Recent efforts to highlight invisibilised aspects of the African American experience have often relied on true stories. Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014) revisits a set of landmark protest marches that defied segregation and demanded voting rights for the community. Hidden Figures (2016) reveals the involvement of African American female mathematicians in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s project to send astronauts into space. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018) draws from the real-life story of a Black detective who was assigned to infiltrate the White supremacist Ku Klux Klan organisation. The premise of The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021) is that the famous singer was persecuted by the country’s drug czars because of the political potency of her song Strange Fruit.
Some of these films span the 1940s to the 1970s, suggesting a “past-is-prologue” approach. By digging up America’s racist past, these films hope to give us a better understanding of recent conflagrations, from police violence against Blacks to institutionalised bigotry that prevents economic and social advancement, whether in Silicon Valley or Hollywood.
Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah is similarly set in the turbulent 1960s. Once again inspired by real events and characters, the film provides a new perspective on the Black Panthers Party and its embrace of militancy, open defiance of government agencies and Maoist-inspired ideology.
British actor Daniel Kaluuya powerfully plays Fred Hampton, the head of the Black Panther Party in the American state of Illinois. An electric speaker and organiser with an ability to form alliances with antagonistic groups, Hampton has severely rattled the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The agency recruits African-American car thief William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) to infiltrate the organisation. Eager to escape a prison sentence and make some money, William agrees to wield the dagger of betrayal.
William’s conscience pricks him ever so often, especially when he witnesses the police’s brutal crackdown on the Panthers from close quarters. Fred Hampton’s commitment to his ideals survives all kinds of ordeals, including incarceration and a separation from his pregnant girlfriend Deborah (Dominique Fishback) – which only compel William to further question his position.
The screenplay, by Shaka King and Will Berson, balances its broad concerns with intimate portraits. Daniel Kaluuya’s Fred Hampton is indeed the messiah of the saga, embracing his inevitable fate with a calm that comes from his understanding of the race war. Deborah provides a window into the participation of women in the struggle. Dominique Fishback movingly portrays the loving but never blindly adoring Panther who undergoes her own share of trauma for the cause.
The 126-minute movie convincingly recreates the tensions of the era, but falls short in its examination of William’s treachery. Though ably played by Lakeith Stanfield, William remains something of a cipher. His motivations and shifting attitude to the cause he is being paid to betray are inadequately explored. The movie’s canvas proves to be too broad to better understand the small-time thief who ended up robbing the Black Power movement of an important figure.
Judas and the Black Messiah throbs with energy and passion whenever Kaluuya’s Hampton takes the stage, but isn’t quite as resonant when it regards William lurking on the sidelines, waiting to plunge in his weapon.
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