R E V I E W – M O V I E
Judas and the Black Messiah depicts the Black revolution against notorious racism in the late 1960s — not everyone’s cup of coffee. The plot progresses slowly enough for the viewers to grasp how things are unfolding and anticipate the inevitable end. Although it is successful in dismantling many misconceptions surrounding the Black Panther Party, it falls short when it comes to imbuing emotions in the viewer and highlighting the more historically significant events.
The plot has destruction and riot and solidarity and hate amplified at different points, but seldom was I filled with joy or sadness or dread. It doesn’t instill notable emotional value to speak of, although it does a great job at dancing close to history. However, the story focuses on Fred Hampton and his rebellious Illinois Black Panther Party being betrayed by the FBI informant William “Bill” O’Neal, consequently stealing away from paramount events like the multiracial Rainbow Coalition and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death.
Director Shaka King evidently pulls out the big guns in an attempt to uphold Fred Hampton’s life and death, the mass revolt against White supremacy, and the extreme struggles of surviving in a racist world. Daniel Kaluuya, starring as Hampton, delivers an outstanding performance as a pioneer and trailblazer, with his oratory style specifically tailored to replicating that of the legend’s. Kaluuya occupies the stage with much ease and quickly captivates everyone present in the crowd.
His thunderous slogan, “I am a revolutionary”, reverberates in the voices of the hundreds backing him in his trials. He truly does justice to the role of the black messiah, fearlessly preaching ‘libelous’ ideas of liberty and uniting the mass. Whether delivering orations or shaking hands with other organisers, Hampton manipulated the people’s desire for an insurrection and weaponised it to fuel the rebellion. His approach to community organising was bold, fortified by a belief in the power of cross-racial, cross-cultural solidarity. He was imaginative — able to feel the need of a socialist future. It is for this reason that he was a threat to the White-dominated, racist, imperialist power structures governing the country.
However, although the film only somewhat mentions his socialist ideology, it broadly overlooks the Marxist-Leninist doctrines he followed and promoted. One of the only times we get an idea of it is when he says:
“We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with Black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.”
But socialism can be an umbrella term in today’s society, ranging from free healthcare to public ownership. It never specifies Hampton’s anti-capitalistic politics. The political scenes could have lingered even for a minute or two longer on the ideas of Marxism. The film, after all, ended up being quite superfluous. The focus on the FBI’s collusion with the Chicago Police Department, and Bill’s snitching was useful at times to show the depravity of the nation’s internal intelligence agency, but that angle got a few scenes too many. Instead of making me empathise with the dynamics among the characters and the ultimate terminus, it got more or less predictable when Hampton is ultimately murdered at the age of 21, in 1969.
LaKeith Stanfield plays the interesting character of O’Neal. He is deceptive, conspiratorial, self-centred, and charitable at the same time. More than anything, he’s human. He played the key role in Hampton’s death, handing over the blueprint to the police to hunt him down. But by the time O’Neal felt that he was betraying his comrades too viciously, he had already gone too far and there was no redemption. At the end of the film, there is an excerpt of the only interview O’Neal had ever spoken at — Eyes of the Prize 2 — where he says, “Let history speak for me.”
As an individual of desperation, dread and fear for his life, O’Neal ended up being the most relatable in the film. We can hate him for his treachery all we like, but we can never tell for certain whether we would sacrifice our own interests for an alleged bigger picture we don’t even have the imagination to visualise. Not everybody can be a Hampton — a natural commander and dauntless fighter. For better or worse, history always comes up with O’Neals to “neutralise” the Hamptons. Namely, Judas and the Black Messiah.
It is undoubtedly already one of the best movies of 2021, and it presents laudable performance, direction, screenplay and cinematography — all of which is why it deserves the praise and popularity as an atypical Civil Rights movie. It doesn’t contain a traditional biopic trope. Instead of dramatising history, Judas and the Black Messiah sustains it with contemporary relevance.
The writer, a cynic, is a part of TDA Editorial Team.