Published on February 14th, 2021 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Judas and the Black Messiah
Shaka King’s first Hollywood production is a straightforward parable of sacrifice and personal responsibility. It is a conflicting and purposeful portrait.
Fred Hampton, Deputy Chairman of the Chicago Chapter of the Black Panther Party, was assassinated in his sleep on December 4, 1969. For those reading this, who were not aware of Hampton’s demise–spoiler alert. Sorry to burst your bubble, but if its any consolation, Judas and the Black Messiah isn’t the type of film to spin a web of suspense. The fact of his death shrouds the film in an anti-mystery, in a matter-of-factness that allows its central characters to take symbolic shape. This is a film not about Judas or the Messiah. It’s a film about people who are being pushed and pulled by the system of racism and oppression. And that’s what Hampton was all about—the people.
He says it himself multiple times in the film. “I am a revolutionary,” he chants, leading on the crowd of people not to prop him up as a figurehead, but to instill a sense of self in the people. In this depiction anyway, he is always wary of the religious underpinnings of his position. If he saw the film now, he’d probably scoff at its title.
However, the film is deeper than its titular enshrinements. It plays both sides of the equation, the Judas (William “Wild Bill” O’Neal) and the Black Messiah (Fred Hampton), mining the complexities of what their situations signified rather than getting caught up in the kind of navel-gazing-by-proxy that films of this ilk often fall into. Shaka King has clearly made a film about the Black Panthers not to memorialize in some sappy, Spielbergian sense, but to reach out from the past and bring into the context of modern conversations about race. William and Fred are symptoms of the same disease, and while inspiring, they ultimately serve as testaments to the choices, the sacrifices people of color, people of poverty, experience every day.
This is best evidenced through Hamptons nobility. He humbly accepts his trumped up charges, serving his time in jail with an assurance that the work goes on, that the community goes on. Towards the end of the film, when his peers are cooking up a scheme to get him and his pregnant wife out of the country, he decides to give the money to a fellow brother in order to start a medical clinic. We also see him crossing territory lines, reaching out to gangs and even poor white communities are forming bonds that a police raid or an assassination could never break. His selflessness is his Messianic quality; the way he refuses that label and the pedestal that comes with it, is what is being particularly memorialized through this bio-pic. It’s the sacrifice, the putting first of community, of the people, that makes Hampton unique and heroic. His unwavering ability to do what needs doing rather than what he wants.
The performances carry this relatively straightforward plot, inserting every scene with a clear force of gravitas that is not necessarily present in the script. Lakeith Stanfield, the car jacker turned FBI informant, adds tension to each scene through the minutia of every expression, every exchange. There isn’t a big dramatic scene where he breaks down. Rather, smaller more natural moments of guilt and conflict are peeled back, coyly balanced by Stanfield’s dedication to his role. Daniel Kaluuya is stone-faced and convicted, his performance less of a mask of reverence and more of an embodiment of truth itself. He delivers big rousing speeches, yes, but it is the twinge of self-awareness with which Kaluuya imbibes the character that gives them power. While not dramatically illustrated through the writing or the film style, he elevates his performance to something of a walking parable, a character that is more than just a man.
The straightforwardness caught me off guard at first. I found myself wondering where the tension would come from, how the stakes would be raised. The answer is that they aren’t. They remain ever-present from the start, as the viewers unshakeable knowledge of past and present fills every scene with a poignancy and a purpose. It may not work for some, as the film can easily be seen as tedious and plodding. But it’s the consistent level of matter-of-fact unraveling that gives the film its poignancy. Instead of pulling out some big twists or some reversals of expectation, the film knowingly plays directly into those expectations and comes away with an experience that on the surface plays like a history textbook, yet is actually zeroing in on the drama that comes with history, with the facts. Much like Steve McQueen’s brilliant Small Axe series that came out last year, Judas and the Black Messiah is consistently all-business.
If there is one stylistic element that serves as a kind of wry secret ingredient for Shaka King, it’s the music, which invokes the detective noirs of yesteryear. Composed by Academy Award Winner Mark Isham, the use of horns and smooth jazz kind of rips what it wants from “white” movies and re-allocates them to the predicaments of the original music’s progeny. Echoes of Tin Pan Alley, Langston Hughes, and Miles Davis form a vortex of self-reflexivity about the crime genre itself. Deconstructing the tones of that genre, King uses the music to characterize a world in which white hegemony has left black Chicago with a sting of irony. So when those noirish horns sound out in William’s introductory scene, it is to invoke the very style their oppressors so successfully ran with.
Ultimately a film of character and setting over plot, it may not play as well to the Oscar bait set. But that isn’t who the film is made for anyway. The film plays best to those who already know the truth, who just need to see the truth in action, dramatized in a faithful way to glean inspiration. As Hampton says in the film, “They can kill a revolutionary, but they cannot kill a revolution.” This film seeks to be a small part of that revolution, and is mostly successfull in illustrating that the past does not look so different from the present and that understanding these forefathers of black activism is more important than raising them up on some altruistic pulpit. Hampton never used a microphone. He rejects the pulpit he is given, lowering himself to the same level as the people whom he is addressing. This film is telling it to us as blunt and straight-faced as can be in order to humble itself as just a messenger. The truth is out there, and it’s vehicles like Judas and the Black Messiah that work to remind us that the people have always had a voice and there is never a wrong time to use it.