April 2021

Arts & Letters

Amorality tale: ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’

By Shane Danielsen

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

Told from an unexpected perspective, Shaka King’s film is one of the best recent-historical dramas

William O’Neal was a petty criminal in Chicago during the late 1960s, with a particular penchant for boosting cars. To facilitate these heists – and perhaps to juice the act for himself – he often used a fake FBI badge, reasoning that few of his targets, working-class young black men like himself, would be scared by the sight of a gun. A badge, though, was something else. It meant authority, institutions, the weight of numbers. “Like you got the whole damn army behind you.”

One of the best recent-historical dramas in some time, Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah opens with one such theft, which goes badly awry and ends with O’Neal wounded and under arrest, facing a five-year stretch for impersonating a federal officer. It’s winter, 1969. Vietnam is going badly. The Democratic National Convention, the preceding August, has already turned the Windy City into a battlefield. As portrayed by the gifted LaKeith Stanfield, O’Neal is nervy, impulsive, very possibly a coward, and utterly unmoved by the currents of the Black Power movement then sweeping the United States.

While in custody, he meets FBI special agent Roy Mitchell ( Jesse Plemons), who offers him an unexpected lifeline. The charges will be dropped, Mitchell says, provided O’Neal agrees to infiltrate the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party and gather information on its leader, Fred Hampton, played here by the great young British actor Daniel Kaluuya. No ideologue, O’Neal agrees. He becomes Hampton’s driver, and then, when he proves his resourcefulness, something close to a trusted friend. The result – a morality tale in the guise of a crime thriller – recalls not only Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), another film about outlaws at odds with America and with each other, but also Bertolucci’s masterpiece The Conformist (1970), since O’Neal is every bit as empty inside, and as lost, as that film’s melancholy assassin.

King’s decision to make O’Neal the film’s protagonist will undoubtedly puzzle some viewers. Yet it makes perfect sense for reasons both practical and conceptual. Practically, because his is the more complex character: the betrayer’s multiple deceptions, his uncertain allegiances, his panicky sense of imminent discovery, make him more ambiguous, unpredictable and fascinating than any hero. And conceptually, because of cinema’s inherent difficulty in successfully representing the lives and achievements of “great men”.

It’s too easy, in telling the stories of martyrs (and Hampton, alas, is most definitely that), to become simply hagiographic – a trap this film mostly but not entirely evades. One solution is what I’ve called the Valet Principle: you don’t make the film about Hitler – you make it about the man or woman who worked for Hitler. The reason is simple: our opinion on famous figures is mostly settled, whereas the distance afforded by a secondary perspective allows a new way into the story while also giving the audience a surrogate with whom to identify. But in the zero-sum game of America, the obvious question – what would I have done, in their position? – takes on a broader significance. How can one hope to act honourably in a society whose survival depends on turning its most vulnerable citizens against one another?

Kaluuya plays Hampton as a cool customer, perhaps a little looser and hipper than he actually was. But this doesn’t strike me as movie-star vanity so much as a sincere attempt to capture something of the man’s remarkable efficacy. The activist was just 21 when he was murdered; in this sense, his achievement feels like a modern-day Joan of Arc, albeit inspired by the writings of Mao and Che rather than by the gospels of Christ. And Kaluuya leans hard into the singsong cadence of Hampton’s speech, elongating vowels and compressing syllables to make from his words an aria of resistance – never more so than in a fiery oration to a packed town hall shortly after he’s released from prison. Save for occasional cutaways to members of the audience, the camera keeps close to the actor’s face, but even if it weren’t you couldn’t look anywhere else. I saw Kaluuya onstage years ago, at the Young Vic, and can personally attest to his magnetism; he’s a technically superb actor who’s also a bona fide star.

No less compelling, however, are his co-stars. Stanfield is one of the most fascinating character actors working right now, often infusing his characters with a spacey, dissociated air that seems drawn directly from his own oddball personality. (At the 2017 Emmy Awards, for example, he sat down on the red carpet and conducted a lengthy stare-off with the press.) But he also endows them with a wary, watchful intelligence and a disarming physical grace. He moves beautifully, often performing subtle little bits of business within a scene; his breakout role, as Darius in Donald Glover’s series Atlanta, is a model of unobtrusive scene-stealing. Some directors don’t know how best to use him – he was wasted, for example, in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. But, at his best, he’s as singular a screen presence as Bogart.

