Review: ‘Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody,’ starring Naomi Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Ashton Sanders, Tamara Tunie, Nafessa Williams and Clarke Peters

December 21, 2022

by Carla Hay

Naomi Ackie in “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (Photo by Emily Aragones/TriStar Pictures)

“Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody”

Directed by Kasi Lemmons

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1983 to 2012, in various parts of the world, the dramatic film “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” features a cast of African American and white characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Entertainment superstar Whitney Houston has struggles with her public image, her sexuality, fame, drugs, her parents and a volatile marriage to singer Bobby Brown. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Whitney Houston fans, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” will appeal primarily to people who want to see music-video-styled recreations of her life and relatively tame depictions of her biggest public scandals.

Nafessa Williams and Naomi Ackie in “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (Photo by Emily Aragones/TriStar Pictures)

At times, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” looks more like a cliché checklist of the legendary diva’s high points and low points instead of being an insightful biopic. However, the cast members’ performances, led by a dynamic Naomi Ackie, elevate this uneven movie. The recreations of some of Whitney Houston’s most beloved performances and music videos are among the highlights of this biopic, which sometimes gets dragged down by corny dialogue and tedious pacing.

Directed by Kasi Lemmons and written by Anthony McCarten, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is a movie sanctioned by the Whitney Houston estate, which is overseen by her sister-in-law Pat, who is one of the movie’s producers. Whitney Houston—who died at age 48 in 2012, of a drug-related drowning in a Beverly Hills hotel bathtub—has been the subject of some tell-all documentaries and books since her death. Therefore, the only people who might be surprised by what’s in “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” are those who don’t know what’s already been revealed in these tell-all stories or in the tabloid media.

That’s why everything in “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” feels like a retread with nothing fresh or innovative to offer in telling Whitney’s story. However, the movie delivers in its intention to be a nostalgia trip for her music and in doing faithful and meticulous staging of many of Whitney’s iconic moments. This is a movie made for fans who don’t want to see anything too shocking or too unflattering about Whitney.

Ackie’s performance as Whitney admirably captures some of the magic of this entertainment superstar. However, this depiction of Whitney never looks like a true embodiment but more like a better-than-average imitation. Some of Ackie’s real singing is in the movie, but the majority of Whitney’s singing in the movie consists of the real Whitney’s recordings. (And wisely so, since no one can completely duplicate Whitney’s extraordinary vocal talent and style.) Ackie, who is British in real life, also does a credible but not outstanding imitation of Whitney’s speaking voice.

Because this movie does not aspire to be prestigious, award-winning art, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” serves its purpose in delivering Whitney’s hits as a soundtrack to the portrayal of her life’s melodrama. Much of the real-life raunchiness and decadence are toned down to make her story more appealing to audiences of wide age ranges. The movie never takes the time to understand Whitney’s inner thoughts, but instead gives viewers plenty of behind-the-scenes drama that was already exposed years ago.

There are some touches of comedy that generally work well to lighten the mood. But sometimes, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” tries too hard to gloss over much of her emotional pain. Anything truly depressing in her life (which might have contributed to her drug addiction) is never fully examined, because the movie then jumps back into showing another Whitney performance. In other words, these are surface-level portrayals of Whitney’s problems.

For example, the 1991 miscarriage that Whitney had while filming the 1992 film “The Bodyguard” (her feature-film debut, which spawned the blockbuster soundtrack of the same name) gets less than two minutes of screen time. It breezes by with a scene of Whitney being comforted on a hospital bed by then-fiancé Bobby Brown (played by Ashton Sanders), with him telling her they can have other children in the future. And the miscarriage is never mentioned again. In real life, according to several people who knew Whitney and talked about her in interviews, this miscarriage had a profound and traumatic effect on her, but you’d never know it from watching this movie.

“Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” screenwriter McCarten also wrote the divisive screenplay for “Bohemian Rhapsody” (the Oscar-winning 2018 biopic of British rock band Queen), which got a lot of criticism for jumbling the band’s timeline too much and fabricating important details. “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” doesn’t have those problems, since the movie sticks to the basic, well-known facts of Whitney’s life. The film’s tweaks to Whitney’s life timeline are minor and do not significantly rewrite factual history. The movie shows a good balance of Whitney in the recording studio and on stage, but the depictions of how she deals with her personal problems are often reduced to soundbites.

“Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (which takes place from 1983 to 2012) is told mostly in chronological order, except for the movie opening with the introduction to her performance at the 1994 American Music Awards. It’s a scene that the movie circles back to at the end of the film, which concludes in a somewhat long, drawn-out and awkward way: Her entire medley performance (of “I Loves You, Porgy,” “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” and “I Have Nothing”) is recreated on screen when the end credits should have already been rolling.

The movie depicts Whitney’s rise to stardom, beginning in 1983, when she was 19 or 20 years old and a backup vocalist for her gospel singer mother Cissy Houston (played by Tamara Tunie), who had a great deal of influence on Whitney as a singer. Cissy is portrayed as loving but also very strong-willed and domineering with Whitney. As a performer, Cissy was well-known but not rich by any stretch of the imagination.

Cissy’s headlining status was mostly at large nightclubs and small theaters. And even though Whitney’s cousin is Dionne Warwick, Whitney’s godmother was Aretha Franklin, and the Houston family mingled with showbiz royalty, Whitney grew up in a middle-class home in the New Jersey cities of Newark and East Orange. Cissy often spent a lot of time away from home as a touring artist to pay the family’s bills. Cissy’s then-husband John Houston (played by Clarke Peters) was also Cissy’s manager. Like many famous divas, Whitney’s first manager was also her father.

