Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★★

Rats, pigs and panthers collide in this galvanized, revolutionary struggle against police brutality in 1960's America. Director Shaka King makes the horrifying history of the late 60s feel like the unbridled chaos of 2020, a reminder that our current moment isn't anything new but an extension of the age-old call for police reform amidst racial inequality. Far from giving an academic treatment of the problem, King's personal story becomes a gripping character study of two contrasting individuals, Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton (brought to life by an absolutely stunning Daniel Kaluuya), and gumshoe criminal-turned-FBI informant William O'Neal (anchored in a totally tragic Lakeith Stanfield performance). 

Together, Hampton and O'Neal are drawn into a larger power struggle with the FBI and law enforcement's malicious goal of destabilizing the Black Panther Party, with Hampton uniting Chicago's oppressed factions under a Rainbow Coalition to fight the feds, and O'Neal selling insider information to the feds against his own conscience to prevent being blackmailed and jailed.

Behind the Hampton-O'Neal-Bureau dynamic is the bane of white supremacy dressed in blue uniform. The Panthers, you'll recall, were formed partly in reaction to the corrupt white body politic of the Chicago police force in 1966 after the unjust killing of unarmed teenager Matthew Johnson. Like the Black Lives Matter movement of the present, which formed after the acquittal of officer Zimmerman for killing unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin in 2013, the Panther's fierce Malcolm X-style of protesting was a symptom of a larger disease, namely white aggression, white supremacy, and most pernicious, white unaccountability. The film gives us every reason to resent these systems which favored whiteness and disregarded Blackness. 

Hampton, who amassed power through the Panthers to combat white supremacy, is seen as the civil rights "messiah" who was targeted by the FBI because of his electric ability to unite various unlikely factions (Hispanic, Black, Indians, poor whites) under the banner of a socialist agenda, which was rightly perceived as a threat to J. Edgar Hoover's whiteness and ability to preserve his people's supremacy. O'Neal, the tragic figure in the middle, takes on the status of "Judas" as he works from the inside to supply the feds with information regarding Hampton's plans and political maneuverings. He's a rat of the lowest order, but the film never judges him as it more so pities his straightjacketed position, viewing him as just another Black man crippled by a more powerful, more manipulative white man.

Critics of the Panthers, like FBI hack Roy Mitchell (played by the ever-incorrigible Jesse Plemons), trumps up the specious claim that "The Panthers and the Klan are one and the same," suggesting a false equivalence between their aims, not unlike today's culture war between antifa and the Proud Boys. Mitchell's claim is insidious because it assumes both sides are informed by the same murderous ideology depicting members of a particular race as subhuman, when in reality the Panthers were fighting for racial equality while the Klan was lynching for racial superiority. At best, Mitchell is merely suggesting that violent resistance is not the answer, but here's the problem. When a white man suggests there's a right and wrong way for a Black man to achieve equality, in accordance with a playbook and timeline that's convenient to the white man's preference, this is a power play that turns equality into a yoke that must be savagely fought for rather than a right that's inherent to all Americans regardless of their race. If minority groups consistently go unheard, then riot and resistance becomes their language, as MLK asserted. Hampton-like warriors will arise and speak truth to power, articulating the stakes of this black-and-white struggle, violently if necessary.

While I wanted King to be a little more aggressive with the script's execution in terms of how he structured the scenes and paced the narrative, I will say that the storytelling quibbles I have are largely devoured up in the film’s crushing performances. The Kaluuya-Stanfield dynamic is the real deal, elevating a templated biopic into something complex and downright dynamite. Kaluuya is definitely the show-stealer here, a compelling force of nature like you've never seen him before, commanding the kind of balls-to-wall energy that leaves you inspired and fist-pumping. The "I am a revolutionary!" scene is one for the ages. Stanfield, in brilliant counterpoint to Kaluuya's character, is less flashy and exudes more internal struggle, capturing the paranoia and quiet betrayal of O'Neal with such subdued yet crushing guilt. Let's also not forget Hampton's romantic interest, Deborah Johnson (played with intimacy by Dominque Fishback), who really humanizes the emotional core of the film. While Hampton, O'Neal, and Mitchell paint broad strokes of the wider political battle at hand, Johnson is the beating heart for which the stakes are tragically anchored in the story’s rising generation. Her presence helps situate Hampton into a vulnerable context, reminding us of all the Black women who’ve lost their partners to police terrorism and police brutality.

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH is a more than worthy Civil Rights-era film that pays tribute to some pretty awesome, albeit challenging historical figures.  It’s a story that both angers and inspires, and leaves you feeling a fierce mixture of both. Some scenes might feel a little too routine and biopic-ey, but the fact that I can't really remember them is proof that its strengths are greater than its weaknesses. I'd say it almost perfectly needles the thread between the personal and the political, the intimacy of character and the broader patterns of historical meaning. With a little more finessing, and perhaps one more trip to the editing room, I'd say this film is as close as a biopic will ever get to being a bonafide masterpiece. Expect Oscar buzz for this one.

Watched at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival

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