Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Dir. Shaka King. Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Dominique Fishback

Judas and the Black Messiah is a great title. Catchy, memorable, SEO-friendly. We clearly have a sense of what’s going to happen, even if the viewer has never heard of Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), let alone Bill O’Neal (Stanfield), although, as K. Austin Collins of Rolling Stone puts it, “With a title like that, who needs plot?” And it is multifacted, polysemous. Here’s what A.O. Scott of the New York Times makes of this title, just to give a single example:

The phrase “Black messiah” doesn’t reflect romantic revolutionary hyperbole, but rather the paranoia of J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), who saw African-American militants as the gravest internal threat to national security and feared the emergence of a popular, crowd-inspiring national leader.

Maybe I’m on an island here, but I read this title than as a more or less literal guideline for how to read the movie’s characters. It’s not just a clever allusion; it’s a key to the film itself.

Bill O’Neal is not merely a traitor with a fancy name, but Judas himself. Fred Hampton is not a mere messiah, not just some guy with answers, but Christ. We’re a little short of Easter yet at the time of publication, but let’s really quickly review our (yes, extremely contradictory) Bible. Judas, one of Jesus’ key associates, is approached by a group of powerful people threatened by Jesus’ popularity. If you betray him, we’ll pay you handsomely. Judas does so. Jesus is executed, and the threat he posed to the ruling classes is basically expunged, at least for a moment. Judas, overwhelmed with guilt, kills himself. The only difference between Judas’ story and Bill O’Neal’s in this telling is that the government gets O’Neal involved first, as opposed to the government seeking out a dissatisfied member of Christ’s cadre. The story of Fred Hampton and Bill O’Neal as it’s being told here is not primarily about Hampton or O’Neal, or the Black Panther Party, or Chicago, or Marxism or Leninism or Maoism, or the FBI, or white supremacy. One complaint that I have seen about this movie that I basically agree with is that Stanfield and Kaluuya, both around thirty, are too old to be playing people this young. This is what I think of in my head as the Andy Griffith Conundrum, in honor of his performance in A Face in the Crowd. His presence in the movie amplifies a foundational flaw in the movie, but the performance is so incredible that you can’t imagine the movie working without him.

In any event there are ways to tell this story, and for all I know better ones, which foreground some of those other combinations listed above. The movie uses clips from one of them, incidentally, in the first five minutes; you can find shots from Agnes Varda’s Black Panthers, made contemporaneously with some of the events from this movie, in the introduction. Yet I find this movie is mostly concerned with the Judas-Jesus interplay between O’Neal and Hampton, and it embeds us in an enormously fraught, enormously damaging betrayal above all else. It’s a choice the movie makes, and while one may well wish for the movie to be about the movement, the movie chooses not to do it. (Without getting really deep into this debate, Judas and the Black Messiah seems to be well on its way to being the latest movie by people of color about people of color which gets it from all sides because it is only a movie, not a vast cultural representation which speaks to a great cross-section of people from that background. In that way, and perhaps only in that way, does Judas and the Black Messiah resemble Crazy Rich Asians.)

If you’re remembering an interesting little tidbit about Jesus and his life and his ministry, it’s probably from Matthew. Matthew is the gospel which tells us that Judas was paid thirty pieces of silver for betraying the son of God, which has turned out to be a significantly more interesting and much more repeated point of emphasis than what you get from other gospels, which suggest that the Devil made him do it. In either event, both seem to fit Bill O’Neal. The first scene of this movie is a tone-setter, visually speaking, with its sliding camera movement and its use of nightlife colors in grungy places. But it’s more importantly a tone-setter because the man setting up an unusual con is hidden. A trenchcoat, a hat pulled down low over his face. A fake FBI badge that obscures his presence even further. We see him late, and the dual missteps of being too obviously young without the hat to hide him and the bizarre idea that the FBI would get involved in boosted cars lead to him nearly getting sliced open from above while driving off in the car he stole. In other words, Bill O’Neal is hidden in plain sight, and if exposed, he runs like hell. Bill continues to hide over the course of the movie beyond merely being an FBI informant; the character is hidden, in many ways, from us. To me this is a strength of the film, again foreordained by the movie’s title. Judas Iscariot is hardly the disciple with the biggest personality, but there’s enough of a character there (his objection to the bathing of Jesus’s feet in perfume, for instance) to give us a sense of the man. Bill the revolutionary has politics which are basically orthodox compared to other members of the BPP, chanting CHAIRMAN FRED at a meeting or rebuilding the headquarters after a shootout with the cops. I think the closest we get to seeing Bill’s personality comes after he’s gotten a gun put in his face at a bar, and Fred dubs him “Wild Bill,” a title that Bill pretends not to have gotten before. Fred and his friends press him; Bill smirks a little and says he might have heard that once or twice. You only need it once from Stanfield to get the taste of this slyly humorous guy, someone with sand.

