Rated R for language and violence. It's pretty brutal when a movie has such intense death scenes, but knowing that this is a true story makes it all the more horrifying. The movie concentrates a lot on police violence, which I know is going to bother some people. But it should bother some people. Judas and the Black Messiah asks people to step out of their comfort zones because the message has been hidden for too long. R.
DIRECTOR: Shaka King
White culture hasn't really gotten to know the story of the Black Panthers. The story that has been told over and over was that the Black Panthers were exclusively terrorists. I can't say that I've done my fair share of research into the Black Panthers. That's on me. But the narrative I have been fed is the one that I've been brought up on. It's only after the events of this summer have I worked to educate myself on anything beyond what is experienced in high school textbooks. But can I say that Judas and the Black Messiah is meant to be a teaching tool? I can safely say that I do not know.
The universal takeaway from Judas and the Black Messiah is that institutionalized racism is real. I've been having a lot of conversations regarding the complete person of Martin Luther King. It is very comforting to cherry pick MLK's message into exclusive cooperation. But King was a guy who went through so much misery while speaking out against the establishment. King's message has been perverted and domesticated and that's when we need to look at the complete context of the era. To do so, we need to look at Malcolm X while also looking at the Black Panthers.
I can't deny that Judas and the Black Messiah offers a rosier take on the Black Panthers. But one thing I can contest is that it doesn't paint them as perfect. I'll never advocate for violence. I realize that I'm so aggressively a pacifist that I come across as grossly naïve. Part of that is coming from a place of privilege. I know I don't have to fight for survival, so it is easy to sit back and say that everyone should be a pacifist. But the world of the Black Panther isn't the same as mine. I suppose that, as direct as I'm being, I'm still beating around the bush. Black men and women have been targeted by law enforcement and killed because it was culturally acceptable. There was evidence in the 1960s and there's more evidence today that this is something that has been systemic. Judas and the Black Messiah starts the film with that fact firmly in place. The movie doesn't build up to a place to show that racism exists, like other movies. It starts with the assumption that you have understood this and understand that fighting back is sometimes necessary. With this in mind, the movie paints the Black Panther Party as people who are concerned with community while being revolutionaries as opposed to simply violence-for-violence-sake extremists.
And that's where we have to focus on Fred Hampton. The film portrays him as this dual personality. He is both a great man, but he's also an everyman. Hampton has the passion and conviction to lead this movement in Chicago. He's young and zealous. However, Hampton also is this guy who makes a lot of small mistakes. While he is a promising speaker, many of his speeches lack experience, hampering them from the masses. He sees the world as malleable. But what makes Hampton absolutely fascinating is that he understands nuance better than most people do. There's a scene in the movie where Hampton extends an offer of alliance to a Southern Pride / Confederate Pride group. What Hampton realizes is that, while it may be easy to talk about the divide between black and white, it really is about the system versus the oppressed. He sees these poor white people as both part of the oppression and also as the victims of their own ignorance and economic status.
That's possibly what makes Judas and the Black Messiah something special. The movie provides two viewpoints. I can't deny that we're meant to sympathize with Fred Hampton and his followers with the film. It does take a hard line on that front. But we also have the view of Jesse Plemon's Roy Mitchell, an FBI agent tasked with dismantling the Chicago branch of the Black Panthers. Mitchell doesn't come across as an extremist. He's definitely gross at times, but he really views himself as the representative of law and order. It's not that he hates these people. He sees this troubling element of society that arms itself and resorts to violence. And from that perspective, he really is right. He is definitely representative of the demographic of "I'm not racist because X, Y, and Z." He says that he sees the Black Panthers on the same level as the KKK in the sense that both use violence to intimidate society into making change to their way of thinking. And, again, if you took that one data point in isolation, he has a point.
But to highlight Mitchell's problematic way of thinking is J. Edgar Hoover. I know that I used to look up to Hoover when I was a kid. Being in the FBI was the coolest thing I could imagine. I think a lot of that came from my obsession with The X-Files. But Hoover, in many docudramas, is a fanatic and a fascist. He's obsessed with not allowing any kind of disruption of the status quo to occur. After all, look at how the FBI is portrayed in Selma and you'll know what I'm talking about. (I know I have watched this in the past few years, but apparently I've never written about it.) Hoover sees the big picture and that's when Mitchell doesn't really grow a backbone. There's a moment in the film where Mitchell seems wholeheartedly aware of the evil of Hoover's actions. In fact, he even questions "We have Hampton. Why do we have to kill him?" And it is in that moment, when realizes that it is no longer his responsibility what happens to Fred Hampton that reflects the greater burden on white America.
It is when someone of authority tells us that evil is justified that the story becomes troubling. I don't think that Roy Mitchell is bad guy from moment one. But his manipulation of Bill O'Neal becomes more and more troubling as the story progresses. The movie does this amazing tightrope act of making O'Neal both sympathetic and utterly despicable. The title, Judas and the Black Messiah, as much as I want to avoid Christian allegory for someone who was so violent, really is appropriate. We see Bill O'Neal genuinely bond with Fred Hampton. We see that he understands the need for Hampton's message to be out there. And yet, he still betrays Hampton, leading to his death. There's something very sinister in the fact that O'Neal doesn't actively poison Hampton. Instead, he simply assists the FBI in the murder. By putting him to sleep, he becomes Judas, washing his hands of Hampton's murder. Knowing that O'Neal committed suicide because of his involvement in Hampton's death reads as history repeating itself as well.
This is not one of my favorite movies. I don't necessarily know why. While I adore the central universal message of duality and betrayal, there seems to be a bit too much explanation of history in the movie. Maybe I'm just tired. That's unfair of me, you know. I'm not allowed to be tired. I lead a very comfortable life. It's just that the movie presents the world and law enforcement as particularly bleak and hopeless. I want to live in a world where nonviolence is the best answer. My soul thirsts for that. But because violence is a response that can't be judged sometimes, I grow weary. Fred Hampton didn't need to die. He was a dude who questioned the norm and that seems to be the ultimate crime nowadays. It's really depressing, but it seems to be the way of the world.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.