Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah ★★★★★

Everything about this movie is perfect. The cinematography is gorgeous. The score is hypnotic. The performances are sublime. Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield give all-time great performances. Shaka King's direction is beautifully on-point. The film is powerful, captivating, uplifting, and heartbreaking, and moves between beats with utmost precision. (The film also features footage from the Black Panthers documentary the phenomenal Agnes Varda made in 1968, which is also really good, as well as the great Eyes on the Prize docuseries on the civil rights movement.)

The way we discuss the civil rights movement in popular culture is often misleading, boiling an ongoing struggle that's older than the United States itself, that featured courage and selflessness from countless people and trailblazing organizations, down into a single monolithic run under the infallible leadership of Dr. King from 1954 to 1968. It ignores the ideological diversity of the movement, the full breadth of electric personalities and fearless ordinary people, and the continued issues with economic stagnation, financial uncertainty, police brutality, and mass incarceration that still plague communities of color. It unfairly deifies the obviously great Dr. King, and mostly ignores black nationalism and the Black Power movement, which were cultural forces so ubiquitous in the late 60s and early 70s that "Black Power advocate" became the default depiction of black characters in media in the 1970s. It also ignores the ruthlessness with which the FBI and the federal government looked to destroy the movement, and the lives they ruined in the process.

The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966 to organize the black community politically, to provide community healthcare and economic development, and to protect civilians from state violence. They were a militant black nationalist organization with communist leaders, whose party platform included modest calls for police reform and an end to discrimination in housing, employment, jury selection, and prison sentencing. In their short history, the Panthers became arguably the most influential black organization of the 1960s, and just as quickly were stamped out by the FBI and COINTELPRO. Caught in the cross hairs in Chicago, a city still struggling with racial tension today, are 21-year old Fred Hampton, the charismatic Panther leader who organized groups across all racial demographics into a Rainbow Coalition devoted to change, and 20-year old Bill O'Neal, a car thief pressured by the FBI into becoming a police informant. Their dichotomy drives the film, resulting in Hampton's assassination by law enforcement on December 4, 1969.

One of the most important aspects of this film is the way it unflinchingly depicts the inhuman, white supremacist ruthlessness of the state. The FBI in the 1960s put up a lackluster and often non-existent effort to protect civil rights organizers from violence. They viewed conservative black leaders like Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young as dangerous to the social order, obsessively surveiled Dr. King throughout his life, and targeted youth driven nonviolent activist groups like CORE and SNCC for infiltration and disruption. The Black Power movement kicked COINTELPRO into overdrive; even Ronald Reagan, the famously pro-2nd Amendment US president, passed gun control legislation as governor of California to target the Panthers. The FBI is almost certainly complicit in the assassination of Malcolm X, as the lacking police presence at his speech the day of his murder is odd considering FBI surveillance of the Nation of Islam would've resulted in knowledge of a credible threat against his life. King's own family believes James Earl Ray is innocent and that the government may have murdered MLK. By 1970, almost a third of all Black Panthers were police informants, and the FBI's drive to destroy the organization drove most of its leadership into exile or prison. These are crimes we tend to ignore in popular discussions of history, even as they repeat themselves in how the Black Lives Matter movement is similarly demonized today.

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