dir: Shaka King
I am… not… a revolutionary. It would seem hypocritical of me if I were. I mean, after all, I do work for the Empire, and there’s little tolerance for revolution or rebellion within the Empire’s rank and file.
This movie is not about me, which is handy, because I wasn’t a prominent member of the Black Panther Party, nor was I murdered in my sleep by the Chicago police in 1968. Nor was I betrayed by a sneaky, weasel-y fucker given no choice otherwise by his FBI handlers.
Judas and the Black Messiah is about a chap called Fred Hampton, who tried to help his fellow African-Americans against the forces of white supremacy, here represented by the FBI’s director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), and one of his underlings, being played one of the whitest actors in all of America, called Jesse Plemons.
It doesn’t matter what the character’s actual name is: he’s just bad news. He is always smoking a cigar, and always gorging on masses of food, and sometimes smokes a cigar while eating, which is somehow even grosser.
At first, like everyone at first, creepy FBI guy seems like he’s actually trying to do things legally. His concerns with the activities of the Black Panther Party are not about the breakfast programs for kids, or the community outreach: it’s for the illegal stuff they do, and for the crimes some of their members commit.
But at about three quarters of the way through the movie, J. Edgar himself asks the jerk Jesse Plemons is playing how he’s going to feel when his daughter grows up and brings a negro home for dinner.
Hasn’t he seen Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner yet? What if she brought handsome doctor Sidney Poitier home? That would be grand, surely?
But no. That’s the moment where mostly okay FBI agent goes “fuck that, all the prominent African-Americans must be slaughtered lest my daughter go black and never come back.”
And that’s when he convinces William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) that everyone must die, and Bill has to help, or no more steak and cigars.
This is late in the film. I’ve left a lot out, a lot that matters, and a lot that seems made up but isn’t, but it comes down to the fact that the cops deliberately set out to murder these people, and it happened, and I’m sure they probably got awards and commendations for it.
So the fact that they murdered Fred Hampton is not disputed. He is asleep when they shoot him. I know that still happens today, like how they shot Breonna Taylor in her sleep, and still made the argument that it was necessary because reasons.
At the time when Fred Hampton was murdered by the cops, they didn’t need to have excuses ready or answer to grand juries or even work up a bit of a nervous sweat. They had an enquiry, and still somehow found that it was a righteous shoot, don’t you know.
The State, in whatever form you choose to understand that word to mean, was terrified of the Black Panthers. At least that’s how it seems to me. I’m not going to pretend that I am a scholar on the topic of the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence, or really a scholar on anything. As I’ve said in previous reviews, almost my entire knowledge on any topic comes from the movies I’ve seen about it, so most of my knowledge about the Black Panthers comes from movies like this, like the great and forgotten movie Panther by Mario Van Peebles that I remember from back in the day, and a string of documentaries on the topic. And 90s rap never let you forget about these heroes either, because they name checked them constantly in their songs way back then, with the frequency now reserved for designer label mentions.
So I have long known that the American obsession with gun ownership, with the rights of gun owners superseding the rights of those who would prefer not to be shot, wasn’t ever really intended to be exercised by African-Americans. The thought of an organised group of African-Americans having legally acquired and registered guns seemed, hmm, worrying to the powers that were and still are.
Also, the Panthers were radical in their political thought, and were advocating stuff like helping each other and supporting each other and socialism and stuff, and, eww, we can’t have that.
Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) is young. He’s like 19-20 when he has risen to prominence in the party (with other leaders already having been killed or jailed). He gives stirring speeches, because he’s learned from the best. He actually has albums of Malcolm X speeches, which he’s memorised, not just for the content of the speeches, but for the rhythm, the cadence, the oratorical skill.
Recalling the content of these speeches is almost sweet flirtation, when Brother Fred and Sister Deborah (Dominque Fishback) quote lines back and forth. At least they had love, however brief.
And that’s Sister as in the honorific title, like comrade, not like his actual sister you perverts.
As commanding as Fred is while speechifying, or when bringing disparate groups under his wing, away from the limelight he seems unsure of himself. But when giving good speech? He seems like he could convince anyone of anything. He even convinces a group of poor White Power jerks that they have more in common with each other than the forces arrayed against them.
In case it’s not obvious, Fred is the Black Messiah of the title, feared not because he’s radical or espousing violence, or committing any violence, but because he was so great at bringing people together. Building coalitions. Uniting the oppressed. Stuff like that.
So there has to be our Judas as well, if titles are anything to go by. Will O’Neal is sweaty, nervy, and none too bright. He does have rat cunning, though, by the truckload. It’s easy for him to infiltrate the Black Panthers because he’s black, and he’s around, and he makes himself useful. Lakeith Stanfield brings the same nervous energy, the same manic fear that he brings to most roles, but it’s not in the service of humour, like he often does. No, this shit is deadly serious, and we’re not likely to forget it. From the Panthers he risks being found out, tortured and killed, and from the FBI he risks jail time and not getting paid.
The title would imply that Judas and the Black Messiah have some kind of relationship before he betrays him with a kiss and sends Him off to his crucifixion. He does not. There is almost no feeling that there is any connection between the men at all. Will has more of a meaningful relationship with the FBI guy. They actually chat with each other. FBI jerk is even mostly polite and nice to Will. He’s not even openly racist around him, which counts for something. But between Fred and Will, Wild Bill? Barely anything at all.
As a brief study of what Fred achieved before his murder, a brief picture of his life and energy, the film is quite accomplished. As a catalogue of all the injustices visited upon them by the entrenched tools of white supremacy, well, it’s always going to look like it’s gone too far, and it turns out they did all this crap and far worse.
Daniel Kaluuya is phenomenal here. The voice he adopts, the heavier frame, the very different body language to play a historical figure; he’s amazing. He’s been incredible in everything from Get Out to Queen & Slim to, um, a little film called Black Panther as T’Challa’s bestie, and he kicks so many goals here. I don’t ever want to see him in something crappy, because then he’s lost an almost perfect streak of incredible performances.
As a study of what was going through the mind of the guy who helped the powers that be to achieve their dastardly ends, well, I dunno. It doesn’t really seem to me like anything O’Neal did really mattered that much. They were always going to kill these people, with or without his help, with or without him drugging Fred so that he couldn’t resist when the cops tried to execute him, with or without diagrams and layouts of apartments or headquarters buildings. Despite clearly being a real person who did these awful things, he remains far out of reach, no matter how well Lakeith Stanfield does with the character. Maybe he is unknowable, or maybe he wasn’t that complex, since he had little choice in the matter.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a solid film. It’s not a great film, but it’s an important one. It’s a necessary and timely reminder that governments, police forces and such are made up of people. Those people may be personally racist or not. In the end it doesn’t matter, because a government will use everything it can when it is afraid of losing power, to destroy those it fears, and it’s going to do it automatically, without thinking, without batting a fucking eyelid.
And depending on the country, they might even have to make excuses afterwards, to cover their actions up with a fig leaf of regret or justification. And those of us who benefit from the status quo can sigh, satisfied, and go back to streaming something else through our televisions.
8 times I wonder why the cops shoot unarmed African-Americans with impunity still – oh wait oh yeah now I remember out of 10
“We got to face some facts. That the masses are poor, that the masses belong to what you call the lower class, and when I talk about the masses, I’m talking about the white masses, I’m talking about the black masses, and the brown masses, and the yellow masses, too. We’ve got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don’t fight capitalism with no black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism” – he certainly got something right about the state of the world - Judas and the Black Messiah