Tag Archives: Detroit

Judas and the Black Messiah

14 Feb

Judas and the Black Messiah’: Black Panthers attempt to change history, but it repeats itself

By Tom MeekFriday, February 12, 2021

“Judas and the Black Messiah” begins as a fairly rote history lesson – though an important one – detailing the galvanization of the Black Panther Party in Chicago in 1968 and onward in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the year’s chaotic Democratic convention (so beautifully chronicled by Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool,” a wild blend of real footage and staged narrative, and Aaron Sorkin’s faux follow-on, “The Trial of the Chicago Seven,” which came out last year).

The film, directed by Shaka King (“Newlyweeds”), is blessed with the thespian thunder and lightning punch of Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”) and LaKeith Stanfield (“Sorry to Bother You”) playing 21-year-old Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and Bill O’Neal, Hampton’s security adviser who also happened to be an FBI informant. Hampton as depicted seems enlightened and visionary beyond his years – charismatic, powerfully eloquent in the way other iconic Black leaders of the era were, and willing to take up arms if the structures of society try to cage or emasculate a people. It’s a riveting tour de force by Kaluuya, but the film’s engine and drive comes from its Judas. King, who also penned the script, tries to cast O’Neal in a somewhat sympathetic light, more pressed by his FBI handlers (Jesse Plemons and Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover), but we also get framing footage of a 1990 interview with the real-life O’Neal (his only interview), and the character in the dramatization and the one in the archive reel don’t feel congruent. It’s not hampering to the film, which finds fire as the Panther movement builds, matched by police that employ offensive (and perhaps illegal) force to hammer it down. But it does leave the enigmatic burn of just who was Bill O’Neal, and what was his motivation?

How things sort out in history for Hampton and O’Neal is on the record, and to give those details here I believe would be to underserve the film and the viewing experience. In texture, “Judas and the Black Messiah” reminds me of Kathryn Bigelow’s dark, underappreciated 2017 unrest drama “Detroit,” in that it takes a smaller chapter of the civil rights struggle and shines a light on police audacity and social inequity. In their dramatic richness, the films help to keep those chapters in our minds, educate, revise the record and spark historical and social interest. “Judas” does all that and cements Kaluuya as an A-lister.

Creem: America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine’

14 Aug

‘Creem: America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine’: In on the joke, and at least once on with the band

By Tom Meek

The original title to this nostalgic dial back was “Boy Howdy! The Story of Creem Magazine,” the “Boy Howdy” being the rock magazine’s identifying icon, conjured up by legendary cartoonist Robert Crumb (allegedly in exchange for the mag covering the costs of a medical treatment). The posted title of Scott Crawford’s documentary reflects the storied magazine’s sub-banner, an intentional eff-you to “Rolling Stone,” which launched a few months earlier. As the talking heads in the film have it – including former editors and writers there – “Rolling Stone” was a highbrow culture magazine, while “Creem,” named after the rock group Cream, was just about rock ’n’ roll and adoringly true to its Detroit roots throughout its 20-year existence. It was posture and pose versus edgy, raw ardor.

Interestingly, one of those talking heads recalling Creem with such zeal is film director Cameron Crowe (“Singles,” “Jerry McGuire”) whose experience as a Rolling Stone writer gave him the seeds for the bittersweet rock romance “Almost Famous” (2000). Another ardent fan, Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, grew up close enough to bike down to Creem’s offices (described as “aesthetic squalor”) and rues that he never made the pages of the mag. Other rewinds about drop-ins from Detroit rock royalty such as Iggy Pop, Ted Nugent and Alice Cooper dot the film; one time, a Creem journalist embedded with the band Kiss onstage for a show.

The Creem reflected in film feels much like the early days at the Boston Phoenix that I heard about when I joined back in the early 1990s – underground culture, alternative music and cult films, all done for peanuts by hustling journos who’d rather be at a late-night gig and write about it the next day than pull down big dollars as a stolid nine-to-fiver. It was about passion and the vibe, and Crawford gets his finger on that. The film would make a nice double bill with “Other Music,” which also played the Brattle’s Virtual Screening Room this year. The personalities at Creem – including publisher Barry Kramer and critic and editor Lester Bangs, who both died before the magazine flamed out – were clearly a strong and agitated olio. As one surviving commentator said of its legacy and embraced irreverence, “either you’re in on the joke or you were the joke.” Rock on.

White Boy Rick

23 Sep

‘White Boy Rick’: Life of overachieving teen can’t sustain its high in crack-dealing 1980s

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There’s a whole lot of bristle and edge to “White Boy Rick,” the true-life chronicle of Rick Wershe, a plucky street criminal who made front page news as a drug dealer and gun runner in crack-addicted Detroit. Sure, there were lots of other kingpins working the street during the desperate ’80s, but Rick was barely 16 and – as the film has it – the only white kid trying to cut in. Rick was also an on-and-off again informant for the FBI, a move that ultimately proves less favorable than it did for local white guy Whitey Bulger.

If you were hoping “White Boy Rick” might be a Horatio Alger story propelled with shotgun shells like “Scarface,” it’s not. It’s more a tale of desperation, poor choices and swimming against the current and, on a social level, an American tragedy, and there’s a lot you want to like: the topographical audacity, trademark disco funk music, gritty street lingo and a wickedly impressive cast. But somehow “White Boy Rick” doesn’t know how to deliver, or maybe it’s just that hard to make a true-life criminal be sympathetic or compelling onscreen. Remember how highly anticipated “Black Mass” was, and how it fell short? Rick doesn’t kill anyone here – not directly, anyway, though he does unload a gunny sack of AK-47s to a posse of trigger-happy gangbangers and later distributes heroin and crack. So there’s that.

What “White Boy Rick” needs is a fix of character development and motivation. We have little idea why Rick grabs that satchel of guns from his dad initially and saunters into a kingpin’s operation, inconspicuous as an elephant at a yoga retreat. It’s a perfectly orchestrated and tense scene, but without a framework it wanes quickly thereafter – as does much of the film, as it achieves crescendo after crescendo only to return to flatness. It’s no fault of new face Richie Merritt, who’s convincing enough as the titular man-boy full of resolve and the capacity to pull the trigger, but a high reluctance to shoot first and think later. Strangely or perhaps poetically, Rick flows seamlessly from white to black. If you could imagine Gary Oldman’s dreaded and grilled gangster in “True Romance” shot in the rump with a tranquilizer, you’d have the right approximation: far less cartoonish, but with the right amount of cred. Continue reading