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Thread: JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (Shaka King 2021)

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area





    Black radical history framed very successfully as action thriller

    Judas and the Black Messiah is a great film that deserves to be more widely seen in theaters than the pandemic situation allows. But what is it exactly? And what is its purpose? Those are daunting questions that stand in the way of writing a review. We'll try to answer them by starting with a glance at its genesis.

    It is not a biopic of the meteoric life and tragic death of chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers Fred Hampton, though that was what writer Will Berson had been working on for a while when writer-director Shaka King found him. King had material supplied him by the comedy team of twins Kenny and Keith Lucas. Had they been attracted because Fred Hampton was very funny? The Lucas brothers are black, they originally were going to be lawyers, and they tell in an interview on Vulture about how they were simply thrilled by what seemed to them an exciting, shocking, and little known story when they first encountered it in an African-American studies course. They wound up working for a decade on a script that showed Hampton through the eyes of Bill McNeil, the FBI informant, and hence became a thriller. The Lucas brothers' script was handed over to Shaka King. Together Berson, who is white, and King, who is African American, worked through many versions to forge a genre movie along the lines of a period crime thriller. Trust me, it works, on many levels.

    Upping the action element, the screenplay also acquires dimensionality through the gentle romance of a sometimes shy Fred Hampton and bold revolutionary poet Deborah Johnson. This is not the story of any one of these things. McNeil is always around, but the film doesn't push any pat contrasts or relationships between him and Hampton. The message there is only that around messiahs there are always judases. Alongside the purity of the messiah is the confusion and self-hatred of the betrayer. Both are tools of social forces.

    In the thriller Berson and King forged together, Hampton comes out not funny but eloquent, which he also clearly and more importantly was. He could thrill and galvanize the audience, and here is where the performance of Daniel Kaluuya particularly sings, though not the only place. He comes through showing Fred Hampton's gentle, quiet side in the scenes with an impressive Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson, Hampton's girlfriend, who, when Hampton died, executed by the Chicago police using a ground plan supplied by McNeill, was in the room sleeping with him and pregnant with his son. That son, Fred Hampton, Jr. later took up the mantle, and he and other family members played an advisory role in the making of this movie, another interesting story on the periphery.

    The not-biopic element is constantly maintained by the presence of Bill McNeill (Lakeith Stanfield), the FBI informant (evidently not the only one) who infiltrated the Chicago Panthers, taking orders from and feeding information to FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). McNeill of course is the "Judas" and Hampton the "Black Messiah." But "messiah" isn't truly an accurate description of the revolutionary socialist Hampton in the eyes of his activist community. As in Oakland, where the Panthers were born, these activists provided breakfasts to youths and other community services, as well as openly carrying arms and preaching Marxist politics. The activists called Fred simply "Chairman" and to them was more like family and comrade than god.

    "Messiah" is a reference to the paranoia-fed predictions of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), whose COINTELPRO of illegal search-and-destroy policies against black American leaders is another higher-level element that raises this movie's pulse. We see enough of Hoover here to learn of his white-supremist orientation. He wanted to destroy blacks, wipe them out, the Panthers first. He says in the movie "The Black Panthers are the single greatest threat to our national security," echoing something Hoover actually did say more than once.

    Obviously we can see this movie through other lenses than that of an action thriller. One of these is the actual history of the Black Panther Party, which has been covered in a number of documentaries but rarely dramatized in major league feature films.

    Part of the excitement of Judas is that it's full of rising stars and King with this sophomore feature becomes a major player - even though the Hollywood execs insisted, as King told Jelani Cobb in a New Yorker interview, that this movie would "bomb." It seems in their stats no black film, not even Ryan Coogler's, could possibly be a winner. (Coogler, now a black Hollywood star-maker like Ava DuVernay, produced Shaka King's new film.)

    In the contemporary context Steve McQueen's "Small Axe" series, Coogler's other Black Panther, and the recentMa Rainey's Black Bottom and One Night in Miami reflect how significant black-dominated films have recently become in Hollywood and continue to be. Let's not forget Barry Jenkins' Moonlight won Best Motion Picture Oscar in 2016, with Green Book, with its black main character (Mahershala Ali) winning two years later. Whatever the relative merits of these films, the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag rearranged hierarchies, even though the execs' race-motivated gloom persists.

    Recently also there have been black-made documentaries like Stanley Nelson's 2015The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and Sam Pollard's MLK/FBI (NYFF 2020), the latter showing how under COINTELPRO the FBI constantly dogged Dr. King's footsteps and pried into his private life yet somehow were unable to prevent his assassination. Let's not forget Spike Lee's return to form in his Cannes Grand Prix-winning BlacKKKlansman, which has parallels with the undercover FBI thread of Judas. In his review of Judas, the Times' chief film critic A. O. Scott notes that it's a "tense, methodical historical drama" that grows in richness in the context of all these recent movies that collectively "make a strong case for the vitality of historical filmmaking in yet another era of political crisis."

