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Schultz reviews: 'Nomadland' and 'Judas and the Black Messiah'

Schultz reviews: 'Nomadland' and 'Judas and the Black Messiah'

Carl Schultz

 

 

“Nomadland”   Distributed by Searchlight Pictures, 108 Minutes, Rated R, Released February 09, 2021:

Fiction and reality are artfully crafted together in “Nomadland,” the new motion picture from filmmaker Chloe Zhao and Searchlight Pictures that’s generating a lot of talk about Academy Award nominations.  As with her previous films, Zhao casts actors and non-actors together in a mostly real situation to produce a timely and often moving hybrid of life and art.

Based on--or rather inspired by--journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction social studies examination “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” in Zhao’s picture a sixty-something widow loses her job with the 2011 closure of the local US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada.  The manufacturing complex is a casualty of the Great Recession of 2008, a business failure which effectively eliminates an entire US Zip Code.

With few resources and no close family since the recent death of her husband, the newly-unemployed widow sells most of her belongings, buys a secondhand minibus, and takes to the road, traveling through the western United States searching for temporary or seasonal jobs to sustain her.  During her odyssey, she discovers an entire population of people like herself--a demographic of modern nomads called ”campers,” displaced by the economy, traveling from state to state in search of work, living nowhere...and everywhere.

Filmmaker Chloe Zhao, best known for her 2018 serio-documentary western “The Rider,” finds in Bruder’s 2017 study another carefully-shaded human drama--a dynamic of modern American society with echoes of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression in the 1930s--strong and independent spirits searching for a place to sustain themselves on the American prairies.  In her book, Bruder describes the people as “a wandering tribe” investing in “wheel estate (and) driving away from the impossible choices which face what used to be called the middle class.”

As with her previous films, Zhao with “Nomadland” is careful to avoid condescending to her subject, or expecting pity for her characters.  While the failing economy might’ve been the catalyst for the odyssey and migration of some of the people in “Nomadland,” for others the road has become a way of life.  For those, the sound of the highway has become as comforting as the sound of the ocean surf or the rustling of leaves on a summer evening.  With the exception of its two central roles, the rest of Zhao’s cast is made up of non-actors, actual campers living in the style of the characters they portray onscreen.

In the role of the displaced widow, actress Frances McDormand with her weathered and careworn face and weary, intelligent eyes can wring more emotion from silence than other actors can convey with a page of dialogue.  Rather than a movie star, McDormand seems like one of us.  And in “Nomadland” her character’s circumstances might’ve changed, but her dignity is intact.  Discovered by the child of a former neighbor relaxing in a Walmart lawn chair at Christmastime, she’s asked whether the rumors are true that she’s homeless.  “No,” McDormand reassures her young friend, ”I’m houseless--not the same thing.”   

In its pervasive sense of an elemental nobility among its characters, “Nomadland'' bears favorable comparisons with John Ford’s classic 1940 film “The Grapes of Wrath”...and the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on which it was based.  In fact, the highest accolade for “Nomadland” might be that it helps to define America at the beginning of the 21st century.  It’s a movie John Steinbeck would’ve been proud of.

Filming of “Nomadland” took place over four months during the autumn of 2018 with director Zhao and cast members McDormand and David Strathairn living in actual campgrounds on locations along the way in Arizona, Nevada, Nebraska, South Dakota, and California.  America’s magnificent western vistas are beautifully photographed for the picture by cinematographer Joshua James Richards--in many first-run cities, the film is being presented in the IMAX format.  

Author Jessica Bruder’s source material was also adapted into a 2017 documentary short subject by filmmaker Brett Story entitled “CamperForce.”  Vastly different in tone than the soulful “Nomadland,” “CamperForce,” is easily available for viewing on YouTube.

“Nomadland” is rated R for nudity, and some adult themes.

“Judas and the Black Messiah”   Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 126 Minutes, Rated R, Released February 12, 2021:

An important but often overlooked chapter of American history is brought to vivid life in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” a new picture from filmmaker Shaka King and Warner Bros. Pictures that examines the life of social activist Fred Hampton, the former co-chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party who was betrayed by an associate and assassinated in Chicago in 1969 at age 21. 

