"...deserves majority of its ecstatic critical accolades."

A Film That Shines Through its Flaws

(060421) Judas and the Black Messiah is an inspirational biopic filled about the circumstances behind the killing of the black panther leader, Fred Hampton, who was cold bloodedly shot by Chicago police in December 1969 while he was asleep next to his pregnant girlfriend. But the film is not strictly speaking a biopic of Hampton, it focuses on the story of the man who was an FBI informant who betrayed Hampton and helped derail that civil rights movement.

Politicians believed Hampton was a potential black messiah that could transcend ethnic boundaries and unite various factions with beefs against the government (he did manage to unite the Young Lords, the Young Patriots, Students for a More Democratic Society, the Brown Beret , and even a pro confederate group). William O’Neal is of course the Judas in the title who helped set up what was essentially a political execution.

Judas and the Black Messiah probably would have made my top 10 films of the 2020 list, but it was not released in theatres until February 2021, but it might be included it on my list for this year. It received six Oscar nominations and it won a best supporting actor award for Daniel (Get Out) Kaluuya who played Hampton. It is indeed a stellar performance and perhaps the most memorable part of the film. Do not get me wrong he deserved to win the award, but it seems a bit unfair since he is onscreen as much as some of the actors nominated for their lead performances.

The most controversial thing that Hampton does in the film is say, “Kill a few pigs, get a little satisfaction,” at a public event. Later on, he brushes it off saying he was using hyperbole, but not everyone might have been convinced or could probably hear his explanation. But when the informant wants to use explosives against the police, Hampton’s response shows he is not blood thirsty as his enemies and the media sometimes depicted him, and he strongly rejects the suggestion.

Towards the beginning, O’ Neal has an unusual way to make money. He uses a fake police ID to “arrest” people, then when their guard is down, he steals their cars. Although he is a two-bit hood, it is hard not the admire his courage and ingenuity. However, things go awry, and he gets busted by some real cops. An FBI operative named Mitchell (who is the only government official who comes off even remotely sympathetic) offers him a deal. The only way that O’Neal can avoid doing hard time is he has to help the FBI infiltrate the Chicago faction of the black panther party which has been gaining in power and popularity. He agrees even though he later comes to greatly regret the decision.

The FBI chief, Mitchell tries to ingratiate himself to O’Neal by his role in apprehending some people that killed activists registering black voters in the south during the desegregation era. He also shares a story of how the panthers brutally tortured and killed a suspected police informant (they actually had the wrong person) to argue that the panthers are as bad as the KKK. His boss, J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen who looks monstrous under a ton of makeup) is the most reprehensible character in the story. It is kind of ironic that Sheen who is so well known for his championing of left-wing social causes plays the extreme right winger who ordered Hampton’s murder. In one scene he laughs at a sketch of Bobby Seale tied up and gagged in a court room (this was depicted in the
Trial of the Chicago 7 ), and in another he displays his bigotry when he tries to justify his anti-panther campaign when he asks Agent Mitchell, “What will you do when your daughter brings home a young, negro male?””

Some have also criticized how the film weaves news clips within the dramatization of Hampton’s life (Spike Lee often does this too). But seeing the footage (Including an interview with O’Neil that was originally from Eyes on the Prize 2) this definitely helped fill out the portrait of the man. In the clip, O’Neal denigrated people who sat out during the revolution and called them armchair revolutionaries. The film informs us that on the same day he did the interview he committed suicide, so he was a probably a tragic figure plagued with guilt.

The DVD includes a merely passable documentary, Fred Hampton for the People, in which the actors basically say good things about Hampton, but it does not tell us anything new we could not know from the film or any encyclopedia article. Why couldn’t they have gotten an actual historian to talk about Hampton’s importance or the facts behind the film? This was a missed opportunity, and it could have helped young people (who often read very little) to learn more about an important historical figure and era.

There are some minor things in the film that might mislead people about the actual real history behind the film Both the actors who play O’Neal and Hampton are far older than the characters they portray in the film. O’ Neal who was only 17 when he joined the panthers is played by a 29-year-old, and Hampton who was 21 when he died is portrayed by a 31-year-old. Also of course it is impossible for the film writers to know the actual dialogue exchanges that occurred between Mitchell and O’Neal, so this is all conjecture.

But one thing that irked me about the film is that while Chicago was integral in the Hampton story, very little of this film was actually shot in the windy city. It is deplorable that so many recent films that take place in Chicago (Trial of the Chicago 7 was also only partially shot here) do not make better use of the city and its sites. It was particularly pathetic that the overrated film,
Chicago  used no Chicago actors in major roles, and it was mostly shot in Toronto (Maybe it should have been called Toronto). In the film industry, the so-called second city, Chicago is often treated as though it were the sixth or seventh city.

Despite these reservations, Judas and the Black Messiah is a superb, well directed drama that includes a few of the best performances of 2020 (or is that 2021?), and it deserves majority of its ecstatic critical accolades.

Directed & Written by:    Shaka King
Starring:    Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons
Released:    02/01/2021
Length:    126 minutes
Rating:    R for violence and pervasive language
Available on:    At press time film is available for purchase or rental
 on Redbox, and it is streaming on YouTube, Vudu,
 Google Play and Amazon Prime.

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to www.artinterviews.org and www.chicagopoetry.org. His latest book "Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor" is also available.

Review © 2021 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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