Bill the informant is what we’d expect, someone living with crushing guilt who is looking for the first possible opportunity to get out of his endlessly dangerous situation, haunted by reports of what happened to other informants sniffed out by the Panthers. He’s nervous, cagey, and once he is unbelievably foolish out of desperation. He drags out a case of C-4 one day and suggests they blow up a municipal building with it. The reasoning for Bill, naturally, is the same reason that Fred and Bobby Rush (Darrell Britt-Gibson) have for both needing to be held back from beating Bill up. Blowing up City Hall with C-4 would be a terrific way to get literally every governmental authority from Chicago to D.C. to notice them, and doing so would end the Black Panther Party in a single moment. If Fred and Bobby were not so angry, perhaps they would have seen through Bill’s suggestion, one which is so stupid that it could only have been calculated. It seems clear enough that Bill evolves politically from his first meeting with his FBI handler, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), going from an entirely neutral, self-interested party to someone who is teary-eyed seeing Fred for what he knows will be the last time; Judas didn’t sock Jesus in the garden, after all. It’s also clear that Bill’s thirty pieces of silver are not enough to keep him from despairing. His payment from the FBI, in one final meeting with Roy, are a couple bills and a key. The key, Roy tells him, is to his own gas station. A small business from which he may earn a living, but one without the prospect of moving up, or ever making all that much more than what he has. One that keeps him stuck to a single location. One that will put “Yes sir” or “Right away, ma’am” in his mouth forever. It is cruel recompense for a cruel deed, and while this movie is missing that scene—you know the one, where Bill, tormented by his choice, gets loaded, he puts on some loud music that continues to play through cuts that go through the course of an evening where he drinks more, weeps to himself, screams, you know, that one—the one we get instead here is staggering. The look on Stanfield’s face is indescribable, because the feeling Bill must have at that moment is indescribable, one that it is impossible to empathize with. Most of us can remember a time when we stabbed a friend in the back or turned a card. None of us can remember a time when we changed history for the worse because we snitched or sold out Christ so we wouldn’t get five years in jail.

There’s a good chance that Daniel Kaluuya has given the best performance of 2021 already. Occasionally I feel like a crazy person because of how few people talk about his performance in Widows, which is one of those incredibly rare things: threatening and ominous without secretly being funny. (A good example of a performance that is supposed to be threatening and is actually sort of hilarious is Jeremy Renner in The Town, just for the sake of comparison.) That kind of performance requires the sort of unironic gusto that it’s hard to feel, let alone perform, and yet Kaluuya had that in scene after scene, as scary and intense in that movie as he was easygoing and smooth in the first half-hour of Get Out. There’s an entirely different intensity in this performance, not unlike the rapturous presence we must have imagined the Son of Man would have had in Galilee. The focus on Fred Hampton is not so much on how the Rainbow Coalition is built, less on the methodology behind courting these white Chicagoans with a Confederate flag at the front of the room than the magic it takes to get him in the room. In a burning house, he says as he walks steadily to the front of the room, what matters is water to put out the fire and the ability to escape. America is on fire in his metaphor; it is a practical message, and the metaphor is not quite Yeats. The power in it is in Kaluuya’s delivery, which is spellbinding. There are other speeches by Fred Hampton in this movie, other monologues which showcase the man’s remarkable oratory. (One of my favorite scenes in the movie watches Fred as he matches himself up against a record he has of Malcolm X, a new prophet clearly trying to learn something from the prophets who preceded him.) Kaluuya is equally effective in quieter moments, though, clearly bringing a similar version of that intensity but minimized because otherwise it would be fatal within ten paces.

Fred, a twenty-year-old who was able to unite Black, Latino, and white groups with very different politics and very different perspectives under the aegis of shared needs, has to be understood first as someone who can slide his way into a difficult situation first. He must be able to speak to anyone, to charm anyone, to pierce anyone with his rhetoric; we have to believe that he preaches to these struggling people about a world in which there will be many mansions. There is no crowd of Pharisees or a jealous Sanhedrin dogging Fred, demanding his answer for difficult questions, but we certainly see him in crowds which are mostly adoring but occasionally quite dangerous, and again and again he walks into those places unarmed. His gospel is plenty violent, but the messages (and the acts themselves) are not so far off from what Jesus was up to. If you had never heard of the Black Panthers before watching this movie, you might think the thing they were most famous for was a meals program for children, and that Fred’s great contribution to Chicago was a medical foundation in the name of a fallen Panther, which is sort of like thinking what makes Jesus interesting are loaves, fishes, and unblinding people with mud. Yet without those actions there would be inadequate signification of the man as a miracle worker, too.

3 thoughts on “Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

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