di Caprio had to endure, is still unconvincing), who, in what should have been his gay, twilight years as head of the FBI, is seeing his black-and-white world of gangsters, racketeers and "Reds" become a bit more nuanced in the form of generations of "Boomers" becoming disenchanted with the "System," the "bread and circuses" not seeming to be enough to distract them. It runs afoul of his agency, which is comprised of white, crew-cut (and presumably straight) men in business suits—but we see them drinking on the job in their offices (would that pass Hoover's scrutiny?).His concern, right now, is black nationalist groups, like the NAACP, the SCLC, the Nation of Islam, and the Black Panthers—not only due to their threat to the white status quo, but also for relations to communist and socialist causes.*
Their target is Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), who has become the leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, after studying pre-law and serving as a Youth Council leader of the NAACP. Naturally charismatic, a powerful speaker, and a student of revolutionary technique, Hampton began by organizing political classrooms, a civilian program for supervising police activity as well as a Free Breakfast Program. But, his biggest achievement—one which surely must not have escaped the notice of the FBI—is that he has organized what he called a "Rainbow Coalition," uniting the Panthers, the disparate Chicago street gangs, the White Southern Young Patriots Organization, and the Puerto Rican Young Lords. Nothing scares an established authority more than a united coalition of dissidents. 
The FBI will begin their own disinformation campaign to splinter the Coalition, but their ace is Bill O'Neill, who will infiltrate the Panthers, and winning the begrudging trust of Hampton, eventually become the Security Captain of the Chicago chapter. He will maintain his hustler's stance, only going so far as until his life is at risk, but even then, when the FBI puts the pressure on him between doing something he's loathe to do and spending time in prison, he will do as ordered. It's just that he has no idea the limits the FBI will go to, whereas he might feel unironically safer under the umbrella of Hampton and the Panthers.
The history is well-documented and the official record simultaneously white-washed and tainted—Hampton was killed in a raid on his apartment. At the time of the raid he was unconscious from a dose of secobarbitol, slipped into a drink by O'Neill on FBI orders. Despite his condition, Hampton did not survive the raid and died from two gunshot wounds delivered hitman style to the head. Court records would indicate that Hampton died of plausible deniability. It was a "hit", carried out by the FBI in the tradition of the gangsters they once hunted.

All this is laid out by King in as unobtrusive a way as possible, getting the details right, making his shots as if a documentary filmmaker with extraordinary access, with a cutting style that favors reaction shots and a gradual acceleration of tension. The cast is amazing: Stanfield has the wary look of someone being continually hunted; Kaluuya is always amazing to watch because his choices catch you by surprise—his Hampton is charismatic, but the way Pacino's early days as Michael Corleone are charismatic, walking into every room, surveying it, and then taking it over by sheer force of personality, even cunning; and Dominique Fishback is all knowing-eyes as Panther volunteer Deborah Johnson, who starts out questioning Hampton's rhetorical skills and ends up becoming his muse and lover. 
One fact haunts: at the time of his death, Fred Hampton was 21 years old. Bill O'Neil had been recruited at the age of 17; he was 20 at the time of Hampton's assassination. There is no other way to look at the story than as a tragedy, of potential, unused and misdirected. Of lives wasted and power corrupted.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a devastating indictment.

* But, it's also personal for the FBI's director: In one scene, one of the few featuring the FBI director that has any resonance, director King has Hoover sanctimoniously ask Plemons' agent "How would you fee-el...if your daughter brought home her black boyfriend?" The agent can only stammer back at him: "She's eight months OLD!"

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Don't Make a Scene: Bull Durham

The Story: I believe that Bull Durham is one of the great baseball movies (probably because and not despite Shelton didn't want it to be a "back-lit" baseball movie) and probably because I believe it has less to do with baseball and more to do with the games people play to fool themselves—such as rituals and superstitions. I believe it has a lot of great scenes and I'll be using those for the next few years (and abandoning the "Who's On First" routine of Abbott and Costello) when the start of Baseball Season rolls around. 

I believe that Crash Davis' "I believe" speech is one of the best things about it—but not exclusively—despite that Ron Shelton doesn't like it because "people don't talk that way; I was trying to hook an actor" even though he likes to write soliloquys and he thinks Bull Durham is about "a love story between people who like to talk."