As shown and told repeatedly in the movie, Cissy and John (who would eventually divorce in 1990, after 31 years of marriage) frequently argued because John expected Cissy to be a more attentive to the family despite her busy touring schedule, while Cissy resented having to be the family’s main source of income for years. Whitney’s older brothers Michael (played by JaQuan Malik Jones) and Gary (played by Daniel Washington) are briefly seen near the beginning of the movie, in a scene where all three siblings are smoking marijuana together in one of the family’s bedrooms. In real life, Gary (who married Pat in 1994) and Michael have admitted that they introduced Whitney to marijuana and cocaine, which became longtime addictions for her. (Whitney’s older brother John Houston III is not shown and is barely mentioned in the movie.)

How did John and Cissy Houston’s troubled marriage affect Whitney? The movie quickly depicts a young adult Whitney looking sad and disturbed as she listens to her parents arguing in another room. But she’s never really shown opening up to anyone about how all of this turmoil affected her. By the time Whitney meets Robyn Crawford (played by Nafessa Williams), who’s three years older than Whitney, on a basketball court, Whitney is all too happy to name drop the famous people who are in her family, in order to impress Robyn. The movie portrays Whitney and Robyn’s first meeting in 1983, when they actually met in 1980.

As shown in the movie, Whitney and Robyn became fast friends and eventually became lovers. For a while, Whitney and Robyn lived together before Whitney became famous and during the early years of her fame. It’s a romance that the real Crawford publicly confirmed in her 2019 memoir “A Song for You: My Life With Whitney Houston,” after years of speculation and gossip about the true nature of their relationship. Brown, who was married to Whitney from 1992 to 2007, also told intimate details about his volatile relationship with Whitney (which included love-triangle jealousy between him and Crawford) in his 2016 memoir “Every Little Step: My Story.”

“Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” then shows the expected rise to fame of Whitney, beginning with a very contrived-looking scene of Cissy seeing Arista Records founder Clive Davis (played by Stanley Tucci) in the audience before the start of one of Cissy’s shows at Sweetwater’s Club in New York City. Cissy pretends to lose her voice, so that a confused Whitney would go on stage in Cissy’s place. Whitney sings a cover version of George Benson’s 1977 song “The Greatest Love of All,” which later became a hit from Whitney’s 1985 self-titled debut album. Clive is predictably blown away by Whitney’s talent; some variations of “I can make you star” scenes happen; Whitney signs a record deal with Arista; and Whitney becomes an instant smash.

Throughout the movie, Whitney is shown being torn between her public image and how she lived in private. From the beginning of her career at Arista, it was planned that she would have the image of a clean-cut princess who would have wide crossover appeal among many races and generations. Behind the scenes, Whitney is shown as someone who was already using drugs, and she didn’t really like wearing the dresses and wigs that she was pressured to wear as part of her “princess” image.

Behind the scenes, Whitney and Robyn were open about their relationship, but Whitney’s father/manager and other handlers told Whitney to appear like a heterosexual bachelorette who wanted to eventually get married to a man. Because of Whitney’s religious Christian upbringing, the movie shows her often being personally conflicted about her same-sex romance with Robyn, while Robyn had no such doubts. When the tabloid media would later report that Whitney was a lesbian, Whitney would deny it, which is technically an accurate denial, because she was also sexually attracted to men, and she probably identified as queer or bisexual.

When Whitney has a short-lived affair with singer Jermaine Jackson (played by Jaison Hunter), her duet partner on 1985’s “Nobody Loves Me Like You Do,” the movie shows Robyn flying into a rage and trashing the home where she and Whitney live. The movie does not mention that Jermaine was married to his first wife, Hazel Gordy (daughter of Motown founder Berry Gordy), at the time of Jermaine’s affair with Whitney. Eventually, Whitney and Robyn moved on to other love partners, but Robyn and Whitney continued to work together.

The movie also shows how Whitney’s relationship with Robyn led to clashes with Whitney’s father/manager John (who didn’t like that Whitney hired inexperienced Robyn as Whitney’s personal assistant) and later conflicts with Whitney’s husband Bobby, when Robyn had been promoted at the time to being Whitney’s creative director. (“She’s my princess!” John sneers at Robyn, during one of the movie’s cringeworthy lines of dialogue.) When the addictions to drugs and alcohol got out of control for Whitney and Bobby, the movie portrays Robyn as one of the few people in the couple’s entourage who would try to put a stop to it. But those efforts got stubborn resistance from self-destructive Whitney and Bobby. Robyn, who eventually quit working with Whitney in 2000, left the entertainment business.

Whitney’s relationship with Robyn in the early years of Whitney’s career are the scenes that seem the most genuine in portraying the “real” Whitney Houston. In a somewhat amusing scene, Robyn and Whitney both barge into John’s office, where he and his mistress/secretary Barbara (played by Andrea Eversley) are interrupted while being affectionate with each other. Whitney reacts like she knows that her father has been cheating on her mother, but Whitney doesn’t want to talk about it. Meanwhile, before Barbara leaves the room, she calls Whitney the family nickname for Whitney—Nippy—and Whitney and Robyn give each other a look, as if they’re thinking, “Say what? How dare she use the name Nippy!”

“Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” has repetitive scenes of Whitney being bothered by criticism that she wasn’t “black enough” for some black audiences because of her choice of music, her mainstream success and her “America’s sweetheart” image. In other scene, Whitney gets defensive and angry with a radio DJ who tells her that many black people think she’s a sellout to her race. Whitney also makes a point of telling people that she didn’t grow up spoiled and rich.

The movie shows how Whitney tries to keep her composure in the audience when she gets booed at the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards while her name was announced as one of the show’s nominees for Best Music Video, and losing in that category to Janet Jackson. Robyn is Whitney’s date at this show. The movie alters a few details, because the booing incident actually happened at the 1988 Soul Train Music Awards, not at the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards.

