Judas and the Black Messiah
I recently saw Judas and the Black Messiah
, a historical film charting the rise and fall of Black Panther Fred Hampton in Chicago in the '70s. Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya of Get Out
fame) is the Black Messiah of the title, and Lakeith Stanfield (also of Get Out
; he was the one in the straw hat who screams that movie's title at Kaluuya) plays the Judas William O'Neal, a car thief recruited by the FBI to infiltrate the Panthers and get close to Hampton.
The Black Panther Party represented a civil rights protest movement in '60s and '70s America, and was regarded by the FBI essentially as a terrorist militia. Martin Sheen plays the infamous J Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI and generally cast in the movies these days in a negative light. Leonardo DiCaprio played him as a repressed basket-case in 2011's J Edgar
, and now Sheen plays him in a small but important part as a sinister Machiavelli, an old man with one drooping eyelid whose fight against the Panthers disguises (just barely) hardcore racism.
What will you do when your daughter brings home a black man, he asks Jesse Plemons' Roy Mitchell, the agent who recruits O'Neal and initially seems to buy into the idea that the FBI's pursuit of the Panthers isn't about race, but merely prevention of terrorism. One of the subtler aspects of the film is how he develops from a relatively honest and idealistic agent, who invites O'Neal to a family barbecue and plies him with good scotch and cigars, into one who's happy to coerce his patsy into doing his bidding.
The script is more interested in the Hampton and O'Neal characters than any specific white villain, however, which is understandable. That said, one issue I had was the somewhat broad characterisation of Hampton and O'Neal. Having not been aware of the real story, I was shocked to see in the epilogue notes that Hampton was just 21 when the events at the end of the film took place, and O'Neal 17 when he was recruited by Mitchell.
During the film I assumed that they were in their late twenties/early thirties. I don't necessarily think that younger actors should have been cast, since the film undoubtedly benefits from Kaluuya's and Stanfield's skill as actors, but a little more reference to their age might have helped me appreciate Hampton's and especially O'Neal's circumstances better.
It's more understandable for a reckless teenager to make some of the choices that O'Neal does than it is for an adult man. How many poor, black, high-school-aged kids wouldn't have been tempted by what Mitchell offered his Judas, which was more than just pieces of silver. It was a way out of prison, poverty, and the dismal prospects faced by so many kids in O'Neal's position. It arguably does the real person a disservice to paint him so broadly as a traitor.
Kaluuya inhabits the Hampton role and gives us a strong idea of the real man's charisma. There's also a sweet scene where his future wife remarks on how shy he is, away from the crowds and battlegrounds. Kaluuya is basically a performer playing a performer. Hampton needed showmanship to command the Panther movement as effectively as he did, and in Kaluuya's performance you see the struggle of a man to bear the weight of so many's people's belief in him. Being a Messiah isn't all miracles and sandals; it's also the Cross.
The filmmaking is very skilled, with a notably exciting scene early on in which O'Neal steals a car. The camera movements are fast and fluid, the angles of the shots creative, building a scene as compelling as any in a crime film of late. Later scenes of police shootouts between Panthers and police are excellently staged.
I'm late to Judas and the Black Messiah
, but I saw it on the first day cinemas were open again, after the most recent COVID lockdown. It was certainly a good way to re-start my moviegoing. It's a timely story, well told and with fine actors, my reservations about character depth notwithstanding.
It's really more of a mythic piece anyway. A Biblical one, even, as anyone familiar with the Gospels will be able to trace the outline of the plot. I noticed allusions to the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper, the pieces of silver, and even the sleepers in the Garden of Gethsemane. Hampton and O'Neal are depicted here as mythic figures, and the film seeks (I think) to mythologise its events in order to bring that period of history to life for modern audiences. We understand the past in the stories we tell about it. 3/4