Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

This Is How I Feel... about This Flick. Probably in a lotta words, so lay it down or kick back. And judge me by my take, what you make of me’s none of my business, it’s All Good. Just know though that I ain’t out to offend you, or try too hard not to, and I’m not tryna convince you of anything. This movie was, to me, Many Things, and Nice and Messy. A colorful, willful, meaningful journey through a black-and-white war through shades of grey. Hey-

Sometimes (most times?) History, when depicted in movies shows us as much about the time & place it was Made, as the place & time it’s Depicting. This movie is History-Story as a Marker of the Present-Moment. Here, we get the story of a young life extinguished, a light, a life, which the Authorities knew they couldn’t allow to be the lit-fuse of a larger explosion, a societal-detonation that could not be allowed to happen, Period. Fred Hampton was one of the most charismatic characters who has ever walked among us here in the USA. Electric. Inspired. Imbued with the energy of a Mad Prophet. 

* I don’t come here to get political. But life is political. And hence, movies can be political. Now, religion...

Judas Betrayed Jesus, it says in the Good Book. And Jesus couldn’t have done what he Had To Do, what he had Come to do, if he hadn’t have been betrayed. Jesus had come to do the Dying, but Judas eventually came to bear the burden of the Killing. Thus, the painful dance of the Condemned and the Condemner, who thus turns his Condemnation inward, with No Escape. Like Bob Marley song in “Running Away”, “...you can’t run away from Yourself...”

So, This Movie... “Judas and the Black Messiah”, now that we’ve both seen it, Dig it. From the Git-Go you know you’re in Good Hands with the film-making, the way it flows, first scene, pool-hall car-theft to the police-station where he meets the FBI-guy, introduced when, in the same frame, he shows both of their badges... Then, when he says, “Or... you could walk out of here.” And LaKeith Stanfield looks up, from where’s sitting bleeding, he looks up, to a “higher power” on that FBI’s last line, and it Cuts, from Stanfield, to the Big-Print Title (one word at a time) “JUDAS” ... “AND”... “THE”... “BLACK”... and on “MESSIAH” it Cuts, to Daniel Kaluuya, looking down, as if in answer to the upward-pleading Judas on the other side of the title. 

The film-making here is really magnificent, the look and the sound and the way music-cues are integral to the whole vibe and structure of it. There’s beautiful use of camera-reveals throughout, whether by pull-back or slow-pan or rack-focus or whatnot. The color-palette is balanced and beautiful, marrying warm and cool colors in a mellow vibrancy. The intentional direction of our attention in subtle cinematic ways works wonders. Scenes gain momentum, pulling tight ‘til they sometimes seem to break. The arrangement and presentation of pivotal events, and the push of their momentum, well, this movie’s thoughtful, but it’s also primal. This is a snapshot of a violent battle in a revolutionary war...

At least, that’s how Fred Hampton saw it. Charismatic as he was, he was calling in public for open war with the US Government, a government he saw not only as never having done anything for him, but as an occupying-force to be seen as The Enemy. Roll with me here (if you want) for a minute...

Jesus, I mean Christ, that rabble-rousing carpenter’s kid from Nazareth back in the day who they used to call Rabbi (“teacher”), well, That Man had gone around telling anybody who would listen that he was going to die at the violent hand of The Man, that he was ready and willing to give his life for them, and that one of his own Homies was to be the one who turned him in. And of course, all his Boys were like, Nah, Man, I’d never snitch you out to the Romans like that, Rabbi...

And it was Judas who had to be The One. Judas was Doomed to it, one might say, even though he had to Make His Own Choice, he Did What He Did, brought himself to his destination himself, and he got what he got - thirty pieces of silver and a piece of rope for the hangin’ tree.

Here, Both Main-Actors are Amazing. Just, All-Timer Performances.

Kaluuya, as Fred Hampton, has that pseudo-suicidal revolutionary Jesus-Fire, where his Zeal, and his Volume, are of such a magnitude that you just Know that it’s just Bound to get him Killed. Almost as if he’s willed it himself, his own violent death. And Hampton, like that Carpenter’s Kid from the New Testament, foretold it, willed it, and took it there himself. Not that he (either of them?) wanted to die, but Knew What Had to Be Done.

Kaluuya brought the energy and fire and the anger and sensitivity to Hampton’s embodiment. I don’t know how he pulled it off, but He Did. The other night, before I watched this first time, I prepped with the documentary “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution”. I had seen it before, and seen footage of Fred Hampton. Frankly, I didn’t think anyone could play him. Kaluuya hit the human condition within this whirlwind of a young man. I feel like his Spirit was illuminated, exhibited. From the quiet moments with his Lady Love (an amazing less-is-more performance from Dominique Fishback) to the loud giant rallies and meetings, He Is a Revolutionary.

Now, LaKeith Stanfield. Judas. Jeez-Louise, this guy is Good. His performance is so amazing, painful as hell to watch, subtle and electric, so engaging and enthralling that he Doesn’t Let the Audience Off the Hook. We’re WITH him. This guy’s Us. We are mercilessly made to go on this journey with him, to feel the damnation of being him while he betrays the Savior to the white Pontius-Pilate. His eyes are what we see the most; what’s behind them.

