The Morning After: Dec. 21, 2020

Welcome to The Morning After, where I share with you what movies I’ve seen over the past week. Below, you will find short reviews of those movies along with a star rating. Full length reviews may come at a later date.

So, here is what I watched this past week:

The Trial of the Chicago 7

While Aaron Sorkin has long proven himself a capable writer, having turned out some brilliant work in the past, including on television, his directorial efforts have been hit-and-miss. The Trial of the Chicago 7 more than stymies claims that he has no skill behind the camera as it’s a tightly wound, captivating courtroom drama that brings his script to life through a cast that’s impressive, but properly confined.

During the 1968 Democratic National Convention, four outside groups came to protest, their leaders were put on trial for the violence that ensued in spite of consensus being that it was the police who started the riots rather than the protestors. The sham trial is egged on at the behest of incoming Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman). Put in the hands of young prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and associate Thomas Foran (J.C. McKenzie). Eight men are roped into the proceedings for various reasons including the actual seven, Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), John Froines (Danny Flaherty), and Lee Winer (Noah Robbins), along with the unassociated leader of the Black Panthers, Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Matten II).

All but Seale are represented by attorneys William Kuntsler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shankman), a point brought up numerous times as Seale’s attorney was in the hospital. The trial is being conducted by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), a bigoted jurist who seems to be suffering from cognitive decline, but whose clear bias is evident from the moment he steps in the courtroom.

Sorkin ably defines each character with the skill of a longtime television writer, able to dig under the skin of each character, even minor ones, and give them the kind of definition an audience needs to form the opinions he wants to have of them. Schultz is painted as a go-getting legal mind in the Dept. of Justice who does have some measure of compassion while Judge Hoffman is easily painted as man who gets a high off of controlling a courtroom. Sorkin’s film is also a pointed political commentary on the frustrating nature of this particular trial and succinctly puts the cause where it rightly belongs while subtly jabbing the current climate in Washington D.C. while pointing out that the noble visions of these seven litigants aren’t pie-in-the-sky dreams.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Chadwick Boseman delivers a magnetic performance in what would be his last as trumpter Levee in August Wilson’s second play in his Pittsburgh Cycle about a 1920s recording session that pits the egocentric Levee against his fellow bandmates as well as the lead singer, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) whose prominence helps sell records. While the play speaks not only to the plight of Black Americans in turn-of-the-century America, it also takes time to rebuke the music industry for its exploitation of black artists, a subtle element to the film, hit home with the final scene.

Davis is brash and cocky as Ma Rainey in one of her most explosive performances while Boseman more than holds his own against her larger than life presence. Colman Domingo as the band’s leader is fine, but the clear stand out in the supporting cast is Glynn Turman as pianist Toledo who gives a subtle, endearing performance that acts as a mellowing element to the excitement going on around them.

Boseman’s performance highlights a key Wilson argument that cockiness among Black youths can lead to devastating defeats as he claims he knows how to play white men after seeing how his late father handled the men who raped his mother. His potent monologue early in the film finally roots the character in reality after he struggles to come off as anything more than haughty and entitled.

Wilson’s defining voice is in humanizing the characters of the play, which is given voice by the actors within it. Both Ma Rainey and Levee become sympathetic characters in the end in spite of clear self-centeredness with Ma Rainey’s diva attitude being the least tempered, but within actual reason. What works for the play works for the film, but when opening up a stage play to the big screen, it’s imperative to make it feel less confined than it really is. Director George C. Wolfe doesn’t quite do that, though Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s adpatation of the Wilson play doesn’t really give him that opportunity either.

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