Judas and the Black Messiah(2/27/2021)

I pretty distinctly remember when the trailer for Judas and the Black Messiah dropped; it was August and we’d just spent the last four months worried enough about when the movies we already knew about would come out and there was something pretty exciting about the promise of something brand new coming down the line.  What’s more, the protests and riots had just happened a month earlier and a movie about Fred Hampton stood the chance of being particularly topical in light of current events.  But of course as with every movie released in this window there was always the question of if we would actually see the damn thing, and if so how?  The trailer ended with that “Only in Theaters” tag that this year has made a mockery of over and over, but unlike other movies that ended up on streaming eventually this trailer came out when the studio knew things were uncertain.  As it turns out, the movie would find its way to streaming, it got caught up in Warner’s larger plan to put their slate on HBO Max, which is how I saw it since I’m not going back to theaters until I’ve had the vaccine.

The “Judas” of the film’s title is Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a real historical figure who joined the Black Panthers and became a confidant of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) in the years leading up to his death in late 1969 who was later discovered to have been an FBI informant the whole time and who likely acted as an agent provocateur and likely set Hampton up during that infamous raid.  We meet Bill when he’s a two bit hustler trying to steal cars by impersonating a federal agent, but when he’s arrested for this he’s flipped to an undercover role for the FBI by an agent named Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) and joins the Chicago Black Panthers to provide him with information to undermine their operations.  From there we get an on the ground look at Hampton and his work as an activist and what being part of his organization was like and also O’Neal’s highly conflicted feelings about what he’s doing.

The title and setup of this movie almost immediately reminded me of the 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which also looked at a legendary figure through the eyes of a hanger on who ends up betraying him.  Of course the key difference is that Jesse James is not really a political figure, or at least isn’t one that anyone today would consider admirable, which certainly isn’t the case with Fred Hampton, who is one of the great “what ifs” in American history.  Regardless of the “Judas” plotline there is a lot of value in just having a movie that looks at Hampton and the behind the scenes of the Black Panthers when they were at their height.  Daniel Kaluuya gives you a good idea of how charismatic, if prickly, Hampton could be as a leader and we get a good idea of the work they did to endear themselves to the community and form alliances with other groups.  The film does not, however, present the most hopeful picture of this activism since its premise is inherently fatalistic: they’re presented as a group that was sort of destined to be undermined and sabotaged at every turn by the powers that be and there’s an aura of dread over the whole movie and in a lot of ways it kind of makes being a Black Panther look kind of miserable, I think it could have maybe benefited from a better look at “the good times” and the promise of this movement before everything started to fall apart.

In some ways the movie struggles to divide itself between its two halfs; it’s essentially told from O’Neal’s point of view and begins with his involvement but it also wants to include a lot of Hampton material and as such O’Neal’s character is never quite as drawn out as he could have been.  You don’t see much of his personal life and while it suggests there’s something motivating him beyond the mere threat of imprisonment you’re not really sure what; his FBI contact seems uniquely unlikable and it’s never particularly clear what his true feelings about Hampton are.  The lack of historical record around O’Neal is part of the problem; there’s quite a bit of evidence that he was an informant but not much of a record as to why or what he was like when his “mask” was off, and the film didn’t seem to be particularly interested in inventing a potentially sympathetic or relatable persona for him.  In a lot of ways it’s a movie that’s less interested in exploring either Judas or the Black Messiah fully and is more of an bitter lament about the government’s complicity in destroying the later and disposing of the former, and that is quite the downer.

In some ways I almost wish the move could have been something a bit more akin to a straight biopic about Hampton like Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, which was also a movie that was well aware of the many forces arrayed against its protagonist but doesn’t let them overwhelm the central figure, and if it doesn’t want to do that it could be a movie that really focuses in on O’Neal and his inner struggle, but it instead kind of tries to do both in a somewhat halfhearted fashion.  In many ways it kind of reminds me of that movie Detroit, which tried to address American racism by just finding the most extreme injustice it could find and then dramatize them with a sort of primal scream that said “this happened here, be outraged.”  That movie never really landed right; it basically just terrorized black audiences while presenting white audiences with an example of racism extreme enough that they probably weren’t going to see a lot of themselves in it.  Judas and the Black Messiah is better than that, in part because it has a more direct target in the form of the FBI to go after and deals with historical figures and a movement that are worth seeing dramatized and it has some excellent performances from Kaluuya and Stanfield, but I’m not sure I was really left with much to chew on aside from how disturbing this whole span of history was.

*** out of Five


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