Hot Damn, it’s a wrenched-up disgusting splendid performance. A Moral Nightmare Personified.

Judas took the money alright. No gettin’ around that. The last shot, before the return to the framer, is of Stanfield taking the money off the table and putting it in his pocket. Him taking the money, like Judas did before him, that’s the final shot of his duty. Only afterward do we learn that he later took the same final step as Judas, in taking his own life. This man whom Stanfield portrays here, Bill O’Neill, is such a Tragic Figure. Just Tormented, to Implosion.

LaKeith Stanfield, for me, is one of those actors whom I feel like I “discovered”, ever since I saw him in “Sorry to Bother You”... I’ll see anything he does. He’s Legit. Deep Somethin-Somethin goin’ on in that guy’s vibe. Intelligence. Pain. Seeking. Yeah, I’m Down for his cause. But yeah, there’s a lotta pain in that mix of his, and here, that pain is at the forefront. What he’s goin’ through, he Lays It Down here on-screen.

Also, as I said, this film-maker and his crew are Bad-Ass. Shaka King (first flick I’ve seen of his) is The Genuine Goods. He directed this with sensitivity and boldness both, it’s explosive and it’s whispering; it’s jazz and it’s poetry; it’s love and it’s a war and it’s a crucifixion.

Which brings me back around to ambiguities, and perhaps historical incongruities, ya know what they say, History doesn’t repeat, but sometimes it rhymes, and like the chain-gang villain from “Cool Hand Luke” in that G’n’R song said - “What We’ve Got Here... is a Failure to Communicate.” And then the whistling starts, and it’s the beginning of “Civil War”... well, here...

OK, in the time depicted in the movie, in that situation, ya got the Black Panthers preaching open war on the Government, who takes them at their word, and then sends in infiltrators, moles and snitches to ensnare the traitors... The FBI then, the FBI now, what do I know (nothing), but then it was these people up against a racist Machine, a demonstrably-racist Government...

*** I almost forgot to mention the brief, yet Most Effective, appearances of Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover, who was by all accounts the most racist mofo one could know... His scene where he’s asking Homie about what he’ll do when his infant daughter brings home a black guy? DAMN, That was a scene.

Also, Jesse Plemons is Great (as usual) in a deceptively unflashy role of Judas’s handler, the Great Deciever, the holder of the Devil’s Bargain. He’s definitely the Enemy. The Oppressor. Milquetoast and cold as ice. * In their final scene, when he’s giving Stanfield (Judas) the money in the restaurant, the last shot we see of him, Plemons is framed by the fireplace behind him, as if he’s Satan, or at least his emissary.

So, back then, we’ve got the Black Panthers, waging war on the White FBI (led by treacherous racist-ass J. Edgar)...
While now-a-days, we’ve got the white domestic-terrorist wanna-be insurrectionists who claim that THEY are ready to wage war on the government, and the (still-white?) FBI. 

There are no straight comparisons. The attempted overthrow of the government, no matter who it is sought by, will be put down by the government, met with all the forces at their command, including using FBI-snitches and whatnot. With these present times, I personally feel gratified that the FBI is rounding up all these persons who stormed our nation’s Capitol. That shit must not be allowed to stand, unanswered. I believe in My Country, and in the Vote, and in what “We, the People” is supposed to mean. People might think me naive for it, but I still believe in being the best we can be as a nation, and I don’t think we’ll get anywhere trying to overthrow the government. Nor do I think we (or anyone) should. Round those mofo’s up and give ‘em a fair-trial. Let the rule of law take its course.

*** Of course, the historical events depicted in this film ARE NOT an example of the rule of law on course. This is the story of a calculated cold-blooded political assassination, as a pivotal move in a larger societal-war. The cops/FBI/Govt. straight-up sent a death-squad to Fred Hampton’s house to murder him while he slept. They Gave Him No Chance. This is a retelling of The Crucifixion.

As for how it connects to today...

All this is sure as hell some convoluted hooey, I know it gets thick pretty quick. Life Ain’t Simple. Man-oh-Man, lemme just aim a thru-line this way, when I say, We have a white-supremacy-minded racist-problem here in our USA. Always Have. But now, whada-we do? It’s on me. It’s on you. We’re in a Helluva Moment, as we speak.

I say we maybe learn from this movie, from this bit of history. What we learn is up to us, but let cinema like this exist, to help teach us, illuminate us, guide us, inspire us. Life is shades of grey; rarely black-and-white. But each of us Humans, in our heart, Knows What’s Wrong from What’s Right.

This was a really tough flick to take. A history-lesson like lookin’ in a one-way interrogation-mirror. A “Come-to-Jesus” moment, through the eyes of Judas. A white-supremacist night in the American garden of Gethsemane. This is the most powerfully-rendered movie I’ve absorbed in some time. It feels like one of those that will Last, that will Stand the Test of Time. And hopefully, Will Help Teach Us. Peace.
P.S. - There’s so much I haven’t reached - The Panthers’ feeding the children; the issue of Socialism vs. Capitalism; the 2nd-Amendment guns-issue - There’s just too much, but this flick is a great place to start. I’ll put it down for now, after watching it twice. Awards-Season Upon Us, I hope this piece Cleans Up. Cheers.

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