Plemons, meanwhile, is almost his antithesis: stolid, imperturbable, an instinctive underplayer, plying a naturalism so fine-grained and discreet that a casual observer might fail to note the careful precision of his craft, or even think he’s doing “acting” at all. (In this sense, he differs considerably from the figure to whom he’s most often compared, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.) One scene here finds his character dining with his boss, the loathsome J. Edgar Hoover (an almost unrecognisable Martin Sheen), who by way of personalising the race war he craves, asks what Mitchell will do when his daughter grows up and “brings home a Negro”. Plemons’ response to this slur offers a little masterclass in reactive acting, as a succession of thoughts and emotions flicker silently across his face. As ever, you sense a whole life animating the performance.

Founded on Marxist–Leninist principles, the Black Panthers was a bracingly egalitarian organisation – so it’s more than a little depressing to see the film give such short shrift to its female characters. The one exception is Deborah Johnson, the writer and activist who became Hampton’s fiancée, the mother of his son, and, later, as Akua Njeri, carried on his legacy. She’s played by Dominique Fishback, who shone brightly as Darlene in David Simon’s HBO series The Deuce, and who similarly excels here, imbuing her character with a tenderness that makes their relationship moving, and a mocking humour that deflates her lover’s occasional lapses into pomposity. Best of all is a scene where she starts to cry as she listens to him address a crowd of supporters – at first because she’s moved by his words, but then because she realises that, at the end of the day, he’ll always choose The People’s welfare over their own.

What Hampton was proposing was almost absurdly utopian: an alliance of the economically oppressed that would transcend America’s racial barriers, unifying blacks, Latinos and working-poor whites in shared opposition to their true enemy, the capitalist system that’s keeping them down. To that end, we see him forging alliances (notably with the Crowns, the gang who already run Chicago’s South Side) and attempting to build coalitions. Crashing a meeting of rednecks (whose backdrop, unpromisingly, is a giant Confederate flag), Hampton wastes no time re-litigating past disputes. Instead, he appeals to their common complaints: the same dismal education opportunities for their kids, the same taxes that see no tangible benefit in their own communities. Forget prejudices, he says, it’s simply a question of addressing the more pressing problem: “If this building were to catch fire right now, what would y’all worry about? Water, and escape. If someone were to ask you, ‘What’s your culture during this fire, brother?’ You’d say, ‘Water. That’s my culture.’ Well,” he concludes, “America’s on fire right now – and until it’s extinguished, ain’t nothing else mean a goddamn thing.” Not merely an eloquent speech, it’s as pure a distillation of revolutionary principles as I’ve heard articulated in mainstream American cinema.

To their credit, the filmmakers don’t attempt to soften their subject’s rhetoric. (“Kill a few pigs, get a little satisfaction,” Hampton thunders at one point. “Kill ’em all? Get complete satisfaction!”) But what the film manages to do extremely well is to represent the wildly unequal terms offered ordinary black Americans in the exercise of their civil rights, who must carefully modulate their voices at all times, lest they appear “angry”, and whose protests can take only the mildest and most inoffensive forms – even as a knee is pressing down on their collective windpipe.

It’s not perfect – a few scenes feel rushed, or inconclusive – but at its best, the film is electrifying. Composers Mark Isham and Craig Harris contribute a dissonant, jazz-inflected score (including quotations from Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s classic “The Inflated Tear”), and King stages the handful of action scenes, in particular, with energy and conviction – death, when it arrives here, feels abrupt, messy, entirely real. Had anything much changed in the subsequent 50 years, the ending might not seem so tragic; as it is, it’s all but impossible to watch its final act and not seethe in fury at the actions of the Feds, and at the callous cruelty of the Chicago police.

But if Kaluuya has the bigger moments here, Stanfield has the greater challenge: to incarnate a man whose motives he could not properly admit even to himself. O’Neal lived within a lie for so long that he wound up unable to see beyond it, and, fittingly, this film concludes with footage of the real-life man, interviewed two decades after the fact. Embedded within those few moments is a whole pathology – but the end of his story, detailed in an onscreen caption, is sufficiently biblical to justify the film’s title. The final twist of the knife this bitter tale requires.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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