The 1989 Soul Train Music Awards was where Whitney met Bobby, who was seated in front of her. Whitney gets his attention by swinging her purse deliberately so that the purse hit his head. (In real life, Whitney said she got his attention by kicking his chair, and he was really irritated by it.) Sanders portrays Bobby as someone who can be both a selfish troublemaker and a generous charmer, but the movie still leaves out some of the worst public information about Bobby.

Tucci’s portrayal of music mogul Clive is surprisingly subdued and not as interesting as it could have been, considering the real Clive Davis (who is one of the movie’s producers) has a reputation for being very charismatic. The movie shows Whitney telling Clive before she makes her first album with Arista that she doesn’t want to make white music or black music. She just wants to make great music. It’s one of several examples of the movie’s hokey dialogue that doesn’t ruin the movie but certainly lowers the quality of the film. Another example is when Clive first sees Whitney perform at Sweetwater’s Club, and he declares to his subordinate Gerry Griffith (played by Lance A. Williams), who persuaded Clive to be there: “I believe I’ve heard the greatest voice of her generation.”

The movie makes a half-hearted attempt to explain why Whitney didn’t go to rehab sooner for her addictions. In a scene shortly before Whitney records her first album, Clive promises that he won’t judge her or lecture her about her personal life. It isn’t until Whitney starts canceling performances, and the record company is losing money in other ways because of her drug problems, that Clive finally intervenes and tells her that she needs to go to rehab. It’s a very over-simplified scene because there were a lot more people involved in enabling Whitney and getting her to go to rehab. Her first public stint in rehab was in 2005.

What stands out most in this movie are undoubtedly the near-perfect recreations of Whitney’s on-stage performances, with the best highlight being Whitney’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV in 1991. The scene is shown with the pomp and circumstance of immersing audiences into a VIP experience of that spectacular performance. Even though in real life, Whitney used a prerecorded track instead of singing live, the energy in the performance and her vocal expressions are what really captivated people the most.

Other recreations in the movie include Whitney’s performance of “Home” on “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1983; her music videos for 1985’s “How Will I Know,” 1987’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” 1992’s “I Will Always Love You” and 1998’s “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay”; and 1994’s Whitney: The Concert for a New South Africa. The movie also has performances depicting some of her tours spanning several decades, from the 1980s to her ill-fated 2009-2010 last tour. The songs she performs in these concert scenes include “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” “I’m Every Woman,” “So Emotional” and “One Moment in Time.” There’s also a depiction of Whitney’s musical director Rickey Minor (played by Dave Heard) convincing a reluctant and skeptical Whitney in a rehearsal space to do her 1994 American Music Awards medley and rehearsing it for the first time.

The movie accurately shows how her final tour wasn’t exactly a triumph, since many of the shows were not well-attended, started late, or were canceled. In addition, Whitney got some negative reviews for not being able to hit the same notes that she could in the past. Whitney’s financial problems and her legal battles with her father (who sued her for $100 million in 2002, as he was dying in a hospital) are also depicted like more plot developments in a soap opera. Pat Houston (played by Kris Sidberry), who took over as Whitney’s manager after Whitney fired her father, is portrayed as the person who pointed out to Whitney that John Houston’s irresponsible spending led to Whitney’s losing so much money, she describes her fortune as “almost gone” in a scene where she confronts her father about it.

For every showstopping musical performance in the movie, the off-stage recreations are hit and miss, usually marred by shallow dialogue and very contrived scenarios. When Bobby and Whitney begin dating and are labeled an “odd couple” by the media, Bobby is defensive and tells Whitney why they have so much in common: “We from the ‘hood!” Bobby’s marriage proposal in a limousine is made to look intentionally comedic. As soon as Whitney says yes, he confesses that one of his ex-girlfriends is pregnant with their second child. Whitney gets angry, storms out of the limo, and the couple has one of many arguments shown in the movie.

Whitney and Bobby’s 1992 wedding, which was extravagant and had about 800 guests in real life, looks like a cheap imitation in the movie, which does a quick montage that makes it look like hardly anyone was at the wedding. Don’t expect the movie to give much insight into how Whitney was as a mother. Whitney and Bobby’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina (played as an adolescent by Bria Danielle Singleton), is portrayed as Whitney’s sidekick who doesn’t have much of a personality. (Bobbi Kristina’s tragic death at age 22 in 2015 is not mentioned in the movie.)

To its credit, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is more candid and a better-made film than Lifetime’s relatively low-budget 2015 movie “Whitney” (starring Yaya DaCosta as Whitney), which was directed by Angela Bassett. Lifetime’s “Whitney” movie was not sanctioned by the Whitney Houston estate, which might be why “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” excels in showing Whitney as a music artist. For all of its shortcomings, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” at least gets it right when it comes to representing Whitney’s musical essence that remains her greatest legacy.

TriStar Pictures will release “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” in U.S. cinemas on December 23, 2022.

Review: ‘Judas and the Black Messiah,’ starring Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield

February 1, 2021

by Carla Hay

LaKeith Stanfield (in front) and Daniel Kaluuya (in back) in “Judas and the Black Messiah” (Photo by Glenn Wilson/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Judas and the Black Messiah”

Directed by Shaka King

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Chicago in 1968 and 1969, the drama “Judas and the Black Messiah” features a predominately African American cast (with some white people and Latinos) representing people involved in the civil rights movement and law enforcement.

Culture Clash: The Black Panther Party, including Illinois chapter chairman Fred Hampton, was the target of FBI investigations that included hiring an African American paid informant named Bill O’Neal to infiltrate the Black Panther Party to help the FBI bring down Hampton and his colleagues.

Culture Audience: “Judas and the Black Messiah” will appeal primarily to people interested in movies about the civil rights movement for African Americans.

