A 2021 Golden Globes Round-up

The Golden Globes are under the microscope, and not only because they’re airing this Sunday. Finally, after so long, a light is being shone on their sketchy ways, not that it should matter. They’re a cabal of sycophantic foreign “journalists” with a taste for celebrity. Why should they rise to any particular moral or ethical standard vis a vis entertainment trophies? We’re talking about a world where calendar eligibility windows have been extinguished, allowing films released in January and February of 2021 to be eligible for 2020 trophies because some half-ass hazmat detective working for AMPAS thought COVID would be gone by Christmas. And so it is that I’ve decided to catch up on the last few eligible films I’ve yet to see that have been recognized by this notoriously shady organization, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Did these films deserve their precious few nominations?

Judas and the Black Messiah
nominated in Best Supporting Actor/Best Original Song

When you take stock of how many black pioneers and civil rights icons were bludgeoned or gunned down in their prime, or at a very young age, during a tumultuous 60’s and 70’s, it becomes clear the magnitude of national efforts to suppress or simply kill these movements by chopping off their heads. MLK Jr. and Malcolm X are the most famous of examples. Twenty-one year-old Fred Hampton is a less famous example for many, a vigorous, well-spoken revolutionary at the helm of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther party. His death at the hands of Nixon’s FBI, at the behest of an aging, virulent racist in J. Edgar Hoover, marks one of the most tragic events and true conspiracies in American history. Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, tracking Fred Hampton and what led a kid like Bill O’Neill to murder him for the Feds, is a frequently riveting if sometimes familiar essay on Black history in the United States.

The story of the Black Panther Party is the most white-washed and manipulated in American textbooks. If you grew up in the public education system here, you learned that the Black Panthers were extremists and terrorists bent on Black power more than Black equality. What Black Messiah intends to illuminate, beyond simple historical truths, are the good people behind this grand movement. As Hampton continually asserts, “the people are the power.” King doesn’t shy away from the fact that some members did engage in extremist activity, responding to police prodding with shotguns and snipers in one of the more infamous events involving the Party (and likely the One you read about in school), nor does he sugarcoat the fact that the FBI wasn’t merely spying and consorting with O’Neill because they thought these folks similar to the KKK. As Hoover (Martin Sheen), his face melting from too much makeup, puts it to his adoring crowd of agents, they must take down Hampton for he could unite the “Communist, Anti-War, and New Left movements.” Hoover’s crusade against the Party was a conservative war against the rising tide of progressivism in the United States, a war which continues today under the cultural rule of MAGA. Any time the left begins rising too fast and spreading too far, there’s a concerted movement within conservative circles to squash it before it soars. Nothing less than white folk’s capitalist “way of life” is at stake.

Fred Hampton was at the focal point of such a movement, and Daniel Kaluuya delivers a spellbinding lead performance (his supporting nomination is a case of category fraud if I’ve ever seen one) as the great orator, his accent, facial tics, and vocal inflections doing some heavy lifting to make us forget Hampton was only twenty-one years-old. Ditto Lakeith Stanfield as seventeen year-old FBI informant O’Neill, his character’s anxiety and affability conveyed with honesty and conviction, but not enough to make us forget he was even younger. The impact of such events, the tragedy of Hampton’s eventual assassination, are undercut by such individuals being aged up for dramatic purposes. The magnitude of the governmental overreach and dirty dealing is undermined if we’re watching none the wiser, believing these men were thirtysomething radicals. They were kids with their lives ahead of them, and those lives were co-opted or cut short by men in suits. As Mitchell, one of the men in suits, Jesse Plemons cuts a nice audition for his upcoming lead role as an FBI spook in Martin Scorsese’s next film. He’s a duplicitous man who, on the one hand, truly believes the Black Panthers and the KKK to be comparable organizations and, on the other hand, clearly has no problem giving into authority when his superior Hoover presses him to cross moral and ethical lines. The Hoovers of the world might be few and far between today, but the Mitchells of the world are everywhere to this day.

Filling out a robust supporting cast are Ashton Sanders (Moonlight), Algee Smith (Detroit), and Dominique Fishback as Hampton’s girlfriend, a role that proves her big splash in Project Power was no fluke. Judas could have used more Hampton and less O’Neill, more between Fred and Deborah as she tries to navigate how to date a man of the people, a man whose primary focus is others over self. Nevertheless, King overcomes narrative familiarities with a keen sense of time and place. He’s clearly studied the era, and the film overall is imbued with a revolutionary kick, philosophically if not stylistically. Does Kaluuya deserve a nomination for Best Supporting Actor this year? No, but it has nothing to do with the quality of performance. His is a leading performance, and his movie is a 2021, not 2020 picture.

