Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★★★

Shaka King's "Judas and the Black Messiah" should not feel as timely as it does. It's based on the true story of Bill O'Neal (played by Lakeith Stanfield) who went undercover in the Black Panthers organization at the orders of the FBI (particularly agent Roy Mitchell, played by the always unnerving Jesse Plemons) to gather information and help them bring down the charismatic and electrifying leader of its Chicago chapter: Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya).

Hampton is shown as a dynamic force who is able to galvanize the black community (and several other facets of the local community) by organizing free breakfasts and assistance in several other ways. He builds people up and then tries to help them realize how badly they're being exploited and oppressed by those in power, namely the wealthy and the police. He preaches socialism and revolution, which of course upsets those highly invested in the status quo (who have Martin Sheen's J. Edgar Hoover to deviously protect their interests) and cause them to retaliate with any number of dishonest and cruel tactics. Hampton is sent to prison for stealing $70 worth of ice cream, but when the FBI sees that this won't be enough to dilute his influence, they start devising far more brutal tactics.

"Judas and the Black Messiah" angered me. It angered me because the police should serve and protect, not work as a militant force to preserve the status of the rich and powerful. They should fight against injustice, not enforce injustice on behalf of those making the most money off of it. Seeing the ultimate, tragic fate of Hampton is harrowing. It broke my heart and made me angry. But the manner in which Bill O'Neal is exploited and, frankly, enslaved to gather information for the FBI angered me as well. It's not like O'Neal is given much of a choice. He is pressured into this position because the FBI threatens to send him to prison for stealing a car and impersonating an FBI agent. But this is a debt we, and he, soon realize will never be paid. No matter what he does, no matter how far he goes for the FBI, that threat never goes away. That prison term will hang over him for eternity. He's an indentured servant, and the length of his servitude never seems to get any shorter. It angers me to see how the government violently deals with those who challenge their power. But it angered me just as much to see how the government enslaves people and uses them as pawns as well.

Daniel Kaluuya is electrifying and ferocious as Fred Hampton. But he also conveys a sense of genuine concern, compassion and sweetness as well. It's easy to see how Hampton could have galvanized a community, because he genuinely seems to care about them and because he truly seemed to fight on their behalf, and he had the gift to speechify in a way that inspired people. Kaluuya's performance reminded me a bit of Denzel's turn as Malcolm X. Although Kaluuya's Hampton is a completely different person and a different sort of performance, they just both happen to hit some of the same notes with the same intensity. Also: Kaluuya bulked way up for this role. He looks about twice as big as he did in "Get Out". He cuts an imposing figure here.

Stanfield is equally riveting as a conflicted man who genuinely helps the Black Panther's cause yet also reports on their every action to the FBI and undermines them at key points. Lakeith Stanfield is more quiet and subdued than Kaluuya, yet just as intense and magnetic. They are matched by Dominique Fishback as Hampton's caring poet partner, who conveys the fear and concern that she feels for this man she loves. Plemons is a subtly manipulative and human antagonist (yet nonetheless despicable). Martin Sheen, on the other hand, is over the top beneath a ton of latex makeup. He's probably the weakest performer in the film.

"Judas and the Black Messiah" is incendiary. The filmmaking and screenwriting of this film are excellent as well, emphasizing the importance of this tale yet making sure every human within it (except for Sheen's comparatively cartoonish J. Edgar Hoover) is given three dimensions and treated as an honest-to-God human being with wants, desires and feelings. At least to me it feels like none of the edges of this true story have been sanded down. It's a dangerous and essential document of the corruption and oppression that the police and FBI have been responsible for over decades (hell, centuries) of American history and how things have always been this bad and how desperately this situation needs to change. It HAS to change. These injustices and tragedies cannot be allowed to continue. The Black Lives Matter movement and other movements addressing these societal ills are important and necessary as long as people are still held back or killed for the color of their skin or the contents of their bank accounts. Yet I still hear the same complaints and accusations against them that we hear against the Black Panthers in this film. I still see the same casual racism and bigoted ignorance from whites that surround me as I see from the whites in this film, and it makes me sick to my stomach.

"Judas and the Black Messiah" challenged me to stand up against such attitudes when I encounter them, whether that was the movie's intention or not, and I hope I have the guts to do so. Such attitudes must be challenged if things are going to change in this country, and around the world, and things MUST change. This shit has gone on too long. Maybe I'm just a lame white guy and maybe there isn't much I can actually do to affect such change but, hell, we all have to try, don't we? I mean, nothing changes if we all assume we can do nothing.

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