I also believe that, despite the deletions, that Davis really does believe in long foreplay, show tunes, voting every election and chocolate chip cookies. I also believe that he might have started a Thomas Pynchon novel, but probably never finished it, and that Susan Sontag was substituted because somebody decided that anybody going to a baseball movie wouldn't know who he was...but might have a brushed-back acquaintance with Sontag. Anyway, that pitch is a little wild.

I believe that Kevin Costner does a fine job of it, taking it casually, even though he knew full well that he was handed "one of the greatest speeches in movies and I never thought I did it right..." In his commentary track, Costner is more self-effacing: "She (Susan Sarandon) drives the whole thing."

Opening Day is this week.

The Set-Up: The Durham Bulls minor league season is starting, and try-outs are underway. It is the yoke of catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), a twelve year veteran who'd once been in the majors ("The Show"—"the 21 greatest days of my life") that he be assigned to mentor hot-shot pitcher Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins)—"a million dollar arm, but a five-cent head")—to try to control his erratic throwing. Concurrently, Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), is conducting her own try-outs.

Batter up.

NIGHT THE SHRINE OF BASEBALL GLOWS -- Annie lights the candles. 
Both men look around the room with wonder. Nuke is clearly more nervous than Crash, who's been in some strange rooms in his minor league career. 
ANNIE SAVOY: These are the ground rules. (beat) 
I hook up with one guy a season -- I mean it takes me a couple of weeks to pick the guy -- kinda my own spring training... (beat)
ANNIE: And, well, you two are the most promising prospects of the season so far. (beat) 
So... I thought we should get to know each other. 
 Time out. 
W...why do you get to choose? 
CRASH: Why do you get to choose?
CRASH: Why don't I get to choose? 
 Why doesn't he get to choose?
Well, actually nobody on this planet ever really chooses each other. I mean, it's all a question of Quantum Physics, molecular...  
 ...attraction, and timing. I mean, there are laws we don't understand that bring us together and tear us apart. 
It's like pheromones: 
You get three ants together, they can't do dick. You get 300 million of 'em, they can build a cathedral 
Crash laughs, as does Nuke, though he doesn't know why
Is somebody gonna go to bed with somebody or what? 
 Honey, you're a regular nuclear meltdown. You better cool off. 
Crash rises to leave, and heads for the door.

Wait. Where are you going? 
After 12 years in the minor leagues, I don't tryout. Besides -- I don't believe in Quantum Physics when it comes to matters of the heart... or loins
(challenging him) Well, what do you believe in, then? 
Crash at the door. Annie's question is slightly taunting. He stops, and speaks with both aloofness and passion: 
(putting on his coat): Well, I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman's back, 
the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, long foreplay, show tunes, 
...and that the novels of Thomas Pynchon Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. (beat) 
I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, I believe that there oughtta be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astro-turf and the designated hitter, 
I believe in the "sweet spot", voting every election, soft core pornography, chocolate chip cookies
opening your presents on Christmas morning rather than Christmas eve, and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last for 7 three days. 
CRASH: G'night.
(breathless) Oh my... (softly) Don't leave... 
Crash heads out into the night. 
Annie hurries to the-door while Nuke sits on the couch, bewildered. 
NUKE: Hey -- what's all this molecule stuff? 
ANNIE STANDS IN THE DOORWAY -- Crash is on the porch. 
 Wait, Crash -- don't go -- 
 ...all I want is a date. 
I'm not gonna fall in love with you or nothin'. 
I'm not interested in a woman who's interested in that boy. 
 I'm not interested yet. 
Nuke appears in the door. 
NUKE: Who you calling a "boy"? 
See ya at the yard, "Meat". 
Crash walks out into the Durham night. 
Nuke and Annie stand in the doorway. She speaks softly to Nuke. 
 No ballplayer ever said "no" to a date with me before. 
 He's crazy. I want you bad.

Words by Ron Shelton

Pictures by Bobby Byrne and Ron Shelton

Bull Durham is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from M-G-M Home Video and The Criterion Collection.