Judas and the Black Messiah ***1/2
One Liner Review:
A very powerful movie, packed with real scares and thrills and some pretty fantastic performances.
This is a movie about Fred Hampton, the leader of the Black Panthers, and the men who brought him down. Specifically it is about the informant who was inside the organization, acting as a member, while really reporting back to the FBI. And we see things through the informant, O’Neal’s, eyes, including the circumstances leading up to him having to work for the feds. The movie includes all of the usual touches of a film like this, including the party members suspecting O’Neal of being a rat at one point and holding him at gunpoint until he proves himself. But then it takes things to the next level, including watching the way the organization deals with conflict while Hampton is in prison. There’s lots of violence and action, and it’s all pretty thrilling. To top things off, the performances are dynamite. Specifically Daniel Kahlua as Hampton. This movie definitely works.
Judas and the Black Messiah is the story of the Black Panther. Organization. Specifically, it’s the story of Fred Hampton, the leader of the Panthers, and the years leading up to his death. At this point, at this time of year and with this Oscar season, we are seeing so many of these movies all come out at the same time. We’re talking about movies that are specific to this exact time period and often use or focus on the same characters. There’s The Trial of the Chicago Seven, where Fred Hampton was one of the characters (he was there to support Bobby Seale.) There’s One Night in Miami, where Malcolm X is one of the four main characters. Malcolm X is discussed in both Judas and The Black Messiah also in The Trial of the Chicago Seven. And then there’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which actually doesn’t have to do with this time period, but is certainly a historical movie about black oppression in a changing time. It’s so interesting to see all of these movies at the same time, to see all of them nominated for Oscars, and to see that every single one of them is really good.
Judas and the Black Messiah is definitely the most scary, violent, and action-packed of the bunch. It’s not an action movie, by any means, but there is certainly a lot in the ways of gun fights and death in this one. Daniel Kahlua (of Get Out,) plays Fred Hampton here, and he really knocks it out of the park as the somewhat quiet and introverted guy who really comes to life when it’s time to deliver speeches and get people to hear his message. Lakeith Stanfield (from Atlanta,) plays O’Neal, the guy who the FBI send in as a witness to secretly work for them and feed them intel on Hampton. He’s a rat or a snitch by any other word, and his life is constantly in danger because of it. Both Stanfield and Kahlua had breakout roles in Get Out. In fact, so did Lil’ Rel Howry, who also makes an appearance in this movie, playing a noteworthy character, (a Fed disguised as a pimp.) That rounds out the full reunion of actors, and what a great project they chose to reunite them all.
The movie opens with montages of speeches and interviews by Martin Luther King Jr and other people involved in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. We also see the start of a sitdown television interview with O’Neal about his time with the Black Panthers, and then a lecture given to a room full of FBI agents by J Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen.) In the audience of that lecture, one of the FBI members is Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons.) He will be the main antagonist throughout the movie. From here, we meet O’Neal for the first time (not counting that snippet of an interview at the start,) as he busts into a bar posing as an FBI agent, flashing a fake badge, and makes everyone in the place empty their pockets onto a pool table. O’Neal tells a guy who has the keys to a really nice car parked outside that the car was reported stolen, and he takes the keys. Only the guy knocks O’Neal’s hat off making it so that everybody can now clearly see his face, and they realize at once that he’s not an FBI agent. This leads to a chase, a quick getaway, a guy on the roof of the car slashing a knife down through the roof as O’Neal speeds off, and eventually to O’Neal getting the attention of a police car and being brought in to the station.
That’s where he meets Mitchell. O’Neal is bleeding from the head as he sits there in the interrogation room answering questions like, “were you upset when Martin Luther King was murdered,” and “why use an FBI badge? Why not a gun like most car thieves?” O’Neal’s answer is great.. “a badge is scarier than a gun. Anybody can get a gun, but a badge means you have a whole army behind you.” This sets up why O’Neal would go to work for the FBI as their undercover mole. He’s scared of them. Especially when Mitchell tells him, “It’s six months for the car theft, but then five years for impersonating a Federal Officer. Or you can go home right now.” The deal that is obviously made here is that O’Neal will go to work for them, and be their inside man.
From here, we meet Fred Hampton for the first time as he sits in a room full of people, off to the side of the stage, listening to a lecturer. Hampton sits hunched over with his head tilted sideways, listening to the speaker and slightly laughing at some of the things being said. Then he takes the stage himself. Hampton starts by saying what an accomplishment it is that they are going to let a University be renamed Malcolm X University and then cues the crowd in to the fact that he is being sarcastic. This is hardly a big accomplishment, he lets them know, and certainly not one with any real meaning. It’s a university filled with black students. The higher ups letting them call it what they want in no way implies real change. This lecture turns some people in the audience off, and at the end of it, Hampton is approached by Deborah Johnson, a writer and poet, who gives him a little advice. She tells him that he should be trying to unite people, not alienating them for showing a little black pride even if he doesn’t agree that it is the absolute best way to orchestrate real change.
