Review – More Than 30 Pieces Of Silver (“Judas and the Black Messiah”)

An HBOMax movie about the tumultuous life of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, this stunning bio-pic had been shopped around from studio to studio for many years and was finally made with the blessing of Hampton’s family. Yes, it has Oscar gold written all over it.

Based on true events, we begin with a street-wise car thief named Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) who masquerades as an FBI agent. He gets busted one night boosting a car and is given a choice by real FBI agent, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Mitchell): either do six years behind bars OR go undercover in the 1968 Black Panther organization and get the inside dirt on their leader, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Bill, who’s clever and can think quickly on his feet, agrees since the C.I. money is good and time away from prison is appealing.

Like in Scorsese’s Departed, he secretly infiltrates the inner world of the Panther party by first doing menial tasks like working in their schools and offices, but is quickly promoted within the troops. As this is happening, Hampton is going around his home town of Chicago, inciting others to join his ‘revolution’, opening new chapters of the Black Panthers, and making friends with a pretty young poet/office worker named Deborah Johnson (Dominque Fishback). And all the while, Bill is feeding inside information to Roy on the down-low, while we learn (to our shock and surprise) that the FBI has other ‘expendable’ agents in the field and inside the Panther party.

But being both an FBI informant and a friend to Hampton is a double-edged sword as Bill finds his loyalties constantly tested. Does Hampton want peace amongst his Black brethren or does he want to, as in his speech dictates, kill all the police? And what about Bill getting out? Can he really get under the FBI’s grip on him, even when FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (a nearly unrecognizable Martin Sheen) wants Hampton and all his soldiers dead? In the end, as we see in an IRL PBS footage of O’Neal, the guilt for betraying his friend never left him.

The screenplay was written by director Shaka King (Newlyweeds) and newbie Will Berson (only TV series like Arrested Development and Scrubs), and it’s hard to imagine a movie this good was written by two relatively newbies that have only done only TV series, and comedic ones at that! Berson and King has a crackerjack, seering, smart script that is powerful, layered, textured, and doesn’t pander to the audience. And for practically a first-time director, King is excellent in delivering a dynamic film with his steady-cam that floats effortlessly through each scene, especially the driving ones, which are quite effective. He shows an instinctive, creative hand that many seasoned pro’s don’t have.

And even though Kaluuya is no doubt the focal point and star with his smoldering intensity and conviction, it’s Stanfield that steals the film as the troubled double-agent. Stanfield inhabits his character with such powerful raw conviction and uncertainty that you never know what he’s going to do or if he’s going to break down at any minute. Both deserve Academy Awards for their performances. Rounding out the film is Plemmons giving an outstanding showing as the FBI agent with a questionable heart, and Sheen as a creepy Hoover.   

**Streaming exclusively on HBOMax    

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Trust, betrayal, love, honor, respect, and friendship. If ever there was a story about all of this, it was the Biblical saga of Jesus of Nazareth and his short-lived, three-year tenure on Earth, where he made as many friends as he did enemies. This nearly NC-17 movie broke all box office records in telling that story.

Co-written and directed by Mel Gibson, this grisly, gruesome, and often shockingly graphic depiction of violence showing Jesus’ final hours, still resonates today with controversy. Not pulling any punches, Gibson almost revels in the amount of hard-core blood-letting and flesh-ripping that you’d expect to see in some B-rated zombie/cannibal exploitation film. But, said Gibson, it WAS true to the authentic nature of the whippings, beatings, flailings, and crucifixions that they had back then. Icck!!

Anyone who’s ever gone to Sunday school, picked up a Bible, gone to their own church, or is just a little religious-curious knows about Jesus Christ. After teaching peace and saving many from afflictions and even death, his time is at an end. The people hail Jesus (Jim Cavaziel) as a prophet, but the Chief Priests and elders of the Temple call him a heretic and want him gone… permanently! Enlisting the aid of Judas Iscariot  (Luca Lionello), one of Jesus’ disciples, they give him 30 pieces of silver to betray his friend. It works. That night, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas sells out his mentor and hands over Jesus to the temple guards who arrest him.

The rest is history. Jesus is brought before the Sanhedrin and accused of being all sorts of things, not least of which of claiming to be the Son of God! Jesus is then handed over to the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) who, after questioning Jesus, has him beaten and flogged (one of the most nauseating, stomach-churning scenes shown), then thrown in prison to await his ultimate death on a cross. Jesus, having to carry part of the heavy cross, has to walk up the street, while being jeered at and taunted.

He is brought to Golgotha (the place of the skull) and nailed to the cross (again, graphically shown) while his mother, Mary (Maia Morgenstern) watches her only son suffer unimaginable, agonizing pain and humiliation. After three horrific hours on the cross, Jesus dies and is laid to rest in a tomb, only to rise three days later, which is a sequel movie that Gibson is shooting at this time. The production and direction are all impeccable with all the dialogue spoken in the original Aramaic tongue, the language spoken back then, so get used to the subtitles. Cavaziel is extraordinary, depicting Jesus as he truly was, not as the usual Hollywood blue-eyed, blonde-haired, British voiced character.

It’s gritty, real, and disturbing, nothing like any other Biblical movie ever shown before it. More than a documentary, more than a movie, Gibson didn’t want another rousing Braveheart where Jesus was the hero of the story by riding in and leading his troops to victory. No, this is historically accurate (if you’ve ever read the Good Book), and Gibson, along with screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald (Wise Blood), filled in the blanks of what happened in those fateful days that led up to his capture & death without overstepping into ridiculous fiction.   

One thing was certain, Gibson didn’t sugar-coat anything about what happened back 2000 years ago or the violence that humans inflicted on each other. Needless to say, the Jewish community were NOT happy as it portrayed them in a bad light. The Pope answered back, “It is as it was.” Despite all the ghastly violence, the condemnation of some people, and the obvious religious overtones, the movie made serious money at the box office, going on to be the highest money-maker ever for an R-rated movie. Gibson even re-cut and re-released the movie later in a softer PG-13 version and made even more money!

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