Sundance 2021: Shaka King’s tale of the Black Panthers and the FBI is shockingly radical, particularly for a major-studio movie
A movie about a not so distant past that speaks directly to the present, director Shaka King’s blazing sophomore feature “Judas and the Black the Messiah” — premiering at Sundance and coming to theaters and HBO Max later this month — is a radical work on the final days of Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, made within the not-so-daring apparatus of a Hollywood studio. That it was conceived within those creative walls and still breathes freely as non-conformist art makes it all the more invigorating.
Preaching armed revolution over placating reform, Hampton (here embodied by Daniel Kaluuya) skipped sugarcoated platitudes. At the age of 20 in 1968, when we enter the story, he was already a galvanizing figure of dissent. In a momentous year for protest the world over — including at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, where the Black Power gesture earned headlines — Hampton was making strides in his diligently grassroots response to the racist system of the capitalist United States.
Magnetic with righteous fury, Kaluuya plays Hampton with steel-plated conviction that has no time for half-measures. The gifted actor maintains a strict demeanor in scenes speaking truth to the people but a more calibrated mien in the ones exhibiting Hampton’s diplomatic skills, like a meeting with the Crowns, a fellow revolutionary group.
Transcending Hampton’s large-than-life aura, Kaluuya strives for guarded vulnerability in the more intimate moments with an excellent Dominique Fishback (the star of moving drama “Night Comes On”) as Deborah Johnson. She sees poetry in his words and mission, but never unquestioningly reveres him. Portrayed in his element, we understand how Hampton’s impassioned political platform threatened FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), who deemed him and his rise as the unifying Black messiah, “the single greatest threat to our national security.”
But before we get to the prophet, the energetic screenplay by King and co-writer Will Berson introduces the film’s real lead, the apostle who would kiss Hampton on the cheek before sending him off to his death, William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield). Impersonating an FBI agent to steal cars, O’Neal understands the unchecked power that authorities exercise in Black communities. “A badge is scarier than a gun,” he tells real bureau agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who tests his loyalties before coercing him into a malicious enterprise.
Tasked with infiltrating Hampton’s organization as an informant, O’Neal initially sees it as quick money and a get-out-of-jail card. Yet, over the course of the plot, Stanfield traces the man from his nervous laughter at the fear of being found out during his early days with the Panthers to a more conflicted state. As we witness the group’s battle for survival through O’Neal’s POV, Stanfield suffuses the character with a powerlessness that hides behind the duplicitous mask the characters wears. It’s a performance that implies more that it can say.
Even in the reenactments of one of the only interviews he ever gave, O’Neal never spills his guts about whether he felt the guilt of his ultimate betrayal, or whether he fully realized his own oppressed position under the perverse FBI’s thumb using him to bring Hampton down. Stanfield’s eyes point in that emotional direction, especially in a climatic scene, but the actor never verbalizes it, which benefits the narrative. One could reproach the film for not revealing more about O’Neal the person, or his thoughts on the disgraceful society in which he lived, but that absence mostly works to indicate that anyone could have fallen victim to the government forces that limited his agency and turned him into a weapon.
Polished in the way that historical sagas, but rarely those about BIPOC, are presented when gatekeepers believe they merit grandeur, “Judas” is impeccably conceived. Veteran director of photography Sean Bobbitt (“Widows”) operates here with his signature classical elegance, the kind that makes you notice streetlights reflected on rained-soaked pavement. There’s also an opaque saturation to the images that further traps them somewhere in between the then and the now. Enlivened with the memorable interjections of Craig Harris and Mark Isham’s jazzy and trombone-heavy score, the movie sonically carries sharp tension with a hint of impeding doom.
King, following his indie feature debut “Newlyweeds” and a considerable amount of TV work, directs assuredly, with an energy reflecting the urgency of the Hampton’s crusade and the viciousness of the institutional pushback. The writing follows suit: In every line of dialogue, the filmmaker chases either truth or lies so absurdly blatant they serve to evince other truths, such as agent Mitchell’s false equivalences.
Mitchell sees the KKK and the Black Panthers as two sides of the same coin. His “both sides” argument will strike a chord with more recent rationalizations about the Black Lives Matter movement and white supremacist insurrectionists. Still, King — whose film always manages to walk the line along every single character’s complicated worldview — doesn’t render the G-man a monstrous villain, but rather as another indoctrinated peon who chooses to obey out of self-preservation, even after uncovering the worst aspects of his superiors.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” certainly can’t be read as the reincarnation of a bygone era but instead, sadly, as something currently alive. Early on, Kaluuya’s Hampton quotes Mao Zedong: “Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed,” prompting us to think about the world we live in right now. As such, cinema is part of a cultural warfare without bloodshed, in turn making the stories portrayed, and how they are portrayed, inherently political. And if cinema is political, Shaka King has made a manifesto.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” opens in select theaters and on HBO Max Feb. 12.
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