Monday, August 2, 2021

In the Reels: Judas and the Black Messiah’ rewrites history

By Cameron Kaercher

Last fall, Fred Hampton, the deputy chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, was featured in “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”

Sadly for the historical drama, there was no proof that Hampton had actually been in the courthouse. His presence was a pure fabrication for dramatic purposes, which is problematic for a film being sold as a true story.

The story of “Judas and the Black Messiah” is sadly all too real.

Lakeith Stanfield stars as William O’Neal, who at the start of the film is a lowly car thief. When he is brought in for impersonating the FBI, he is offered a deal. O’Neal had to infiltrate the Black Panther Party’s Chicago chapter, headed by the aforementioned

Fred Hampton, this time played by Daniel Kaluuya. O’Neal eventually works his way up the totem pole and becomes the organization’s chief of security. However, if audiences understand the biblical reference being used in the film’s title, there will be no surprises on how the story ends.

The film is not a direct biopic of either leading man, but an illuminating history lesson. Rather than running through Fred Hampton’s growth as a political leader, the story jumps to the late 1960’s, as he is already setting up food programs for underprivileged kids in the Chicago area.

As for O’Neal, we observe him from a somewhat detached perspective. The film is not trying to moralize his role as an informant, but instead figuring out what pushed him to this point.

Kaluuya’s performance has already received nominations from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild, and rightfully so. As he addresses the crowds of people throughout the film, any pretense of performance melts away.

His rough, hearty voice is not an uncanny duplication of the real Hampton, but an evocation of his spirit. There is power in his words, almost gospel-like at times which is further emphasized by speaking behind a church altar at one moment.

For so long, the Black Panther Party was labeled as a dangerous and militant group.

In this film we see FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, played by Martin Sheen, addressing an auditorium of agents saying that they are “the single greatest threat to our national security.” While the film does not shy away from the violent altercations with the Chicago Police Department, that is not the focus of the film. Hampton wanted to mobilize his community and unify them under one voice. It should be his legacy, and this film provides him that.

The film was written and shot in 2019. Considering the racial reckoning America has had in the last year, this story feels so timely. With such a historical movement going on, one would expect director Shaka King to finish with a postlude of modern-day footage in a way that Spike Lee has done in the past with films like “BlacKkKlansman,” and “Da 5 Bloods,” but King avoids that convention.

It would be a great film if it was personal through the tremendous performances. However, the evocation of the era elevates the film to becoming socially and historically minded. 2021 is still young, but “Judas and the Black Messiah” will endure throughout this year and it should not be forgotten.

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