Daniel Kaluuya is in electrifying form as a doomed Black Panther: BRIAN VINER reviews

Judas and the Black Messiah (12)

Verdict: Stylish and compelling 

Rating:

Locked Down (15) 

Verdict: Deserves a health warning  

Rating:

The inclusion of Daniel Kaluuya in this week’s Bafta nominations will come as no surprise to anyone who sees his electrifying performance in Judas And The Black Messiah. What does seem slightly odd is the category: Best Supporting Actor. It’s a bit like calling Mick Jagger or Cristiano Ronaldo a support act.

Kaluuya plays Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, who was murdered by the Chicago police in 1969. It’s a true story, so I don’t think that counts as a spoiler. Besides, the film’s title itself rather gives away the ending.

It starts with Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) recalling, in a 1989 television interview, events of two decades earlier. O’Neal was a car thief who, with a fake FBI badge and a lot of brass neck, would confiscate people’s car keys and scarper.

The inclusion of Daniel Kaluuya in this week’s Bafta nominations will come as no surprise to anyone who sees his electrifying performance in Judas And The Black Messia

The inclusion of Daniel Kaluuya in this week’s Bafta nominations will come as no surprise to anyone who sees his electrifying performance in Judas And The Black Messia

The inclusion of Daniel Kaluuya in this week’s Bafta nominations will come as no surprise to anyone who sees his electrifying performance in Judas And The Black Messia

Eventually, he was caught and offered a deal. In the words of FBI head J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, with enough prosthetics to stop us picturing The West Wing’s angelically liberal President Jed Bartlet), the principal danger to the United States, ‘more than the Chinese, even more than the Russians’, was the rise of a ‘black Messiah’.

Hampton, with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X both assassinated, seemed to him the most likely candidate.

Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor bore each other in lockdown. Here, she plays an expatriate American, Linda, married to a Brit called Paxton (Ejiofor).

Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor bore each other in lockdown. Here, she plays an expatriate American, Linda, married to a Brit called Paxton (Ejiofor).

Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor bore each other in lockdown. Here, she plays an expatriate American, Linda, married to a Brit called Paxton (Ejiofor).

So to swerve a five-year sentence for impersonating a federal agent, O’Neal was told to infiltrate the Black Panthers and get close to Hampton in particular. 

DECENT BUT DATED, JUST LIKE DENZEL 

A veteran, seen-it-all, out-of-town cop, haunted by memories of a long-ago unsolved case that effectively wrecked his career, teams up with a shiny young college-boy cop when a serial killer re-emerges in Los Angeles — only for the younger guy to get an emotional clobbering, too.

If that sounds like a dated premise, it’s because it is; writer-director John Lee Hancock had the original idea in 1993.

Prime suspect: Jared Leto may be a killer

Prime suspect: Jared Leto may be a killer

Prime suspect: Jared Leto may be a killer

The Little Things (three stars) seems like a throwback on screen, as well as on paper. But with Denzel Washington and Rami Malek as the two crimebusters, and Jared Leto as their seedy chief suspect, the retro feel doesn’t stop a moody psychological thriller from exerting a grip. It’s not without flaws: are there really uniformed cops in the U.S. as old as Washington (who turns 67 this year)? But it’s slick, atmospheric, nicely acted and beautifully shot.

Cherry (two stars) offers another cocktail of crime and mental health, as a disturbed former U.S. soldier (Tom Holland) becomes a bank robber to fund his drug addiction. The film is directed by the Russo brothers, who have worked with Holland in the Avengers films, but this is a much less successful collaboration, not least because the protagonist does a ‘Goodfellas’ by narrating his own life story. Here, through no particular fault of Holland’s, it becomes very wearing very quickly.

So does Yes Day (two stars), which is a shame, because we could all do with a decent family comedy. But this is mostly a saccharine and inane mess, in which an all-American mom (Jennifer Garner) is goaded into reforming her children’s view of her as a fun-wrecking tyrant by granting them 24 hours in which she and her husband (a floundering Edgar Ramirez) will answer affirmatively to all their demands. The British sitcom Outnumbered covered similar territory with infinitely more wit. Yes Day, by contrast, is a definite no-no.

  • The Little Things is available on most digital platforms. Cherry is on Apple TV+; Yes Day is on Netflix.
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From there, Shaka King’s film unfolds like a thriller, but a finely nuanced one, with the traitorous O’Neal finding camaraderie and even ideological purpose as he rises in the Black Panther hierarchy, while moral unease gnaws away at his FBI handler, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons with the standard 1960s FBI haircut, parting modelled on an interstate highway).

One uncomfortable but gripping scene finds Mitchell having an audience with the avuncular, egregiously racist Hoover, who uses the spectre of Mitchell’s baby daughter one day ‘bringing home a negro’ to suggest that an entire way of life is at stake.

Stanfield and the ever-reliable Plemons are both terrific throughout, as are Sheen and Dominique Fishback (also a Bafta nominee) as Hampton’s girlfriend. But this is Kaluuya’s show, and I mean it as the greatest possible compliment when I say you can’t take your eyes off him, even when you haven’t a clue what he’s saying.

At any rate, it takes a while for a British ear to become attuned, so completely does the man raised in North London inhabit a fizzingly charismatic Sixties radical from a working-class Chicago suburb.

There are, of course, many films addressing U.S. civil rights in the 1960s. In the past few months alone we’ve had Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial Of The Chicago 7 and Regina King’s One Night In Miami. But the latter, especially, seemed to me to buckle under its own artifice.

Judas And The Black Messiah tells its compelling story fiercely, yet with great swagger and style. It is the pick of the bunch — and let me throw in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, too — by a street.

Speaking of accents, and for that matter streets, I come to Locked Down, which is largely set in a middle-class London thoroughfare during the first coronavirus lockdown and features Anne Hathaway, though fear not if you still wake up screaming in the night remembering her Yorkshire vowels in One Day (2011). Here, she plays an expatriate American, Linda, married to a Brit called Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

That’s a top-notch pair of leads, and the cast also includes Ben Stiller, Ben Kingsley, Mark Gatiss, Stephen Merchant, Mindy Kaling and Claes Bang, a classy ensemble by any standards.

Moreover, the writer is Steven Knight, the Peaky Blinders creator whose big-screen credits include the fantastic Locke (2013), while the director is Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr And Mrs Smith, Edge Of Tomorrow).

So it’s not unreasonable to sit down to Locked Down with high expectations, and all the more disappointing when they are shattered within moments, which is as long as it takes to realise that Paxton and Linda, whose marriage is crumbling, are similarly insufferable (though the former might just edge it).

They don’t converse, they just swap whiny monologues that couldn’t sound more scripted if they were actually reading them, and you’ll lose patience with them and their miserable relationship long before Knight’s disastrously overwritten script contrives the most improbable heist caper I think I’ve ever seen in the movies (and I’ve seen the Morgan Freeman turkey Momentum).

The irony in all this is that Knight and Liman, by setting their story during the pandemic and peppering it with an A-Z (antibodies to Zoom) of Covid-era buzzwords, were clearly aiming to strike a collective chord. Alas, it’s the shrillest chord imaginable. The film deserves total lockdown, preferably in a steel vault, somewhere deep underground. 

  • Both films are available on most digital platforms.

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