Hampton meets Deborah again at the Black Panther headquarters where she takes a job working behind a desk and answering phones. He also meets O’Neal at the headquarters, while he is lecturing to a small room of people who sit at desks, like students. At one point, O’Neal gets flirtatious with a girl during one of Hampton’s lessons, and Hampton calls him out on it. In fact, he makes O’Neal go to another room with a female military captain of the organization, and do ten push-ups in front of her as punishment. O’Neal realizes that his approach isn’t getting him in, as close as he would like to be, to Hampton, and so he asks Mithcell for help. Specifically, he requests that Mitchell get him a car so that he can become Hampton’s driver. And Mithcell does.
This is about the point of the movie where the relationship between O’Neal and Mitchell starts to really get explored. In a sense the movie is all about their relationship in three acts. The first act is their meeting, and suspicions of each one towards the other. Then, here in the second act, we get sit down scenes between the two of them including one where Mitchell invites O’Neal to his home, makes him food, and even tells O’Neal to make himself a drink with Mitchell’s most expensive liquor. All of this is buttering O’Neal up, of course, and he falls for it hook line and sinker. In fact, we go back to that opening television interview for a moment, with O’Neal now reflecting on his relationship with Mitchell, and he says that he looked at Mitchell like a mentor. You can see why too. How many black people had a white authoritative figure with power as a friend back in those days? And O’Neal tests the waters to see if Mitchell really is treating him as an equal, when O’Neal asks the FBI man how much money he makes.
The third act, is when the relationship between these two guys goes sour and falls apart. But before we reach that point, here in the second act, O’Neal provides Mitchell with some pretty good information that Mitchell is then able to run with. He tells Mitchell that Hampton and the Black Panthers are actually trying to unite a number of organizations together including The Crowns, a group of Latino freedom fighters, and even a bunch of local white people in Chicago who hang up a confederate flag and feel that they are also being oppressed by the government. Right now, the first conquest that Hampton is trying to make is with the Crowns, a group of black people who wear green berets (the Black Panthers obviously wear black berets, and the Latino organization members wear purple berets. All of this feels a little like the movie The Warriors, but it must be based on real history, which means back then groups and organizations really were that proud and specific in their look and attire.) Hampton and his group are going over to meet with the Crowns. When O’Neal tells this to Mitchell, Mitchell brings it to his higher ups who pen a letter as if it was from Hampton, denouncing and ridiculing the Crowns, and telling the world how terrible they are. When Hampton arrives at the headquarters of the Crowns, they confront him over the letter, and he manages to convince them that it was indeed the Feds who wrote it. “They’re trying to divide us, writing fake letters, the same way they did to Martin and Malcolm.”
This leads to O’Neal being held at gunpoint by his own members, after one of the Crowns recognizes him as the man who had an FBI badge and stole a car at that start of the movie. The Black Panthers now make O’Neal prove himself by hot wiring a car in front of them. And his story about using a badge to impersonate an FBI agent, just to steal cars, is a little too crazy and ridiculous not to believe. Who would make something like that up? Hampton continues to unite different groups, as what he calls the Rainbow Coalition, and this gets to be too much for the FBI. They have Hampton locked up. At that point, we move into the third act, where the violence escalates. There’s a raid on the Black Panther Head Quarters where we witness a shootout (O’Neal is in there, and tries to escape from the roof, but instead is mistaken by the police as a sniper.) Then there’s the story of one of the shooters who the police brought out of the headquarters, and who was recovering in the hospital when he died of mysterious circumstances. This leads to one of that man’s friends losing it and going on a rampage of his own. The man is James, and at first he hopes to just find answers, confronting a black man who he saw working at the hospital one day when he came to visit. When that doesn’t go well, the hospital worker calls the police and this leads to an alley shootout, where James takes executes to policemen before being killed himself. When Hampton is released from prison, he goes and visits James’ mother and has a heartfelt conversation with her about the legacy of her son.
For every scene of violence there are a number of great scenes like this, where Hampton shows why he is the leader that he is. If O’Neal represents the virus in the organization, then Hampton represents the peace. Consider them different versions of Malcolm and Martin, (which is indicated by the way the movie makes so many references to those two historical figures.) The final moments of the film ask O’Neal to do some things that even he is not comfortable with. First it’s to draw a blueprint of Hampton’s apartment, and then later it’s to actually put something in his drink that will make Hampton stay asleep during a raid. Then we get the final scene, the scene we all know is coming, where Hampton is murdered. All of this is incredibly horrific. It is the punctuation mark on an already charged up and ferocious movie. This is one of those movies that tells a very real and dramatic story packed with fascinating details, wonderful performances (both Kahlua and Stanfield got Oscar noominated for playing Hampton and O’Neal,) and incredible thrills. It’s haunting and deep in way that really stay with you afterward.