    We knew Kaluuya mainly for his underdog role in black director Jordan Peele's provocative 2017 Get Out, a global hit the white Hollywood execs were also sure would bomb. Kaluuya explodes in Judas and the Black Messiah, his evocation of the engaging eloquence of Fred Hampton the more impressive in a British actor who seamlessly blends a southern edge to his Marxist stance. We learn of Hampton's contempt for dashikis and willingness to forge links with black Chicago clans and gangs of poor whites.

    Stanfield, always the cool, ironic one, has the less flashy but perhaps more subtle job of depicting the very young "career criminal" who is blackmailed into his Judas role for crossing state lines in a stolen car (the - flashy - opening sequence, where he steals the new big red late sixties convertible from a black hoodlum by impersonating an FBI agent.

    Both Kaluuya and Stanfield deliver career best performances here and are likely up for major awards, as is Fishback. Let's not forget Plemons as the FBI manipulator of McNeill, delivered with complexity too, so you want to hate him but you can't, quite, just as McNeill soon disbelieves his false motivator that the Panthers are just as bad as the KKK, yet falls for his mentoring, his camaraderie, his scotch, and his envelopes of money.

    This is also a winner in the screenplay and editing, costume and score categories. This is a rich and tightly packed script with well-designed action sequences delivered for forward drive, while the acting and dialogue keep the movie character-centered from first to last.

    Despite mainstream ignorance, in fact much is known about Fred Hampton and about the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers and the murder of Fred Hampton in a police break-in to their headquarters where multiple members were sleeping. The event has been thoroughly chronicled on film as far back as Howard Alk's 1971 documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton (which you can watch on Vimeo or Amazon Prime today). The Lucas brothers report studying 7,000 pages of FBI records and the detailed "Eyes on the Prize" interview with Bill McNeill, which this movie directly references near the end. You can read the transcript of the entire interview with McNeill online . In the movie, even Deborah Johnson's bathrobe matches the one her historical original wore the night of the killings. And Costume designer Charlese Antoinette Jones works wonders with the detail of crowd scenes where all the Panthers' outfits look period and right. This was a time when everybody looked cool, and the Panthers, with their Afros and berets and leather jackets and shades, were a group who had a sense of style lacking today.

    What's not to like? Well, even though this is an entertaining, really well made movie with black "creatives" behind it, the question remains all the more, why? What is the purpose of the movie? Take a look at the recent blog entry of young African American freelance writer, David McCloud entitled "My Problem with My Problem with Judas and the Black Messiah." He had only seen the trailer when he wrote this, but McCloud describes the content of the movie knowingly. He is aware of the story and he says, "Bro, I’m a 30-year-old black man, I don’t NEED to see Fred Hampton being set up by his people." McCloud concludes: "It just seems like I’m going to be watching Fred Hampton be assassinated again, and I honestly don’t need to see that. I don’t want white people to see this and feel like they’re making a difference because they’re able to view radical blacks from a safe distance. I don’t want black people to see this and become reminded that all of our heroes are dead, and THEY killed them." McCloud seems to contradict himself, because he has just said it was really the FBI who killed them. But his discomfort with having Fred Hampton's story sprawled excitingly all over the screen is understandable.

    The fact is, achieving mainstream status involves loss of subtlety of content and context. And don't even look at what gay, black, conservative, Christian film critic Armond White writes about this film in National Review. Typically he claims to prefer King's 2013 stoner comedy first film Newlyweeds, which few have seen. He's shocked Warner Bros. took on the film. He is horrified that this film may be "woke corporate advertising" holding up the Black Panthers of the sixties as a solution relevant to #BlackLivesMatter today. White calls this a "would-be spiritual parable" and says it's a "facile, false romantic fantasy." He seems to get some of his facts wrong, though. For instance, the clip of the Bill McNeill "Eyes on the Prize" interview at the end isn't a "reenactment,"* as he says, not does the film promote Afro-centrism; it shows Hampton's explicit rejection of that stance. And White's framing black "media professionals" as today's "race traitors" replacing FBI informants is a low blow.

    My feeling is, if only we had an active, vibrant Black Panther Party today, #BlackLivesMatter would have an organizational backbone. And then we'd see how liberal Joe Biden is. (Judging from his hard line against Iran and recent authorization of bombing in Syria - warmly approved by Israel, not very.)

    Basically, Judas and the Black Messiah was simply something involving the Panthers and the murder of Fred Hampton that could get made. And personally, I'm glad it did. In years to come, it's likely to stand as one of the most brilliant and vibrant entries in this current surge of black cinema creativity.

    Judas and the Black Messiah, 126 mins., debuted at Sundance Feb. 1, 2021, released in many countries and the US virtually Feb. 12, 2021 (also in AMC and other theaters). Screened for this review at home on HBO. Metascore: 86%.
    *The fact that Peter Bradshaw also seems to refer to this in his Guardian review suggests it may be a moment in the Sundance premiere version that was later cut out.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-27-2021 at 03:02 PM.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    Happy to say Daniel Kaluuya won the Golden Globes for Best Supporting Actor in film for this dazzling performance. And good that John Boyega won for Best Supporting Actor in TV for Steve McQueen's "Small Axe" series. Two notable black British victories even if marred by glatches in the tech of the Globe's clumsy virtual awards show.


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