Mother of mercy, where to begin with this one?
Judas and the Black Messiah dramatizes real events in Chicago, during the storied Summer of ’69. Funny enough, that makes it contemporaneous with the infamous Trial of the Chicago 7 (see Aaron Sorkin’s recent picture on that one), which of course gets a shout-out. But I digress.
Anyway, the “Black Messiah” of the title is Fred Hampton (here played by Daniel Kaluuya), who was chairman of the Black Panther Party’s Illinois chapter at the time. On December 4th of 1969, Hampton’s apartment was raided at night by Chicago police and Hampton himself was shot in his sleep. Mark Clark — another Black Panther, played in the film by Jermaine Fowler — was also assassinated. The Black Panthers in attendance only fired one shot to the cops’ 99 bullets, yet it was the seven Black Panthers who survived the raid that got arrested and charged with attempted murder. (The charges were subsequently dropped.)
In 1970, the survivors of the raid — along with relatives of Hampton and Clark — filed a civil suit against the Chicago police and the FBI, seeking $47.7 million in damages. Twelve years of litigation later, the case finally wrapped up with $1.85 million awarded to the defendants. And nobody in law enforcement ever had to admit guilt, much less lose their jobs or go to jail.
And by the way, none of this is spoiler material. That’s the point.
The kicker is that none of this would’ve been possible without Bill O’Neal (here played by Lakeith Stanfield), the “Judas” of the title. Long story short, O’Neal got himself picked up for carjacking and cut a deal with the FBI. In return for staying out of jail (plus a fair bit of money), O’Neal agreed to enlist with the Illinois Black Panthers and get close to Hampton, all while serving as an informant for the FBI.
As a double-agent, O’Neal is placed directly in the middle of the conflict between the Panthers and the FBI, to say nothing of the Panther’s tenuous dealings with other Chicago gangs, and internecine conflicts within the Black Panther Party itself. Though he’s in constant danger from all sides, he’s also ideally placed to observe all sides.
And yet — though Bill is of course a vocal proponent of whomever will save his skin in the moment — his true beliefs and allegiances are kept completely opaque. Never once does Bill use his position to serve as a moral arbiter on behalf of the audience or the filmmakers, thus the film itself is frustratingly neutral on the ongoing racist conflict.
But then, maybe that’s the point.
There’s a scene early on in which Hampton states (I’m paraphrasing here) that the only difference between war and politics is bloodshed. The film very explicitly shows the Black Panther Party in merciless and fatal shootouts, and there are graphic descriptions of the slow, painful, torturous executions that the Panthers carry out on traitors within their ranks.
Compare that to another scene, in which Roy Mitchell — O’Neal’s FBI handler, played by Jesse Plemons — recounts the brutal and horrific murder of some young black people at the hands of the KKK. The way Mitchell tells it, the Black Panthers and the KKK are simply two sides of the same coin, each a force of relentless violence that has to be put down.
Yet while the Black Panthers are shown using lethal force, it’s always in self-defense, to defend other black people, or in response to some other provocation from the police. In fact, there’s no sign at all (in the film, anyway) that anyone of the Black Panther Party ever raised a gun against any white person who wasn’t a cop. Hell, there’s one scene in which Hampton and his crew go to a church full of goddamn Confederate rednecks, peaceably and respectfully making the case that they have a mutual enemy in the wealthy and politically elite.
Compare that to the KKK, a group with a long and horrific history of murdering unarmed black people for no reason at all.
I could also point to J. Edgar Hoover, here portrayed under heavy age makeup by Martin Sheen. As Hoover was the ultimate racist fascist fuckhead like Joe Arpaio only wishes he could be, it makes sense that he’d be portrayed as an overbearing white supremacist who will break any rule and trample over any neck just to put down the Black Panthers and protect the white man’s way of life. Compare that to Hampton’s fiery rhetoric, with regards to killing cops and bringing down the system so that black people will be truly equal without having to live in fear of getting shot without cause.
I suppose one could make the argument that Hoover and Hampton are equals and opposites of each other, but again, that comparison is quite thin. For instance, it makes quite a difference that Hoover is an old white man governing from a position of security and power, while Hampton is a black kid from the streets who’s got nothing to lose because he knows the white man is going to kill him someday regardless of what he does. Hoover is defending his way of life, while Hampton is fighting for his life, and those two are not remotely equal.
With all of that being said, I only bring it up because the film never does. Indeed, the filmmakers show little interest in taking sides or making cut-and-dried statements about racism. No, this is a far more subtle statement of a far more bold idea.
