Thursday, April 1, 2021

Judas and the Black Messiah

Director: Shaka King
Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Dominique Thorne, Martin Sheen, Amari Cheatom
Running Time: 126 min.
Rating: R 

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

During Shaka King's otherwise tremendous Judas and the Black Messiah, I couldn't help but roll my eyes in its opening minutes when Martin Sheen becomes the latest victim of the J. Edgar Hoover curse, stipulating that any actor portraying the former FBI director on film over the past thirty years must wear embarrassing prosthetics that severely alter their appearance for no particular reason. This despite the fact that the real man was relatively nondescript looking and few seem to really know or care anyway. He has to be the most unsuccessfully essayed figure in modern biographical movies in that the more we see of him, the less we learn or care. 

Fake nose and all, it's to Sheen's credit he survives this brief scene and is actually quite good in a more impactful one later. So while my petition demanding J. Edgar no longer appear in any 60's set period projects is pending, his presence is only a minor distraction here, serving once again as a gateway to far more intriguing figures. One of them, the "Messiah" of the film's title, is the chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), whom Hoover spends his limited screen time galvanizing the bureau to take down. 

While Hampton was memorably depicted in another of the year's Best Picture nominees, The Trial of the Chicago 7, this provides a much deeper dive into what he stood for and exactly how his life was tragically cut short. And yet still the film isn't entirely"about" him, but rather the collision course he's unknowlingly on with petty criminal turned FBI informant William O' Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), whose infamous interview from PBS' 1989 documentary, Eyes on the Prize II also serve as the story's bookends. He'd end up taking his own life after it aired, and watching King's dramatization of events, it isn't hard to see how these events gutted him inside in the decades since. 

It's the late '60's when 17-year-old Bill O'Neal is arrested in Chicago after attempting to steal a vehicle while posing as a federal officer. At the station he's approached with a deal from FBI Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who offers to drop all charges if he agrees to go undercover and infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party led by Fred Hampton. Quickly snuffing out that O' Neal appears to show little interest in politics or social justice, Mitchell's convinced he's found his informant, and one capable of divorcing himself from the emotions that would potentially compromise such a sting. 

With Hampton's influence growing as he forms alliances with gangs and various militia groups, the Panthers also establish community outreach programs for education and child care. But viewed by the FBI on the heels of Martin Luther King's assassination as a groundswell civil rights movement as violent and dangerous as the Klu Klux Klan, Hampton becomes the bureau and Mitchell's main target. Believably slipping into the role of a full-fledged Panther, O'Neal slowly gains Hampton's trust, collecting intel for Mitchell that could lead to far worse ramifications for the revolutionary than he ever anticipated. But that's assuming Hampton doesn't discover his identity first.

The events leading up to Hampton's death and circumstances surrounding his life have never been this thoroughly covered in cinematic form so it's easy to understand the temptation to label it as the first Hampton biopic. But even in covering such essential ground, it's more about O'Neal's betrayal, which link the two men in history and will undoubtedly draw comparisons to certain elements of Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman in terms of plot. But there's really no relation considering the stark differences between the two groups and the sense of tension and immediacy surrounding O'Neal's even deeper infiltration and how seamlessly embedded into the Black Panthers' culture he became. When he's in, he's all the way in, and despite his believability, there's hardly a moment where you're not thinking he'll be found out, regardless of anyone's familiarity with what actually occurred. 

Stanfield's giving a tricky dual performance, simultaneously playing this cornered criminal who's at least partially manipulated into doing the FBI's dirty work. Once inside, he has to be someone else entirely, legitimately fighting for a cause greater than himself and the actor subtly implies enough doubt that O'Neal's performance within a performance is starting to become the real thing as his allegiance develops. A self-professed blank slate going in, it was always going to be a tall order for him to not pick a side or have his moral compass broken with this much on the line. 

While the methods Agent Mitchell uses to convince O'Neal that he's protecting the sanctity of the country seem to justify Hampton's entire cause, Plemons performance grows colder and less sympathetic along the way, which is a good choice. Mitchell isn't O'Neil's friend and never will be, no matter how many times he invites him to his house or a posh restaurant. Mitchell's using O'Neal while the small-time crook sees dollar signs in his arrangement with Mitchell and a shot at a new start. Instead, he's in constant fear of being uncovered and killed, as his manufactured loyalty to the Panthers has him doubting how he somehow ended up on the wrong team. 

Kaluuya gives off more than enough electricity as Hampton to let us see how he's able to wrangle such a devoted group of followers and why the Panthers attracted so much attention from law enforcement. Just as strong is a quietly captivating Dominique Fishback as Hampton's girlfriend, Deborah Johnson (for whom the actress is an uncanny lookalike), with their relationship providing many of the film's most poignant scenes, albeit ones tinged with a sense of impending doom that comes to fruition with his eventual death. It's also an event O'Neal has a far greater hand in than expected for those unfamilar with the exact history. To call him an active participant wouldn't be far off base, nor would labeling him a full-blown accessory to murder.

We do get an epilogue that seems to go on longer than usual under these circumstances, with title cards and actual footage, making you wonder if this ending is starting to become a prerequisite for any material based on a true story. Aside from the PBS clips of O'Neal, it may have been more powerful for King to just end it and let the enormity of what we've watched sink in. It's not a big debit, but sometimes the story has to stand for itself, and if you've succeeded, viewers won't be able to run fast enough to any available resource to explore the background.

More than anything else, Judas and the Black Messiah becomes about balancing the perspectives and movitations of its two main characters. Faced with what must have seemed like an agonizing choice, O'Neal made the wrong one, and many suffered from it. He also had Mitchell superficially propping him up and drawing false equivalencies to get what he wanted out of him. Whether O' Neal "sold out" or was taken advantage of, the end result's unchanged. And eventually upon realizing he couldn't live with himself, he administered the harshest form of self-justice. Ultimately, hate still lives to see another day and a more than a few decades, while senselessly adding these two casualties in the process.    

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