LaKeith Stanfield and Jesse Plemons in “Judas and the Black Messiah” (Photo by Glenn Wilson/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Judas and the Black Messiah,” which is based on true events, mostly succeeds as presenting a rousing and riveting depiction of a troubling side of the U.S. civil rights movement that is rarely seen as the central plot of a movie: How African Americans were used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to betray African American civil rights leaders who were labeled as “troublemakers” by the FBI. It’s a necessary and sometimes uncomfortable examination of specific people in the late 1960s history of the civil rights movement, even though “Judas and the Black Messiah” has some awards-bait dramatics that were obviously manufactured for the movie.

Directed by Shaka King (who co-wrote the screenplay with Will Berson), “Judas and the Black Messiah” shows two very different sides of the African American experience with the civil rights movement. On the one side is the urgent activism embodied by Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. On the other side, is the passive political apathy of William “Bill” O’Neal, a car thief who was lured into betraying the Black Panthers by being a paid confidential informant for the FBI, in exchange for the FBI keeping O’Neal out of prison for his past crimes, such as car theft and impersonating a FBI agent.

“Judas and the Black Messiah,” which takes place primarily in Chicago, is told from perspective of O’Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield), but Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya) is most definitely portrayed as the heroic soul of the movie. In real life, Hampton and O’Neal were in their early 20s when this movie takes place from late 1968 to late 1969. Thankfully, the filmmakers chose “Judas and the Black Messiah” as the movie’s title, instead of the movie’s original and very misleading title “Jesus Was My Homeboy.” Jesus is not a major theme in this movie at all.

The term “black messiah” refers to then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s fear that the civil rights movement would gain momentum under a powerful and charismatic leader. For a while, that leader was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK), until he was brutally assassinated on April 4, 1968. “Judas and the Black Messiah” starts off in late 1968, when the civil rights movement became increasingly fractured by ideological divides between those who wanted to follow MLK’s non-violence philosophy and those such as the Black Panthers, who wanted to follow a more left-wing-leaning “any means necessary” philosophy, even if those means included violence.

Hoover has been depicted in various ways in movies and television, but in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” there’s no doubt that Hoover (played by Martin Sheen, in prosthetic makeup) is the movie’s chief villain. In an early scene in the movie, Hoover is presumably at FBI headquarters as he addresses an auditorium full of FBI agents (all white men, as Hoover reportedly preferred), with an oversized projection screen that looks a little too ahead of its time, as if he’s giving a TED Talk. This is supposed to be 1968, not 2018. It’s one of a few details that don’t ring true in the movie.

During this FBI assembly, Hoover sneers, “The Black Panthers are the single greatest threat to our national security. Our counterintelligence program must prevent the rise of a black messiah among their midst, one with the potential to unite Communists, the anti-war and the new left movements.” A photo of Hampton then appears on the giant projection screen, to make it clear that Hampton is now one of the FBI’s main targets.

Meanwhile, O’Neal is shown being a small-time car thief with an unusual method of operation: He impersonates a FBI agent (including having a fake badge) and pretends to arrest someone for having a stolen car. He looks for potential victims, by at least finding out their names and what kind of car they have, so the fake arrest can look real. And he chooses people who are probably into illegal activities and aren’t likely to go to the police when the theft victims find out they’ve been tricked. It’s implied that all of O’Neal’s theft victims are black, since he knows he’d have very little chance of getting away with this FBi impersonation stunt if he tried it on white people.

What usually happens during this fake FBI arrest is that O’Neal gets the handcuffed person’s car keys and steals that person’s car. Except when viewers first see O’Neal in this movie, that plan backfires in a bad way. O’Neal walks into a bar while some men are playing pool and tries to arrest one of them, but this stranger resists being handcuffed. The “arrestee” has a few friends who also try to stop the detainment. They’re all immediately suspicious of this “arrest” and chase after O’Neal in the car.

One of the friends jumps on the car roof with a knife and starts stabbing through the roof and ends up stabbing O’Neal. The injuries aren’t serious, but they’re enough for this car theft to be completely botched. O’Neal barely manages to get away from the angry group when he’s pulled over by police.

The movie then fast-forwards to O’Neal in a meeting with the FBI special agent who will be the one to lure O’Neal into the FBI sting: Roy Mitchell (played by Jesse Plemons), an ambitious smooth talker who asks O’Neal why he impersonated a FBI agent for a car theft. O’Neal replies, “A badge is scarier than a gun.”

Mitchell then asks O’Neal how he felt about the assassinations of MLK and Malcolm X. O’Neal replies that he was a “little bit” upset over MLK’s murder and he didn’t give much thought to Malcolm X’s murder. It’s at this point that Mitchell knows that O’Neal doesn’t care much about politics or the civil rights movement, and therefore O’Neal can be easily manipulated into being an informant.

First, Mitchell says that the only way that O’Neal can avoid prison is to work as an informant for the FBI. Whenever O’Neal starts to express doubts about being an informant (and this happens several times throughout the story), Mitchell tells O’Neal that the Black Panthers aren’t much different from the Ku Klux Klan, because Mitchell says both are radical, unpatriotic groups that want to divide people by their races and overthrow the U.S. government.

It doesn’t take long for O’Neal to infiltrate the Black Panther Party in Chicago and gain the trust of Hampton, who makes O’Neal the head of security. Hampton is a smart and magnetic leader who is respected by other party members because he often shows through words and deeds that the cause he’s fighting for isn’t about his ego but is about the people and future generations. Unlike other Black Power leaders, who wanted to keep black people separate from people of other races, Hampton embraced alliances with like-minded people of other races.

Hampton is credited with creating the Rainbow Coalition in 1969, which aimed to unite other anti-establishment groups for shared causes. It was a concept that was met with some resistance from the separatist Black Panthers, but because this is a movie, the Rainbow Coalition’s origins are a little too oversimplified and streamlined. One minute, Hampton and some other Black Panthers are showing up uninvited to meetings by the Young Patriots (a group of working-class white people) and the Young Lords (a group of Puerto Ricans) and making themselves known as unexpected allies. The next minute, Hampton is leading a Rainbow Coalition rally with members of the Black Panthers, the Young Patriots and the Young Lords in attendance.

