Former political radicals, the economically dispossessed and beleaguered immigrants are the faces at the centre of this year’s dynamic Oscar frontrunners – an unexpected silver lining to an awards season upended by the pandemic. Conventional wisdom says that during times of crisis, such as the Great Depression, moviegoers want escapism. But almost all the franchise-action movies set for 2020 were delayed, and among the few big-budget films that arrived even Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984 fizzled out. Instead, the year has given us powerful social dramas that redefine the American experience with clear-eyed, 21st Century realism.
Among the best picture nominees, Judas and the Black Messiah and The Trial of the Chicago 7 look back to the 1960s and flip the narrative: Black Power and anti-war activists vilified by the mainstream then are today’s screen heroes. Nomadland and Minari challenge the myths of the American Dream itself, with its promise of a welcoming country full of economic opportunity. These films offer a recognisable version of the US today, and their embrace by Oscar voters suggests how prevalent those views have become.
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Judas and the Black Messiah reframes The Black Panther Party, once seen as a danger to society and now more likely to be viewed as the forerunner of today’s racial justice movement. Fact-based, and one of the year’s most effective and passionate films, it is set in 1969, when Chicago police, sent by the FBI, murdered Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Panthers. Daniel Kaluuya is favoured to win best supporting actor for his fiery performance as Hampton, with co-star LaKeith Stanfield nominated in the same category for playing a small-time crook who infiltrates the Panthers for the government.
The film portrays Hampton as a sensitive individual and a dynamic speaker, willing to give his life for a revolution that will give power to the people. The unmistakable villain is FBI director J Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), who for decades was lionised by mainstream America. “The Black Panthers are the single biggest threat to our national security,” Hoover says on screen, as he did in real life, in almost those exact words. The FBI, he says, must “prevent the rise” of a Black Messiah. With crowds chanting, “Chairman Fred! Chairman Fred!” at Hampton’s speeches, Kaluuya captures the character’s messianic appeal.