Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★½

At the risk of voicing a sacrilegiously un-Christian thought, from a strictly dramatic perspective, Judas is a far more intriguing character than Jesus. A conflicted soul torn apart by a struggle between self-interest and ideology will trump a committed martyr every time. That’s why I am surprised that Daniel Kaluuya is getting so much recognition, while his co-star Lakeith Stanfield has scored ample praise, but little to show for it in terms of awards nominations. Don’t get me wrong, Kaluuya is one of the most riveting, ferocious performers out there, who followed up his breakthrough role in “Get Out” as a tormented boyfriend trapped in his white girlfriend’s parents house of horrors with a psychotic, scene-stealing enforcer in “Widows”. He has the whole package and Fred Hampton, one of the most powerful, respected voices of the Black Panthers in the 1960s before he was killed by the FBI in a coordinated raid, allows him to put his talents on full display, especially when he is preaching his philosophy to a crowd of fervent supporters.

Truth be told, I didn’t feel this as much as seemingly everyone else who had a chance to see it at Sundance or caught it during its first few days in theaters or on HBO Max. It lacks a cohesive identity, spreading itself too thin and ending up with several angles, but not enough time spent on what it probably intended to primarily focus on. That starts with Hampton himself, who after a fiery start is arrested, put in prison and is barely on screen for the next 20-30 minutes. It leaves a weird hole in a film that appears to understand itself as biographical. There is also far too much emphasis on his relationship with Deborah Johnson, one of his disciples who ends up pregnant with their son. The whole aspect of being the girlfriend of the chosen one, who questions whether she is even fit to be a mother, is an obligatory factor in every martyrdom to the point of cliché. Bill O’Neal, a car thief who gets dragged into the schemes of the FBI to smoke out the Panthers and cut down their influence in a city increasingly getting pissed off and teaming up against the establishment, remains an enigma past the credits, and never entirely makes it clear whether his commitment to the cause at any point became sincere.

But even then I found myself enthralled by the history unveiled here, which is typically omitted in American classrooms. Of course, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an adherent to peaceful protesting is the preferred role model, but aggressive resistance and Black people forcing concessions with threats played as much of a role, if not more so. 2020 saw a moral awakening in this country, the final straw after years of harrowing news stories of police brutality and institutional racial discrimination. Fred Hampton is the perfect window into an era in which this community was engaged in a strikingly similar struggle. What’s amazing is his ability to branch out and convince other organizations that they are all in the same fight. One of the most astounding moments comes when he and his followers crash a meeting of Southern white supremacists, who hold their get together in front of a Confederate flag. He persuades their leadership to team up because he gets that some of the people in that room are so dirt poor that their hatred of the elites looking down on them matches that of his own followers. It’s that kind of thinking that raises all kinds of alarm bells at the FBI. Someone with clout beyond just the Black community can do real damage to centuries of their White monopoly on authority in this country. I just wish that side of the story had been told with a bit less penchant for cartoonish evil than a creepy Jesse Plemmons who uses every chance he gets to compare the Panthers to the KKK and a five-minute appearance by Martin Sheen as wannabe fascist J. Edgar Hoover.

My girlfriend made a point after we watched the film that I felt less strongly about than her at the time but has grown to bother me since I sat down to put my thoughts to paper. Daniel Kaluuya is in his early 30s, Lakeith Stanfield in his late 20s. Fred Hampton was 21 during the events of the film, Bill just 17. Their youth adds a horrifying poignancy to their story that the film sidesteps until disbursing some final pieces of information before the credits. Hampton in this film doesn’t look like a young firebrand who exerts influence way beyond his years, but a seasoned revolutionary who has been doing this for ages. That undercuts one of the main points of his story, which is that people barely older than kids were forced to take a stand for their rights because nobody else would. It was true in the late 60s and remains just as true in 2021.

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