The movie also shows how Hampton spearheaded the alignment of the Black Panthers with a Chicago-based African American gang called the Crowns, in order for the Black Panthers to have access to weapons and armed security backup. And what do you know, one of the Crowns just happens to be someone who was in that group that chased after O’Neal in that botched car theft. There’s a very “movie moment” when O’Neal is sure this guy is going to remember him, thereby making O’Neal more paranoid that his cover will be blown.

Some of the other Black Panther Party members who are featured in the movie include Jimmy Palmer (played by Ashton Sanders), Jake Winters (played by Algee Smith), Judy Harmon (played by Dominique Thorn) and Deborah Johnson (played by Dominique Fishback), a wide-eyed student who is in awe of Hampton and ends up becoming his girlfriend. In real life, Johnson is now known as Akua Njeri, and she gave birth to Fred Hampton Jr. in December 1969. Njeri and Hampton Jr. both were consultants on “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

Of course, in any movie that involves spying, there are double crosses and constant questions about loyalty, honesty and who can be trusted. The movie ramps up the tension not only outside the Black Panther Party but also within it. “Judas and the Black Messiah” also raises thought-provoking questions that will make people wonder about the prices that people pay for freedom, however freedom might be defined by individuals. And when there are informants or spies who are paid to betray, to what extent should they be branded as the “enemy”?

“Judas and the Black Messiah” has undoubtedly powerful performances by Kaluuya as Hampton and Stanfield as O’Neal. Kaluuya has the flashier role that will get more attention, mainly because there’s no ambiguity about his purpose in the film: depicting Hampton as a civil rights hero. In the few times Hampton was depicted in scripted projects before “Judas and the Black Messiah” was made, Hampton was usually a marginal character who didn’t have much depth, such as in the Netflix 2020 movie “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”

In “Judas and the Black Messiah,” Hampton is a larger-than-life personality who gets the big speeches, the leadership position at rallies, and the martyrdom when he lands in prison at the height of his power. Hampton’s biggest showcase speech scene comes after he’s released from prison and gets a hero’s welcome during a Black Panther rally in Chicago. After leading the crowd to chant, “I am a revolutionary!” several times in the speech, he declares poetically: “You can murder a liberator, but you can’t murder liberation! You can murder a revolutionary, but you can’t murder a revolution! You can murder a freedom fighter, but you can’t murder freedom!”

Stanfield has the more difficult and nuanced role as the conflicted and duplicitous O’Neal. On the one hand, O’Neal knows he’s a traitor. On the other hand, O’Neal is portrayed as someone who genuinely became friends with many people in the Black Panther Party, but he felt powerless to stop the informant deal that he made with the FBI. There are times when O’Neal shows so much loyalty to the Black Panthers that FBI agent Mitchell doubts whose side O’Neal is really on.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” doesn’t let O’Neal completely off the hook for his betrayal, but the movie gives the impression that his decisions were not about the money but about his fear of going to prison if he didn’t comply with what the FBI wanted. In real life, O’Neal gave only one TV interview about his Black Panther/FBI informant experience. It was in 1989, in an interview for the PBS show “Eyes on the Prize 2,” which aired the interview on January 15, 1990. Clips of this interview are recreated in the movie.

The performances in “Judas and the Black Messiah” are impactful and deserving of high praise. Where the movie falters is in some of the scenarios depicting the interactions between O’Neal and his FBI contact Mitchell. In the movie, Mitchell deliberately kept O’Neal’s identity a secret from most his FBI colleagues. (Hoover knew though.) Therefore, it doesn’t make sense that the movie shows O’Neal and Mitchell openly meeting several times in upscale restaurants, where O’Neal is obviously the only black person there as a dining patron. It wouldn’t have been hard for the movie’s screenwriters to keep all of the meetings between O’Neal and Mitchell in less public places.

O’Neal’s wardrobe gets a little more stylish as he starts to make more money from the FBI. But in the beginning, O’Neal definitely stands out in these restaurants because he’s dressed inappropriately (too casual) for these kinds of dining establishments. If you were to believe this movie, in 1969 Chicago, a black man in “street clothes” can walk into an upscale restaurant where all the other patrons are white, sit down, have dinner with a white man in a suit, and no one notices, stares or questions why this inappropriately dressed black man is there. Things like that would’ve definitely gotten noticed in the real world. And this scenario is not exactly O’Neal and Mitchell keeping their relationship undercover or incognito.

Another “only in a movie” contrivance is in a scene where a despondent O’Neal ends up in a bar, where a woman shows a romantic interest in him after she rejects a fur-coat-wearing motormouth at a nearby barstool. The rejected man (played by Lil Rel Howery), who is identified only as Wayne in the movie’s end credits, is a stranger to O’Neal, but Wayne drops hints that he knows that O’Neal is working for the FBI.

O’Neal, who is already feeling very uneasy, follows Wayne out to Wayne’s car and demands to know who he is. The movie, with anxiety-filled music building to a crescendo, then has Wayne reveal something that’s meant to shock O’Neal and the audience. It’s highly doubtful this confrontation ever happened in real life, but fans of the Oscar-winning 2017 horror movie “Get Out” will be happy to see “Get Out” co-stars Kaluuya, Stanfield and Howery reunited as cast members for “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

As the only women with significant speaking roles in the movie, Fishback (as Hampton’s girlfriend Johnson) and Thorne (as Black Panther member Harmon) show considerable talent, although this is definitely a male-dominated film. Johnson’s character evolves from being a star-stuck fangirl of Hampton to being a loyal romantic partner to being a strong-willed expectant mother, who can’t help but feel impending heartbreak and doom when she hears Hampton give a speech saying that he will probably die for his people. Thorne’s Harmon is a badass who can get down and dirty in fight scenes just like the men do, such as in a tension-filled shootout between the Chicago Police Department and the Black Panthers.

