Film Review: Judas and the Black Messiah

‘Look at those flames, lightin’ up the sky’…

In 1964 well renowned Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase ‘The medium is the message’, where he presented the concept that the choice of how to distribute a message, can be more important than the message itself. That isn’t to negate or lessen the impact, but if utilised correctly, can heighten the impact.

In the intervening years till 2021, much has changed, and tragically, a great deal hasn’t, in fact, given recent multiple recent events, out of necessity and survival, the Black Lives Matter movement was born in 2013, a organisation that rightfully brought focus upon the evident perpetual and increase of black people dying at the weaponised hands of aggressively militarised police forces in the US.

Two years after McLuhan’s comment, in 1968, another organisation was set up out of necessity by Boddy Seale and Huey P. Newton. The Black Panther Party was created to actively counter the historical and ever increasing incidents of police brutality, racism, and deaths against and of black people. Though at it’s core was the focus of racism, it itself saw no race in regards the mistreatment of poor folk, aiming to help, educate, provide medical care, and feed all people in need, particularly children, who where the readily accepted collateral damage of a ferocious capitalist society, that inspired individualism at the expense of everything, humanity and even the planet and it’s resources. Though the Black Panthers had initially been localised to Oakland, California, it’s ambitions were national, and global, setting up chapters around the world, as clearly orchestrated suffering was universal.

Given the unifying aspirations of the party, they were ultimately labelled as terrorists (Greenpeace and St Pauli the German football team known for antifascist/antiracist awareness/activism are on the UK terrorist watch list), and a threat to ‘society’ ie the established capitalist machine, indeed the Director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover in 1969 laughably (and with zero sense of irony) declared the party ‘the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.’ It is this intense period from 1968 onwards of actual criminal and blatantly deranged activity by the FBI against the party that is the focus of the outstanding new film ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ (2021) by director Shaka Kin.

Again, in keeping with the McLuhan message, the team behind the film have extremely shrewdly gone with the approach of ‘Inspired by true events’ as highlighted in the opening. Given the current state of the world, swamped with intensity, seeming despair and suffering, and at the time of creating the film, an openly racist President in office, it was a very wise move to take the elements of a state-sanctioned intense, brutal, cruel, vindictive and inhumane activities and blend them with elements and treatments of a thriller.

It gives the opportunity to make it more digestible (sugaring the pill) to a much larger audience who may be unaware of the events, or are not prone to watching documentaries. However, despite these extra enhancements, at no point in the human tale, is suffering, or sacrifice lost in the dressing, for anyone with a shred of human empathy, this is phenomenal storytelling by all concerned.

Fred Hampton was incredibly only 20 years old in 1968, nevertheless, he was the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and the deputy chairman of the national party. He was the instigator and founder of the Rainbow Coalition which sought to be a multicultural political organisation, joining many separate groups together, that represented the impoverished many, against the hyper-wealthy and organised system that historically oppressed them.

It is the story of his short reign and that of the paid FBI informant Bill O’Neill (also a Panther member)who was coerced into facilitating Fred’s death/murder, that King brings focus on. With them and the FBI at the centre, it aptly brings in the many aspects and angles of what contributed to yet another dark and callous period of American history.

It’s a profound moment and movement in America, which is why it has taken time, and care to broach the subject at all, yet the timing seems perfect. That justifiable reverence is explicit even from the opening somber, potent notes of the wonderful score by Craig Harris and Mark Isham, there is a respect, acknowledgment and gravitas befitting such historical context.  
It only builds from there, highlights of news and documentary footage represent the era perfectly, decades ago, yet it in many aspects, it could have been a few weeks ago.

That care to details is explicit not only in the cinematography (beautifully shot by Sean Bobbitt, who incidentally created one of the most intense cinema experiences I’ve ever had in Steve McQueen’s Hunger’, 2008), that implants you in that 60s/70s era at every turn, while looking incredible in every frame. The writing is phenomenal too (screenplay by Will Berson and Shaka King), capturing an era where words and the presentation, oration of those words hook deep into your mind and flesh, both poetic in flow, and barbed in suffering.