Grade: B+

Music
nominated in Best Picture, Musical or Comedy/Best Actress, Musical or Comedy

So I did it, I saw it, the much-maligned surprise nominee and current target of humorless outrage around the Association’s penchant for taking bribes. How does a film with zero buzz nor marketing campaign or industry clout to speak of garner major nominations? Well, that’s what all the crazy hullabaloo is about. In spite of the film’s irrelevance and incompetence, having seen it now, I get it now. This is a quasi-musical from a famous musician, with an all-star cast and a wannabe inspiring narrative, so it’s right up their alley. Besides recovering alcoholic Kazoo (Kate Hudson), a name in a long list of names that suggest every man and woman here was named in the hopes of future pop stardom, there’s Hamilton alum Leslie Odom Jr, Jean Ralphio icon Ben Schwartz, veteran comic Hector Elizondo, character actress Juliette Lewis, and Sia herself in a cameo. As a film, it’s an unforgivably flawed tapestry of bad choices that go beyond misrepresentation of autism or irresponsible teachings on how to calm an individual with autism, both of which you’ve likely heard about by now. Music is the equivalent of a white savior picture that doesn’t even bother to develop an arc or personality for the character that requires saving. Say what you want about those films, but they at least pretend to assign agency and/or depth to their Noble Black Heroes. Instead, Sia and co. clearly care more about such predictable shenanigans as Hudson’s ne’er-do-well antics and inter-cutting her film with music video vignettes than they do exploring life with autism. And those vignettes only serve to distract rather than enlighten, though they are wonderfully photographed and choregraphed, displaying the vast differences between film directing and music video directing. Perhaps Sia should stick to the latter, as she’s bit off more than she can chew attempting to address human behavioral problems, whether it’s drug abuse or mental acuity. As far as the Golden Globes, this is no comeback for Goldie Hawn’s kid nor a film worthy of serious consideration for any trophies, no matter how trivial they may be.

Grade: D+

I Care a Lot
nominated in Best Actress, Musical or Comedy

I Care a Lot includes some whip-smart editing, frequently stylish direction, Peter Dinklage as a gangster, and a devilishly entertaining performance from Rosamund Pike. So why doesn’t it work nearly as much as it should? Filmmaker J Blakeson is jovially plumbing the shallow depths of end-stage Capitalism, but he’s doing so in such an obvious and obtuse manner that the story often stretches credulity. I don’t exactly doubt that there are men and women like Marla Grayson in our healthcare system, lions looking for lamb to squeeze more than a few sheckles from in a world that doesn’t often respect the elderly (just look at the state of nursing homes during COVID). I very much doubt, however, that such a process involving so many actors could be as easy as I Care a Lot would have you believe, or that an entire industry built on caretaking is filled only with scumbags looking for a quick buck. Blakeson has written a film bent on confusing cynicism with realism. At some point, the moral depravity of these characters and how prolific their immoral actions begins to convey a strange naivete about the way the world looks and works. The script eventually asks us to identify and sympathize with Marla and her girlfriend (Eiza Gonzalez) despite neither possessing any redeeming qualities. There’s certainly little backstory to fill in the motivational gaps. It’s as if their sexy queer status and badass womanhood in a world of men is supposed to be enough to trick us into rooting for deplorable human beings. When Scorsese manipulated a generation with The Wolf of Wall Street, clever misdirection and an emphasis on the allure of sex, drugs, and debauchery guaranteed anyone still on board Jordan Belfort’s jaundiced ride in the third act would experience inner conflict when the worm finally turned. There’s no inner conflict for us as we watch Marla ruin the life of a successful, lucid older woman (Dianne Wiest), among others, and then go to war with a more scrupulous Russian gangster (Dinklage) with a heart of gold reserved only for his mother. I Care a Lot is laced with the insidious, cockamamie idea that such women only take advantage because they are already disadvantaged by sexism. Note the many micro-aggressions in a scene between Pike and Chris Messina’s well-coiffed mob lawyer, as he continually denigrates the concept of a female doctor, as if this were 1921 and not 2021. Blakeson’s style points and Pike’s Globe-worthy performance keep I Care a Lot humming along, and it’s never less than deliriously enjoyable watching the rare moments when Marla loses. But if you’re looking for an incisive expose of American greed and capitalism by way of elder guardianship, perhaps a film that kicks off with a VO about “predators and prey, lions and lambs” isn’t the way to go.

Grade: C+

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