The flaws in the movie’s screenplay are outweighed by the significant talent of the cast members and the ability of director King to maintain a suspenseful edge. Even though many people watching this movie might already know what happened to Hampton and O’Neal in real life, “Judas and the Black Messiah” triumphs in capturing the essence of this era of the civil rights movement in America. There might be fabricated “only in a movie” moments, but the film authentically conveys the passion and necessity for civil rights.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “Judas and the Black Messiah” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on February 12, 2021.

Review: ‘All Day and a Night,’ starring Ashton Sanders, Jeffrey Wright, Regina Taylor, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Isaiah John, Kelly Jenrette and Shakira Ja’Nai Paye

May 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ashton Sanders and Jeffrey Wright in “All Day and a Night” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Netflix)

“All Day and a Night”

Directed by Joe Robert Cole

Culture Representation: Taking place in Oakland, California, the drama “All Day and a Night” has a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) representing the middle-class, lower-class and criminal underworld.

Culture Clash: A young African American man struggles to become a law-abiding citizen, but he falls into the same criminal lifestyles of his father and paternal grandfather.

Culture Audience: “All Day and a Night” will appeal primarily to people who want to see the same negative clichés of African Americans in ghettos that several movies and TV shows have already done.

Ashton Sanders and Shakira Ja’nai Paye in “All Day and a Night” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Netflix)

If people wonder why so many racists automatically think African American men are violent thugs, a movie like “All Day and a Night” just fuels that racism, because this unoriginal and uninspired movie panders to the worst negative stereotypes of African Americans. The fact that “All Day and a Night” was written and directed by an African American—Joe Robert Cole, who co-wrote “Black Panther” with director Ryan Coogler—doesn’t excuse it or make it better.

There’s a reason why predominantly African American dramas such as “Black Panther,” “Creed” and “Hidden Figures” did so well at the box office, while predominantly African American films about black criminals, such as the modern-day remakes of “Superfly” and “Shaft,” turned out to be flops. (And it’s probably why “All Day and a Night” went straight to Netflix instead of being a theatrical release.)

People are hungry for diverse African American stories that aren’t about the old, tired stereotype of African Americans being “criminals from the ‘hood.” This “criminals from the ‘hood” movie might have been fresh and original back in the early 1990s, with the success of “Boyz N the Hood,” “New Jack City” and “Menace II Society.” But today’s movie audiences are much more aware of the diversity in African American culture and want to see that diversity reflected on screen. Filmmakers can do better in representing that diversity, instead of lazily falling back on racist clichés that have been done already in countless movies and TV shows.

Set in Oakland, California, “All Day and a Night” is a story about a man in his early 20s named Jahkor Abraham Lincoln (played by Ashton Sanders), who comes from a family where generations of the men in the family have ended up in prison. In voiceovers throughout the movie, an adult Jahkor says things like, “By the time my father was 6, his father had been to jail nine times” and “When violence is all around you, you get used to it.”

It’s shown from the beginning of the film that Jahkor is a cold-blooded murderer—he snuck into a home and shot a man and a woman to death in front of their young daughter—and he’s been sentenced to life in prison for the crime. The rest of the film has flashbacks to various points in Jahkor’s life to show how and why he ended up this way.

There’s absolutely nothing unique or interesting about Jahkor to make audiences think that he was a talented and well-meaning kid who had the bad luck to fall through the cracks in an uncaring society. In fact, Jahkor—who is a mediocre aspiring rapper (how cliché)—grew up with the support of a hard-working mother, a loving grandmother and a schoolmate friend who has goals to get out of the ghetto and do something better with his life than becoming a criminal. But the movie clearly shows that Jahkor ignored these positive role models and instead chose the “thug life” of his own free will. Therefore, he (and this movie’s audience) can’t really blame other people for his choices.

“All Day and a Night” star Sanders played the teenage protagonist Chiron in the Oscar-winning 2016 African American drama “Moonlight” in the protagonist’s adolescent years, before Chiron became a drug-dealing gangster nicknamed Black. Just like “Moonlight,” the story in “All Day and a Night” also shows different stages of the protagonist’s life: as a child, a teenager and an adult. The protagonist in both movies also has an abusive, cocaine-addicted parent—in “Moonlight,” it’s the mother; in “All Day and a Night,” it’s the father.

But what made “Moonlight” different, besides the almost poetic way that the movie was made, was that the gangster protagonist turned out to be a sensitive, closeted gay man who’s had a longtime inner struggle about his sexuality. It’s also why “Moonlight” didn’t have the African American ghetto movie cliché of the protagonist being a deadbeat dad with an angry baby mama by the time he’s 22.

And the protagonist in “Moonlight” really had no positive, law-abiding role models in his home: His mother was an abusive crackhead, and the only male role model who was nice to him as a kid was one of the mother’s boyfriends, who was also her drug dealer. “All Day and a Night” is no “Moonlight,” although writer/director Cole obviously wants this cliché-ridden movie to be as widely acclaimed as “Moonlight.” That’s not going to happen.

“All Day and a Night” tells the story in bits and pieces and in flashbacks. As a child in middle school, Jahkor (played by Jalyn Emil Hall) does poorly in academics, and he’s bullied at school. When his father James Daniel Lincoln, also known as JD (played by Jeffrey Wright), finds out that Jahkor has been bullied, his response is to brutally beat Jahkor, tell him that he needs to toughen up, and order Jahkor to beat up the school bully the next time Jakhor sees the bully. Jahkor follows his father’s orders and gets suspended from school.

