‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is the urgent black story of 2020

Yeah, I know it’s 2021, but the copyright for this movie is 2020. It was delayed, you know why. Images courtesy Warner Bros.

9/10 Three and a half years after the Charlottesville rally, after a year of grotesque displays of police violence, Judas and the Black Messiah is the story that puts these things in context, and it’s a fine film.

Chicago, 1968- Professional criminal Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is caught red-handed stealing a car and impersonating a federal officer. Instead of sending him to prison, real FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) sets him up as an informant. O’Neal spends a year or so spying for Mitchell on the Illinois Black Panther party and its chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), eventually playing a key role in Hampton’s assassination.

Before anything else, Judas and the Black Messiah is gorgeous. Every frame is a foreboding painting, richly colored and textured and harshly contrasted. Most of the film’s awards noise is around the cast and original music, but Sean Bobbitt’s dramatic chiaroscuro cinematography and Sam Lisenco’s production design are by far its best features.

The acting, of course, is incredible. Stanfield, Kaluuya and Plemons are perhaps the three best actors for their respective roles, and these roles are perhaps the ideal use of these actors. Between Sorry to Bother You and Uncut Gems, Stanfield has quickly become the king of this sort of squirrely character with his back against a wall, and Kaluuya uses all his charisma and force to portray Hampton distinctly not as he was, but as the titan of history he might have been.  

Much like Trial of the Chicago 7, which was filmed at the exact same time as Judas and also touched on Hampton and his assassination, the cast is noticeably older than their characters here – Stanfield and Kaluuya, 29 and 31, are playing people who were 20 and 21 during the depicted events. This isn’t intentional, it’s a product of actors’ career trajectories and the way media has warped the general perception of what young people look like, but it highlights the severity of the situations they were in. It’s a shock to watch an entire film of Kaluuya as Hampton and then be reminded in the end text that character died at 21.

These evil-looking dinners between O’Neal and Mitchell really capture Judas and the Black Messiah’s menacing color and composition. Watching and rewatching the movie, the more surreal its spaces become, like things that don’t belong in history, but in a dangerous dream you can’t escape from.

This is another HBOmax release that, like The Little Things two weeks earlier, really needs 100% of a viewer’s attention to deliver its full effect, but isn’t stimulating enough to command that attention outside of a controlled theatrical environment. Every scene walks on razor wire, but it’s also slow and mostly quiet. The tension comes from the kind of plot minutia and acting subtleties that just don’t help a movie that’s only being half paid attention to. I can’t get the image out of my head of someone watching this wonderful movie out of the corner of their eye as background noise for work, probably after hearing it won a bunch of awards, and writing it off as boring.

Judas and the Black Messiah is remarkably accurate for a biopic, but it is not a neutral retelling. This is a deliberate and pointed fictionalization made for 2020. The Black Panther Party was openly socialist, had a prominent Islamic membership and attempted to operate outside of American institutions they disagreed with, establishing the kind of food and medical programs for black communities that many of us expect from the government today and resisting the police and military, sometimes violently.

Hampton was a singular leader who rallied non-political black gangs, Hispanic gangs and even impoverished white supremacist gangs to his cause with alarming efficiency – his “rainbow coalition” first officially formed April 4, 1969, just eight months before his assassination, and it was strong enough to live on without him and be appropriated to several other cities. This is the larger-than-life leftist leader the American government is scared of, one who isn’t white, isn’t a capitalist, doesn’t depend on government programs, bridges racial divides, organizes his community members and provides for their basic needs in a way that doesn’t depend on his employer or theirs, one who has power that can’t be taken away legally because it doesn’t stem from the law in the first place.

In this film full of impossible spaces asserted as if they need no evidence, the most alarming is the FBI conferences, short scenes in which seemingly the entire agency gathers like ravers in identical three-piece suits to hear horrible racist screeds from J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen).

Judas and the Black Messiah may be “the Fred Hampton movie,” but O’Neal, the “Judas” of the title, is the lead character, and almost every scene is from his perspective. Grounding the film this way, which is the defining choice of the entire work, changes it from a story about the tragedy of Hampton’s death to one about the machine that executed him. O’Neal is a highly sympathetic character in constant inner turmoil, but he makes precious few real decisions. Most of his choices, and a lot of Hampton’s for that matter, are made for him by Mitchell.

Maybe the most important thing the framing does is, despite being set at a time when black Americans were perhaps the most politically united they’ve ever been and being about an explicitly black political party, it depicts black Americans as not a monolith. There is friction and tension within the Panthers and just as many black characters who don’t seem to care about the larger-scale political struggle, none less so than O’Neal. When Mitchell asks him how he felt about the then-recent assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, he says he never thought about it.  

Much like its own narrative, Judas and the Black Messiah is bold but passive, its statement made not with its grand Oscar moments, but with the implications of its framing and context. It will be thought of in higher regard as time moves forward, both as a film and as a movie of its moment.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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1 Response to ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is the urgent black story of 2020

  1. Pingback: Did they really do a full Academy Awards show for 2020? | Reel Entropy

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