Piers Marchant at Sundance 2021: Day 5

February 2, 2021

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Films: 4
Best Film of the Day(s): Judas and the Black Messiah

Prisoners of the Ghostland: For years now, Nicolas Cage has found projects that allow him  —  at this point, encourage him  —  to indulge his innermost acting Id. Never particularly one for thespian discipline before (with a few notable exceptions), he’s been freed of these petty restraints in favor of further and further unhinged “performances” that consist of his hyperbolic, twisted up line-readings and little more. For this film, he’s teamed up with Japanese gonzo auteur Sion Sono in a bizarre, cultural mash-up that includes western, samurai, comic book noir, and sci-fi all colliding together in a tedious heap. Playing largely without rules does allow for an exploration of creative impulses, but without narrative drive, or stakes of any real kind (beyond Cage’s character’s testicles  —  don’t ask), the film drowns itself in nonsensical, self-conscious oddities, with everyone seemingly taking the direction to “act weird!” until it all bleeds together. Even Cage’s various Cagisms (“Tes-ti-CAAAAL!”) get lost to the cacophony. Be careful what you wish for, Nic. 

Cusp: The specific physical details change and evolve a bit, but much of the thrust of the American coming-of-age doc remains as fixed as a mountain range. Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt’s film, about a trio of teen friends growing up in small-town Texas over the course of a long summer, hits many of the usual sorts of points: With not much else to do, the kids amuse themselves with endless smoking, boozing, and drugging (and, this being Texas, an alarming amount of playing with firearms), get into and out of relationships they think might be love before they aren’t, and disagree vehemently with their parents, and the choices they’ve made in their lives. Still, Autumn, Brittney, and Aaloni each have their own burdens to carry  —  Autumn and Brittney are both abuse survivors, Aaloni’s father seems callous and harsh to all of his children to the point that they all hate him  —  and the intimacy with which Hill and Bethencourt’s camera captures their struggles and experiences is refreshingly candid, especially in the day of the endless social media montage. The young women are caught somewhere between child and adult, but unavoidably hurtling forward, an understanding we are all forced into accepting, but hasn’t yet hit them. “I’m sixteen,” one of them says near the end, “I have forever to go.” 

Night of the Kings: On the evening of a blood-red moon at the MACA prison deep in the heart of the jungle in the Ivory Coast, a new, young inmate (Bakary Koné), having just been named “Roman” by the reigning Dangoro, Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), is forced to tell a story to the rest of the inmates as an entertainment. As soon as he has finished, he’s been warned, he will be put to death. Ivory Coast director Philippe Lacote, who grew up in the city of Abidjan, where Roman’s story takes place, has created a sort of recrafting of Arabian Nights, with Roman as its Scheherazade. The thing is, as Roman begins to stammer out his story, attempting to elongate it as much as possible in order to stay alive, the inmates make it a fully interactive affair, jumping in to demonstrate the action Roman describes, breaking into songs glorifying the characters he creates, and responding favorably or unfavorably to every detail as he lays it out to them. In this way, Roman’s halting, confusing story  —  which changes time frames, and details as Roman rethinks them  —  becomes a collective experience of the entire prison, even as Lass (Abdoul Karim Konaté), a rival to the ailing Blackbeard, plans his overthrow. Ironically, Roman’s story might not rise up to the mythic elements he keeps trying to interject, but the film’s story  —  with its colorful cast of descriptive-name characters (Half-Mad, Razor Blade, Sexy, Petrol), magic realism components, and multilayered intrigue, plays like its own sort of myth. 

Judas and the Black Messiah: It’s maybe one person out of 100 who would actually act in the best interest of everybody else instead of themselves. Which means there are about 99 who would look out for themselves, if push came to shove. Shaka King’s shattering film about Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the charismatic chairman of the Chicago sect of the Black Panther party in the late ‘60s, and William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), the man who would betray him to the FBI, is a testament to this most egregious human principle  —  memorialized, as the film’s title strongly asserts, in the Bible  —  and one of the confounding bedrocks of human civilization. Hampton was a young man when he became the chairman of his chapter, and his successes immediately grabbed the attention of J. Edgar Hoover (here played by Martin Sheen), who was obsessed with the idea that the Civil Rights movement had inlaid ties with the communists. Putting pressure on his Chicago office to diffuse Hampton, agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) brings in O’Neal, recently busted for impersonating a Fed, and offers him a chance at his freedom, but at the cost of playing snitch on “Chairman Fred.” King, who co-wrote the screenplay, boils to story down to its essence without getting needlessly choked in the details. We see Hampton’s savvy, and his ability to connect with people of any creed or color  —  easily, the most frightening element of his program to the FBI was the so-called “Rainbow Coalition” that banded together the Panthers with black street gangs, but also Puerto Rican groups, and, shockingly, all-white coalitions, all untied under the rubric of being poor and abused by Chicago’s notoriously corrupt and racist police department —  but also, his absolute belief in keeping political power in the hands of the people, not the government. King’s film features absolutely blazing performances from its two male leads, in addition to a strong turn by Dominique Fishback, as Hampton’s wife, Deborah Johnson, and a strong, driving narrative focus that keeps the line taut, even if you know exactly what’s coming. King manages to portray Hampton in purely human terms, grounded in the reality of the struggle, and avoids needlessly deifying him in the process. It’s true, O’Neal, though the primary protagonist, remains more unexplored  —  this isn’t The Killing of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, exactly  —  but Stanfield gives enough breadth to the performance to keep the film properly balanced. It’s shatteringly good. 

Sundance goes mostly virtual for this year’s edition, sparing filmgoers the altitude, long waits, standing lines, and panicked eating binges  —  but also, these things and more that make the festival so damn endearing. In any event, Sundance via living room is still a hell of a lot better than no Sundance. A daily report. 


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