In Jahkor’s household, Jahkor’s mother Delanda (played by Kelly Jenrette) just stands by passively and does nothing to stop the abuse, since she’s afraid of JD, who’s abusive and threatening to her too. The movie implies that Delanda is one of those women who thinks it’s better to have a man who’s abusive than to have no man at all, even if her child is being abused too. Delanda loves Jahkor and is kind to him, but she doesn’t have the inner strength to get help for the domestic violence, and to keep herself and her child out of harm’s way.

Jahkor’s maternal grandmother Tommetta (played by Regina Taylor), who does not live with the family, is the most positive role model in Jahkor’s life. She encourages Jahkor to follow his dreams and tells him that there are other ways to solve problems than through violence. JD openly scoffs and ridicules Tommetta, by telling her that she’s making Jahkor soft and that she’s too religious. Meanwhile, JD’s life goes on a downward spiral, as he becomes a coke-addicted, drug-dealing murderer, who ends up in the same prison as Jahkor. A scene in the movie also reveals that JD spent some time in a psychiatric institution, which is a part of JD’s background that is stated, but not shown, in the movie.

The movie makes a half-hearted attempt to show that Delanda and her mother tried the best they could to help Jahkor. In a meeting with Jahkor’s middle-school teacher Ms. Ferguson (played by Baily Hopkins), Delanda and her mother seem to be part of the problem, when they react in disbelief at Jahkor’s low grades. Tommetta says that Jahkor is smarter than the grades that he’s been getting, and they say that he just needs someone to believe in him.

There are a few things wrong with the way this movie handles the parent-teacher involvement in Jahkor’s life. First, the movie tries to make it look like the school system failed Jahkor in his education, when in actuality, the mother and the grandmother should bear some of the blame too. These parental figures have an attitude that someone at the school needs to believe in Jahkor, yet the movie doesn’t show how the mother and the grandmother should be those people who believe in Jahkor, instead of making it the government’s problem.

The grandmother, who’s of retirement age, could have had the time to tutor Jahkor in the subjects that she felt she could help him with the most. The mother and the grandmother also could have enrolled Jahkor in free after-school activities, regardless if he was academically gifted or not. They live in Oakland (not a deprived rural area), and a big city like Oakland has a lot of free resources for underprivileged youth.

These are the pro-active things that parents do when they don’t rely on schools to teach their children things like morality, respect and a good work ethic. And you don’t have to be economically privileged to have these kinds of values. But, of course, that doesn’t fit the movie’s narrative that a kid like Jahkor is “doomed” to repeat the criminal activities of his father and other men in his family. It’s truly offensive how this movie portrays most African American men as criminals and most African American women as passive followers who just go along with what the (criminal) men in their lives want.

As for Jahkor’s peer group, his closest friends include “bad boy” TQ (played by Kaleb Alexander Roberts as a child, and Isaiah John as an adult) and “good boy” Lamark (played by Ramone Hamilton as a child, and Christopher Meyer as an adult). Lamark is the aforementioned friend who has ambitions to not be a negative ghetto stereotype. Lamark comes from a stable, loving, two-parent household with a younger sister. Lamark’s family ends up being somewhat of a surrogate family to Jahkor.

Jahkor utters this line in one of the movie’s voiceovers: “Outside the ‘hood, people think every family is messed-up like mine. Lots of people take care of business, and if they ain’t you, you put your faith in them.” The irony of this statement is that this entire movie is about the “messed-up African American family” stereotype, so it just reinforces the negative images that “people outside the ‘hood” have of African Americans who are “from the ‘hood.”

Lamark ends up volunteering for the U.S. Army, where he comes home wounded from the war in Afghanistan. As a result of his war wounds, Lamark becomes a paraplegic. Jahkor becomes bitter that his friend “who did everything right” and served the U.S. government as a loyal soldier ended up in this tragic situation. It’s an excuse for this movie to show why Jahkor turned to a life of crime.

About a year before the murders, a flashback shows that Jahkor had started dating a young woman close to his age named Shantaye (played by Shakira Ja’nai Paye). She ends up doing the most cliché thing that African American women do in ghetto movies like this one: She gets pregnant while not being married to the baby’s father, who doesn’t have a steady job.

When she tells Jahkor about the pregnancy, he’s elated, but they don’t seem too concerned about how they’re going to pay to raise this child, which is yet another racist stereotype that implies that they’re going to live off of government welfare. What Shantaye does for money isn’t really made clear in this movie, because this film obviously doesn’t to want to show African American women as educated career women.

By the time Jahkor finds out that he’s going to become a father, he has a criminal record that includes armed robbery, resisting arrest and home invasion. These arrests are not shown in the movie, but the information is stated after he’s brought to the police station in another scene in the movie when Jahkor is questioned about another crime. “All Day and a Night” is not told in chronological order, so viewers have to keep up with all the random flashbacks.

Because he’s a convicted felon, Jahkor has trouble finding a real job. He gets more motivated to make an honest living after finding out that he’s going to be a father. So, he calls in a favor to a straight-laced friend, and lands a job as a sales clerk at an athletic shoe store, because the person who previously had the position had suddenly quit. In one scene, a white woman goes in the store and sees Jahkor moving some shoe boxes, and she suspiciously asks him what he’s doing, because she thinks he’s a thief. Jahkor tells her that he works there, but she backs out of the store apprehensively and leaves.

In a voiceover, Jahkor says racist incidents like this are like little cuts that add up to big emotional wounds. However, it’s hard to feel too sorry for Jahkor, because although the white woman’s reaction to him was very racist, his own violent criminal record proves that he’s not a harmless angel. And whose fault is it that he chose to be a criminal? Movies like “All Day and a Night” certainly reinforce the negative stereotype that most black men are criminals, and that’s a stereotype that causes a lot of damaging racism.