Put simply, this is a war movie. Where most other war movies use Vietnam or WWII to talk about the ugliness and futility of war, these filmmakers use Fred Hampton’s assassination to make the same point about racial warfare. Both sides — black and white alike — commit atrocities, both sides kill each other in horrible bloody ways, and nothing is accomplished except that we’ve got more widows and orphans, and hatred is deepened on both sides.
In point of fact, there’s one scene in which Hampton talks about his personal childhood connection with Emmett Till himself. A black boy was brutally murdered for no reason whatsoever, his killers walked free with no consequences, and that bloody miscarriage of justice led directly to the creation of the man who became chairman of the Black Panthers in Illinois. Whatever Hampton may have done for good or ill, whatever awful things the FBI did to keep Hampton from committing more terrible crimes, none of it would have been necessary if those heartless white monsters had simply left that harmless boy alone, or at least had gone to prison for killing him. One atrocity leads to another, and injustices pile on top of each other.
Yes, black people have rightfully grown paranoid and trigger-happy after so many of their race have been gunned down with impunity by the white man. Yes, it sucks that they’ve been pushed to violence and rioting after so many decades of politely asking for equality — or simply requesting that white people face consequences for shooting black people — have resulted in worse than bupkis. Far be it from me to say that both sides are equally in the wrong here, because they’re clearly not.
But maybe it’s time for all of us — of all races — to look at the atrocities our forebears committed in our names. White people, look back at the pain, the bloodshed, the unspeakable crimes against humanity that were done to keep us on the top of the social ladder. Look at the fear, the desperation, the violence that people of color have had to resort to just to stay alive and be heard within this system that we’ve built.
Was it all worth it? Is this really the best we can do? After so many years of politics (read: war without bloodshed) and war (read: politics with bloodshed) spinning our wheels in place, isn’t it long past time we found some better way forward together?
With this movie, the filmmakers make the clear and painful argument that racism is a conflict in which there are no winners. It reframes the ongoing conflict of white people and black people into a war like any other, in which we both have to work together toward peace before we destroy ourselves, each other, and all our descendants.
And what about Bill O’Neal? Well, it’s left an open question as to what any of us would do in his position. Ultimately, he’s just another civilian forced to do terrible things because he got drafted into a war. I think it’s rather telling that the filmmakers let Bill O’Neal himself get the final word, showing an actual clip from a TV interview with the real Bill O’Neal. Incidentally, that interview was taped shortly before O’Neal killed himself.
Of course Lakeith Stanfield is incredible. After all, this is basically a variation of the same “neurotic and morally conflicted” schtick that Stanfield turned in with his breakout role in Sorry to Bother You. Sure, his performance there was heightened and comedic where this one is far more grounded and tense, but it’s a variation on the same deal and it’s still amazing.
Alas, Daniel Kaluuya was miscast as Fred Hampton. Sure, it’s wonderful to see such a talented actor as Kaluuya with such a fantastic role to play with. Yet despite all Kaluuya’s best efforts, he simply doesn’t have the dangerous kind of charisma the role needed. This role demanded an actor and a performance at least on par with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in The Trial of the Chicago 7, and it just isn’t here. Was Michael B. Jordan not available? Did Stephan James or Trevante Rhodes show up to audition? What’s Jacob Latimore been up to lately?
Of course Fred Hampton needed someone who could balance the fire and fury of a Black Panther chairman with the compassion and vulnerability of a beloved leader and human being. The trouble there is that Hampton’s softer side is mostly explored through his relationship with Deborah Johnson (here played by Dominique Fishback), and it just doesn’t work. Sure, I totally buy the two as intellectual equals, but the chemistry simply isn’t there. Never once for a minute did I believe these two as a romantic/sexual couple. Where the hell is Amandla Stenberg when you need her?
Elsewhere in the supporting cast, Martin Sheen does fine work chewing the scenery, and Jesse Plemons serves well enough as a foil against Stanfield. Elsewhere, I was amused to see Lil Rey Howery drop by for a small yet noteworthy cameo role, making this the third time (!!!) Howery and Stanfield have acted off each other, after Get Out and The Photograph.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a difficult film by design. The film is uncompromising in its portrayal of racial trauma as the inevitable result of a pointless and tragic war that’s been taking lives and sowing bitter hatred since black slavery was first conceived. What the film lacks in some minor casting missteps, it makes up in passion. The film defiantly offers no easy answers, and O’Neal’s position as a double agent is played for powerful tension throughout.
It’s a little early for me to call this the year’s best film, but I can totally recommend it.