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Power to the people – ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’

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There are a lot of challenges that come with making a movie inspired by a true story. One of the biggest is dealing with the simple fact that many of those who are watching already know how the story ends. Finding ways to build dramatic tension into a narrative whose conclusion by definition isn’t a surprise demands a lot of a filmmaker.

So it is with “Judas and the Black Messiah,” the new film directed by Shaka King from a screenplay he co-wrote with Will Berson. It’s the story of the rapid rise and tragic, too-soon death of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party and one of the iconic Black cultural figures of the 1960s. Feared by the authorities and celebrated by the people, Hampton was a polarizing figure, hated by the establishment and beloved by the counterculture … and the powers that be wanted him out of the picture.

This is a story about anger, both the righteous kind and the fearful kind. It’s a look at the revolutionary attitudes of the era, writ large thanks to the oratorical and rhetorical gifts of the young Hampton, and the willingness of law enforcement to bend and even break the laws they purported to serve to get rid of him. And it’s the story of the man who sold Fred Hampton out. It is a challenging and provocative movie – one that deserves every bit of attention it is almost certainly going to receive throughout the upcoming awards season.

In the late 1960s, Chicago is a place boiling over with racial unrest. The civil rights movement has seen many of its iconic figures – Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X – lost to violence; the notion of fighting back grows ever more appealing.

This is the world in which Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya, “Queen & Slim”) moves. Despite his young age, he is the Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. Through oratorical vigor and raw charisma, he is raising the profile of the plight of Black Americans, not just in Chicago but around the country. His revolutionary attitudes have put him in the crosshairs of federal law enforcement.

Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield, “The Photograph”) is a small-time hoodlum, a car thief who uses a fake badge to gain access to whatever vehicle he’s looking to boost. When he gets busted, he comes to the attention of the FBI. Agent Roy Maxwell (Jesse Plemons, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”) makes Bill an offer – infiltrate the Black Panthers and get close to Fred Hampton or else go to prison.

And so, Bill is left to try and make his way into Hampton’s inner circle. It isn’t easy – Hampton is surrounded by fiercely protective true believers, loyal lieutenants willing to do anything for their leader – but gradually, Bill gains their trust. As he slowly climbs the organizational ladder, Bill becomes more and more engrained in Panther business – and the more engrained he becomes, the more sympathy he feels to the cause, even as he continues to deliver intel to Maxwell.

We watch as Hampton and his closest allies – passionate followers like Jimmy Palmer (Ashton Sanders, “All Day and a Night”), Jake Winters (Algee Smith, “The Hate U Give”), Bobby Rush (Darrell Britt-Gibson, “Just Mercy” and the woman who would become his lover and closest confidant Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback, “Project Power”) – push their agenda forward. Even when Hampton is sent to prison, everyone – including Bill O’Neal – continues the mission.

Things come to a head, though, when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, TV’s “Grace & Frankie”) decides that the threat posed by Hampton is too large to be handled through traditional means and demands that Hampton be removed from the equation in a more … permanent fashion.

And removed he is. Permanently.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is the latest entry in the rapidly growing subgenre of historical docudramas centered on this particularly tumultuous time in American history. We’ve seen a number of these films in recent months – Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Regina King’s “One Night in Miami” – but of all of them, this latest is perhaps the most viscerally impactful, due largely to the frankness with which it addresses cultural and systemic issues. The black/white dynamic is on full display throughout, without the glossiness we often see.

Shaka King proves deft at both capturing the largely justified paranoia of the Panthers as they’re left wondering who they can trust. He also refuses to shy away from the brutality inherent to this conflict – there’s a vividity to the violence that is tough to forget. It’s all so damned visceral.

(If you want to argue that the film suffers due to the fact that the primary figures are played by actors considerably older than the real-life people they play, I get it, but personally, I think what is lost in verisimilitude and veracity is more than made up for through the wild talents of the performers.)

Centering Bill O’Neal rather than Fred Hampton might seem like an odd choice, but it’s clearly the right one, the one that ensures the propulsiveness of the narrative. It’s through O’Neal that we’re able to see the conflict from multiple perspectives – we get the fiery discourse of Hampton and the Panthers, yes, but we also get to see the institutional response to that discourse through O’Neal’s interactions with Maxwell. It’s only when that remove expands, when we’re watching Maxwell deal with his FBI superiors, that the film bogs down somewhat.

Ultimately, this movie is all about the performances. Kaluuya is utterly mesmerizing as Fred Hampton, capturing the cadences and rhetorical passions of his subject. Watching the energy of his pulpit flow into him as he speaks of revolution to the growing crowds … it’s simply amazing. It is a white-hot performance, one packed with power and anger – you can’t look away. And in many ways, Stanfield has the more difficult role; somehow, someway, his portrayal of O’Neal manages to elicit a modicum of sympathy. What he’s doing is wrong and he knows it, and yet, we also recognize the impossibility of his situation. As he vacillates between what he wants to do and what he has to do, his conflict is right there for us to witness.

Strong work from the supporting cast as well. Fishback is outstanding; while the quality of her performance might get lost a little due to the flashiness of the leads, there’s no denying that in many ways, she is the soul of the film. Plemons is always good; he’s another one that finds a way to keep us from hating a guy we’re being set up to despise. What could have been a one-note turn is surprisingly complex. Meanwhile, Sheen absolutely revels in his one note, giving us an oily and sinister J. Edgar Hoover and gleefully leaning into the man’s self-justified evil. Those are highlights, but the truth is that this ensemble excels from top to bottom.

There are a few issues here and there – the pacing occasionally gets bogged down and some of the real-life nuance is lost due to time and other constraints – but they are decidedly minor ones. Even at its low points – for a given value of “low” – it remains an exceptional film.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is a remarkable work of docudrama, a look back at a not-so-long-ago period in our history that hasn’t always received the attention it warrants. Fred Hampton’s death was a tragedy, one long overlooked by too many; thanks to this film and the blazing heat of Daniel Kaluuya’s performance, perhaps it will be overlooked no longer.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 15 February 2021 12:03


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