“All Day and a Night” seems to want to ignore the reality that people who choose to openly live a “thug life” shouldn’t be too surprised when people stereotype them as criminals. If this racist incident depicted in the movie had happened to a black person without a violent criminal record (and racist incidents like this do happen to law-abiding black people in real life), then maybe more sympathy would be deserved.

And “All Day and a Night” certainly can’t blame Jahkor’s destructive lifestyle on white racism (even though the movie seems to want to put the blame there), because there is nothing but black-on-black violence in the film. But the movie wants people to feel sorry for Jahkor, when his choices and actions in life show that he’s his own worst enemy. It’s not other people’s fault that he turned out to be such a loser.

There are other things that show that Jahkor is a selfish jerk, such as how he mistreats and degrades Shantaye about something she did in her past before she met him. Jahkor also has a disturbingly violent reaction after he meets his mother’s new boyfriend Ray Ray (played by John Que), who was nice enough to bail Jahkor out of jail without even knowing Jahkor. The movie hints that Jahkor might have inherited the mental illness his father has, but at the very least, Jahkor has serious anger management issues. His violent abusiveness is supposed to make him look “tough,” but it just makes him look hateful.

It comes as no surprise that Jahkor ends up quitting his job at the shoe store and becomes more involved with his friend TQ’s criminal activities. At first, Jahkor swears that he won’t get involved in drug dealing, but he changes his mind when he wants to impress the hotshot drug dealer in the ‘hood named Big Stunna (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who hires Jahkor to be his bodyguard/enforcer. Even though Jahkor is not muscular, he has a quick temper and has a reputation for being a vicious fighter. Big Stunna has a female sidekick named La-Trice (played by Rolanda D. Bell), who essentially does what all the African American women in this movie do: Let the men dominate and then react to whatever the men want.

The rest of the movie shows why Jahkor committed the murders (he volunteered to do it) and there’s somewhat of a twist toward the end that reveals someone’s ulterior motive for the crime. There are some prison scenes where JD tries to give Jahkor advice on how to survive in the prison. And there’s also an almost laughable scene where Jahkor and JD are in the prison yard, and Jahkor tries to bond with JD by getting his father to do some gardening in the yard with him. It’s completely unrealistic that this prison would allow a convicted murderer like Jahkor to have a sharp instrument like a gardening tool in the middle of a prison yard.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of violence in “A Day and a Night” and constant use of the “n” word and other cursing. All of the actors, except for Wright, are relatively unknown to mainstream audiences, so it’s easy to see why they jumped at the chance to work on a movie that was written and directed by someone who co-wrote the mega-successful “Black Panther.” Wright is an excellent actor, but this was clearly a “paycheck” movie for him, since there’s no depth at all to the JD character, who’s a typical abusive thug. Abdul-Mateen’s career is on the rise (he has the role of Black Mantis in DC Comics movies), but so far, he’s mostly known for playing villainous characters in movies.

And the racist stereotyping isn’t just for the black people in the movie. The few white people who are in the film have small speaking roles, and they are portrayed in unflattering ways. There’s the racist store customer who’s afraid of dealing with Jahkor. There’s the young teacher who thinks she’s being a “white savior” by teaching in a predominantly African American school. There’s the young co-worker at the shoe store who talks like she’s a wannabe street gangster, but she really lives in an affluent white neighborhood. And there’s the overzealous cop who resents that Jahkor and TQ were driving in that white neighborhood. (Jahkor and TQ were in the neighborhood because it was Jahkor’s idea to follow that co-worker to her home. Very creepy.)

Aside from being annoyingly derivative, the biggest problem with “All Day and a Night” is that the movie doesn’t even have a protagonist that people will root for in a big way. The movie tries to make Jakhor sympathetic, when he’s in prison and cries on the phone about how he doesn’t want his son to see him in prison. Well, it’s a little too late for that, since Jahkor has a life sentence, and he volunteered to commit the murders when he knew that he was going to be a father.

There’s a flashback scene that takes place after Jahkor committed the murders, when he suddenly shows up at Shantaye’s home, looking anxious with the two guns he used in the crime. Jahkor won’t tell a suspicious and pregnant Shantaye what he did and why he has those guns, but he asks her to keep the guns. He also takes the cash that he was paid for the crime and hides it in Shantaye’s couch, presumably for Shantay to find later and to use as child-support money. But it’s blood money, so using it for child-support payments really doesn’t show any redemption on Jahkor’s part, and it definitely doesn’t justify the ruthless way that he gunned down two people in front of their child.

You have to wonder why these mediocre-to-awful African American gangster movies, which are usually financed by an all-white or predominantly white team of producers, keep getting made, when there are so many more interesting and original stories about African Americans that can be told. Oscar-winning filmmaker Spike Lee, who is widely considered to be the most influential African American filmmaker of all time, is respected by other filmmakers because he doesn’t make the same type of movie over and over. The African American protagonists in his movies usually aren’t criminals, just like most African Americans in real life aren’t criminals. Lee is an example of an African American filmmaker who understands that there is more to realistic African American stories than just depicting the main characters as criminals.

If you want to see a better and more accurate representation of modern African American culture in a Netflix drama that was released around the same time as “All Day and a Night,” check out the far superior and more original “Uncorked,” which is about a young, law-abiding African American man who aspires to be a master sommelier.

“All Day and a Night” would have been a more interesting film if it had made Lamark the protagonist, since it’s rare to have a movie that shows an African American war veteran as the lead character. (Spike Lee has done it with “Da 5 Bloods.”) “All Day and a Night” is writer/director Cole’s second movie as a director, so maybe his next movies that he writes and directs will show that he can come up with more original ideas and less degrading stories than this one.

Netflix premiered “All Day and a Night” on May 1, 2020.

Copyright 2017-2023 Culture Mix