The Trial of the Chicago 7
I watched “Trial” when it was first released on Netflix in October, but I had no desire to write about it. It’s got a really great manufactured feeling to it with some lovely melodramatic moments that make it feel like a staged re-enactment rather than a realistic experience. The dialogue conveys points in a clear, straightforward manner, without any of those annoying witticisms or irreverent, triumphant monologues that actually make these things called films enjoyable. And the direction… well it’s so understated that practically anyone could have made this.
“Trial” was originally going to be directed by Spielberg almost 15 years ago, but due to a multitude of setbacks including budget constraints, the screenplay (penned by Sorkin) sat around collecting dust for over a decade. One might think that Sorkin would have written his best work given all that time, but I’m sorry to say that it’s one of his weakest endeavors. It’s a feel-good, non-offensive experience that thinks of itself as being more important than it actually is. Sorkin seems more interested in grandstanding his liberal politics than in making the actual events interesting, as the entire experience is just all-around bland. It’s certainly no coincidence that this film came out in the climate that it did – amongst mass protests and police brutality happening around the country. It’s supposed to make us proud of how far we’ve come, but then quickly remind us of how much more work there is yet to be done.
As an ensemble piece, it’s fairly accomplished, with Sacha Baren Cohen and Eddie Redmayne giving passionate performances. Sorkin hardly needed to inject any additional dramatic weight into the story for it to have gravitas, but what he did need to do was give it some humor and character. As a courtroom drama, it’s incredibly formulaic and has nothing new to offer the genre. Should such an important story be treated with such drab cinematography and a tedious pace? There is absolutely no cinematic flare or vibrancy in the cinematography or production design, or really any of the technical categories. The opening montage is a jumbled mess, and the ending sequence is so hammy with its sweeping musical cues that I almost felt queasy. It feels like that film in class you were shown, maybe in science or history, which you remember as being good but can hardly recall any details. “Oh, that film about rockets? The one with a young Jake Gyllenhaal?” “Yes, but what about that law movie? Where Michael Keaton shows up at the end?”
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
I’ll be perfectly honest, I had not heard of Ma Rainey until I saw this film. It’s a shame, since I really enjoy jazz and blues music. After watching “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” I felt like I had gotten to know the characters, but not necessarily on a deep level. Ma Rainey gives tough love to her band members. She feels that she is bossed around for her own art and is not appreciated as an individual because she is black. Given that this takes place in the 1920’s, this is inherently true. Cutler likes to talk about God. Toledo steps on people’s shoes (a fatal personality trait). Levee likes to endlessly monologue about how big he wants his career to be. And oh boy, are there a lot of monologues. About 20 minutes in of heavy dialogue, I asked myself, “Was this based on a play?” In my opinion, this is not a good question for me to ask about a film. A play adaptation needs to have a cinematic essence to it, and I did not feel that cinematic treatment in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” It’s clear to me that it’s a great play, with some poignant messaging and memorable dramatic moments, but there was hardly any opportunity for visual storytelling, which makes it a poor film. Movies and plays are both elevated by great performances, however they are also very distinct forms of art. It feels very claustrophobic, and the production can’t help but feel like a constricted, fictional space. Every moment is enveloped in heavy dialogue, and it got tiring, almost punishing, after a while. Chadwick Boseman is incredible in this, but it feels like he’s performing on Broadway rather than in front of a camera. In the end, I would have preferred to have seen this on a stage rather than in my living room.
One Night in Miami
Another film based on a play, “One Night in Miami” encapsulates a fictionalized meeting between Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke. The four men meet in a hotel room after Ali’s title bout against Sonny Liston. What is expected to be a party turns into an engaging and fervent series of discussions revolving around culture, identity, religion, creativity, and individuality. The dialogue is plentiful but never exhausting. There’s plenty of humor and lighthearted banter amongst the fascinating conversations centered around more serious subjects. The production feels more lifelike and much less constricted than that of “Ma Rainey,” despite that it still has a staginess that there’s no getting away from. It works in part thanks to the way it’s shot, and how there’s a greater amount of kinetic movement on the part of the actors and the camera, but a lot of it is due to the theatricality of the performances. It’s also not confined to just one or two rooms. I got swept up in the emotional sparks that were flying thanks to the magnificent acting, and at the end of the film, I felt like it had unearthed deep thoughts that these characters had, as though I had engaged with them on an intellectual level. Kemp Powers wrote the screenplay, based off his own play of the same name. He also co-wrote and co-directed “Soul,” possibly my favorite film of 2020. The film is a bit slow to start off, but each act grows with intensity and features more revelations about these characters. It all ends with Leslie Odom Jr.’s stunning performance of “A Change is Gonna Come.” Trust me, that performance, along with the closing montage, will give you goosebumps.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield are both excellent in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” These two performances are right at the center of the film. Much of the film’s attention is on Fred Hampton, but the narrative itself is really centered around William O’Neal, who is offered a plea deal by the FBI to infiltrate and provide intelligence on the Black Panther Party. Lakeith does a fantastic job of capturing the complexities of such a character. One can find the interview with the real William O’Neal online, and you can see the painful confliction in both O’Neal and Lakeith’s performance. Kaluuya is powerful and engaging, and I got the full sense of why Fred Hampton was considered to be such a magnetic presence. The only drawback to Kaluuya playing Hampton is that we don’t get a sense of just how young Hampton was at his time of death (he was just 21). Jesse Plemons is also great as the FBI agent who offers O’Neal his plea deal.
Aside from the performances, this is all-around a very well crafted film. The screenplay is a bit by-the-book for a biographical drama, but the cinematography is brilliant – there’s a feeling of intimacy in many scenes with O’Neal and Hampton, but there’s also a nice cinematic flare that provides additional gravitas to the story. This was definitely the most cinematic experience I had in 2020 in my own living room. There’s a great intensity and conviction to the story, which was a nice contrast to “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” There’s a powerful ethos at the heart of it. Parts of the script do weigh down the runtime, with scenes in the FBI looking flat and feeling more necessary than worthwhile. Often times, scenes with Plemons and Stanfield feel like they’re about to examine something truly profound, but end up steering off into some clunky dialogue about money. Shaka King’s direction is top-notch, and he proves that he won’t shy away from directing harrowing scenes of racial violence. After the film is over, you’ll likely be inspired to read more about Hampton and the real-life events that were portrayed on screen. This is not one to miss in a year of middling productions.