In “Judas and the Black Messiah,” small-time Chicago street hustler William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) as a means of avoiding prosecution for impersonating a federal agent during a vehicle theft agrees to act as an informant for the FBI.  O’Neal’s task--to infiltrate the local chapter of the Black Panthers and aid in the investigation of its leader, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).  The naive O’Neal is told by his FBI contact (Jesse Plemons) that the assignment is a simple counterintelligence maneuver, to examine the Panthers’ leadership for nefarious motives.  

As he grows closer to his quarry, O’Neal discovers to his surprise that Hampton is a genuine visionary whose aim is to unite the various Chicago street gangs and form a rainbow coalition to advocate for the disadvantaged of Chicago.  “Between your manpower and the Panther political platform,” Hampton tells one gangleader, “we can heal this whole city.”  O’Neal never suspects that the FBI’s actual intention is to sabotage the Black Panther movement...and assassinate its leader.

Presented by second-time filmmaker Shaka King (after 2013’s “Newlyweds”) as a cross between  a civics lesson, a hard-edged police procedural, and a docudrama, “Judas and the Black Messiah” overcomes some difficult opening scenes to becomes more involving, and more sympathetic, as it goes along.  Despite Hampton’s sometimes explosive rhetoric, the Panthers leader’s ultimate aim is depicted as peaceful, a means of improving the lives of those who lack a voice during a difficult time--a motive which makes the film seem surprisingly contemporary.

Considered by the conservative mainstream media of the time to be a dangerous political radical but now widely recognized as a social visionary and a martyr, Fred Hampton’s often explosive rhetoric is depicted in King’s film as a means of camouflage.  In this telling of the story, Hampton’s street language and occasional advocacy of violence is simply a means of being heard at all during a historically violent time.  Wisely, director King keeps Hampton offscreen for much of the picture...but in her plain admiration for her subject the filmmaker enables the spirit of the man to permeate every frame of the picture.

As Hampton, actor Daniel Kaluuya persuasively captures the incendiary nature of the Black Panthers chairman’s public presentations, but also portrays the private side of the man--a gentleness seldom apparent in public but remembered by family, friends, and associates.  Often better than the movies he inhabits, Kaluuya as Hampton finds a role that’s a genuine challenge for his talent...although at age 31 the actor is a little too mature for his subject...and resembles him not at all.  

Still, Kaluuya’s weary eyes and glowering demeanor effectively add a depth, resonance, and impact to Hampton’s words and actions that might be helpful for those viewers unfamiliar with the story or the history of that turbulent decade of American history--a time of unrest, violence, social change...and assassination.  Even from a distance of over half a century, Hampton’s words and ideals have an impact--minus the language of the streets and allusions to violence, Hampton’s political ideals could be ascribed to a number of progressive modern politicians.

Even with Fred Hampton essentially cast as a supporting player, Lakeith Stansfield as William O’Neal needs to work hard to stake his claim in the movie.  Stansfield has a habit of disappearing into his movie roles so completely that he seemingly becomes the person he’s portraying.  With a specialty for playing actual people in historical and biographical pictures like “Selma,” “Straight Outta Compton,” and “Snowden,” Stansfield as William O’Neal doesn’t steal the picture...but he prevents Kaluuya from walking away with it.

The film’s title is very deliberately chosen--alert viewers will note that the events of the film’s storyline are presented in the same basic dramatic template, but not the historical style, of the Biblical Passion.  King’s film is decidedly not recommended for all audiences, and the picture’s R rating is well-deserved.  But for more seasoned and openminded viewers, “Judas and the Black Messiah'' is a compelling and engrossing picture, surprisingly timely, and presented with taste and intelligence throughout.

Fred Hampton is also depicted in Aaron Sorkin’s movie “Trial of the Chicago Seven,” now streaming on Netflix.  Portrayed in Sorkin’s film by actor Kelvin Harrison Jr., Hampton is characterized as more restrained and less incendiary than in King’s picture, but as in real life his assassination leads to a turning point in the title legal battle.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is rated R for pervasive adult language and scenes of violence.

 

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