Judas and the Black Messiah February 19, 2021
2 Hrs., 6 Mins.
’ll let history speak for me.” That's the last line uttered in Judas and the Black Messiah, Shaka King’s frequently electrifying but oftentimes thinly rendered biographical drama about, among other things, FBI informant William O’Neal’s infiltration of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. (Hired on by the Panthers as a security guard — O’Neal was specifically tasked with protecting
president Fred Hampton — he was the key figure helping precipitate what would ultimately become the 21-year-old Hampton’s assassination at the hands of the FBI.) The line is not uttered by Hampton but O’Neal; it's heard during replayed footage from the Civil Rights Movement-centered PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize (1990). It follows several remarks by O’Neal in which he clarifies that he doesn’t have any regrets about his Judas-like role in Hampton’s demise. (He was “part of the struggle,” in his mind.) The recycled closing line is meant, it seems, to sum up how we are meant to conclusively think of O’Neal: as a person whose steadfast ambivalence ultimately proved destructive and more consequential than he might be willing to admit.
One of the problems of Judas and the Black Messiah, though, is that it doesn’t very believably evoke that ambivalence. O’Neal’s interior life and background remain murkily defined in the movie; one detail offered — that he had before his FBI affiliation been a small-time crook without much ambition, which is I guess meant to be telling enough — is only narrowly drawn. O’Neal (portrayed in the film by Lakeith Stanfield) is written as someone without much of a sense of self, and was as such easier for the FBI to command to its liking. After being caught stealing a car — an act made possible because he impersonated a police officer — the organization allowed O’Neal to waive a six-and-a-half-year sentence if he successfully ingratiated himself into Hampton’s world. Aside from understanding that his role as an informant was more than anything pushed by a desire to avoid incarceration, furthered by the FBI’s manipulation of him (they bought him fancy dinners and his dream car, and O’Neal at one point credits his supervisor, played with persuasive chilliness by Jesse Plemons, as a quasi-father figure), we’re never entirely clear on his desires beyond his immediate circumstances, nor the beats of his internal dialogue beyond what we might infer.
This problem is true for both O’Neal and Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) in the movie. Judas and the Black Messiah never commits to functioning as a full-feeling portrait of either figure. Although the film can be useful to help find
additional historical and cultural clarity, narrative is prioritized over personhood. (An arguably exorbitant amount of time is spent with FBI personnel; the presence of J. Edgar Hoover, played underneath a thick frosting of old-age makeup by Martin Sheen, feels surprisingly gratuitous.) This wouldn’t be as much of an issue, to my eye, if this were clearly the intention. But King evidently wants the movie to in part function as a humanization of people who unavoidably seem titanous. The film is sometimes successful at this. Hampton’s relationship with girlfriend and colleague Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) is rendered tenderly (and is aided by an extraordinary — though unfortunately only cursorily focused-on — performance by Fishback), for example. And in the last few scenes of the movie Stanfield does a good job externally revealing O’Neal’s fracturing. (With both O’Neal and the apparently sometimes-skeptical-of-what-he’s-doing Plemons character, the film also efficiently shows just how useless being morally uncertain is when it remains internalized.)
But one watches Judas and the Black Messiah wishing Hampton’s firmly held radical beliefs were given more airtime (they’re mostly limited to rousing orations), and that more time was spent dramatizing the sense of community that was so fundamental to the action depicted. During the concluding excerpt from Eyes on the Prize, O’Neal notes that he at least had a cogent point of view compared to his peers. But that point of view in the movie remains mostly unelucidated. There is too much emotional distress imbuing Stanfield’s performance to suggest, in the way it seems King might want to, that when O’Neal was talking about a “point of view” all those years later, he was subliminally stating that his point of view was not especially having one. His interior remains obscured. This can't have been want King wanted.
The limitations of King’s script, which he co-wrote with Will Berson, are exacerbated by missed casting opportunities. Despite Kaluuya’s and Stanfield’s outward effectiveness in the roles, the essential tragedy would have reverberated more had Hampton and O’Neal been embodied by age-appropriate performers. Hampton was 21 when he died. And when O’Neal was initially recruited by the FBI, he was only about 17. The passage of time can regularly make very young but significant historical figures seem older than they are. Seriously mulling over a certain figure’s youth can re-amplify both their extraordinariness and their vulnerabilities. Because Kaluuya and Stanfield are in their 30s, it reinforces the former revisionist tendency, and as such the potential for greater emotional resonance is lost.
Defects aside, I’m not sure if there is a version of Judas and the Black Messiah
that would universally appease — at least not one working within the confines of a conventionally lengthed movie backed by a major studio and released on HBO Max. As littered with could-have-beens as Judas and the Black Messiah is, though, it is more regularly than it isn’t sharp and powerful; King directs with engaging vigor. A desire for “more” is, in a way, not entirely a bad thing — a movie, especially a biographical one, shouldn’t be a definitive text but rather an interest-piquing jumping-off point. Still, wanting more is wanting more. B