The costumes and set design continue the excellence, but it’s the performances (by EVERYONE) that truly wind you. Given the significance of the real individuals that are being portraited, any normal nerves in respectfully presenting/honouring a character by an actor, are going to be intensely amplified, to a potentially crippling level. Not here, from storytelling, direction, words and world building, the essence of that time has been stunningly captured to truly give the best possible environment for the actors to shine, with some of the best performances of their careers, careers that already had outstanding performances already.

Daniel Kaluuya stunningly captures the cadence, mannerisms, intensity, power, vulnerability and humanity of Fred Hampton with aplomb. There was a unique musicality and flow to Hampton’s speeches, a superb gifted orator, using the words of the ordinary person, he flipped regular phrases into empowering messages of revolution. Hampton’s family were heavily involved in the making of the movie, and Daniel has honoured both them and the memory of Fred.

Equally so LaKeith Stanfield as Bill O’Neal, who despite the actions of the character, manages to show a deeply relatable, flawed human being, entirely manipulated by circumstance, desperation and greed. A truly conflicted and tragic individual, who was only 17 at the time.

Dominique Fishback radiates beauty and gentle power in presence and words as Deborah Johnson, an integral part of Fred’s all too short life, and the admirable continuation of what he started.

Of course there are establishment orchestrators and puppeteers, reeking havoc and hate at every juncture. Jesse Plemons plays FBI agent Roy Mitchell who ensnares O’Neal, making him a paid informant, all the while Plemons innocently looking like he just feel out of an Norman Rockwell painting directly inspired by racism, which is as Americana as you can get. And then there is the (thankfully) brief moments of J. Edgar Hoover played by Martin Sheen, who is so insidious, venomous, hateful, that he reminds you of The Eye of Sauron in Lord of the Rings, so palpable is his abhorrence for black people. Indeed many of the repulsive machinations of the FBI that are shown, are on record to still be is use to very recent times, and likely, today.

The entire movie is essential in reminding people, or actually informing them for the first time about a particular time in history that is definitely repeating itself. That of course increases the importance of the film, and that as many folk as possible see it, as such tales are deliberately not being taught in schools (just like the Tulsa race massacre in 1921), so they can be repeated by the establishment, as no one with an ounce of empathy will be unaffected by its content.

Despite the tragedy of the story, there is much hope too, Fred and the original Black Panthers intuitively knew they were just the catalysts, and that the paths they had to walk, were guaranteed to be short, the system that serves the few, won’t tolerate such truth sayers. It’s quite staggering to think that Fred was only 21 when he was killed, he had achieved so much, was so focused, at one with so many, whereas in 2021 the world seems ready to burst with absolutely infantile adults (and Presidents, Prime Ministers, politicians), or at least perpetual adolescents entirely focused on self-gratification, regardless of it’s cost to the individual themselves, society as a whole, or as a species in regards the environment.

There are also echoes in the movie of the lack of morale truths, or beliefs, where individuals can be bought for pennies, at the expense to humanity, rewarded with a cheap steak, while millions perish.

The hope continues in that such movies are being made, as they have been created to inform and warn the young (it’s a major aspiration of the makers that young people see this movie), and also such discussions are a necessity for a new change, as in with the recent documentary series ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ by Adam Curtis for the BBC. In that series Curtis showed various movements in recent history, that were inspired/manipulated by individualism or collectivism, that despite apparent aspirational intent, ultimately failed, or were disastrous (Brexit). The lesson to be learned from those repeated failures (led by the establishment) is that a new way must be found, that is neither individual or collective.

The seeds are definitely there, in a recent study of Generation Alpha (kids born since 2009), there was a distinct informed awareness in these young minds of the severe challenges that face society and humanity, the need to address it by all, and the foundation of equality and universality of all, where race, gender, nationality, colour of skin or binary representation are rightly irrelevant, we are all one, and should be treated equally.

With works such as ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’, and hopefully many more such stories to come, the young (and old) can act on such introductions, to become more informed about such movements, using them as stepping stones, or flickers of fire to ignite, to research and read about what has happened before, so we can truly make sure it never happens again.

10/10 – ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is available on various streaming platforms now.