‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ says screw the neoliberals

Wednesday, February 10, 2021 - 5:20pm

NOSELL

Warner Bros.

There’s a quote from a 1964 speech by Malcolm X that Fred Hampton, played by Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”), recounts to the future mother of his child, Deborah (Dominique Fishback, “The Hate You Give”):

“Sometimes, when a person’s house is on fire and someone comes in yelling fire, instead of the person who is awakened by the yell being thankful, he makes the mistake of charging the one who awakened him with having set the fire.”

Fred Hampton was murdered in his bed after an FBI informant named Bill O’Neill, the eponymous Judas played by Lakeith Stanfield (“Sorry to Bother You”), drugged him so that he would be unable to wake when the FBI raided his apartment. Artist Kerry James Marshall would later depict the night of his execution in “Black Painting,” illustrating the darkness of Hampton’s bedroom, evoking the truth that this eerie place was meant to be a safe place for Hampton, Deborah and their unborn child. It’s dangerous enough to be in a house on fire, but what they did to Fred Hampton reminds us that you have to be awake to know the fire’s even there.

The film follows Bill’s infiltration of the Black Panther Party on behalf of the FBI in return for immunity from his past crimes. It’s difficult to try to sow suspense with historical narratives in film when the ending is already cataloged in collective or digital memory, especially for Black people like myself, who know the story fairly well. Likewise, director Shaka King (“Newlyweds”) sometimes struggled to avoid the associated cliches of the genre. 

FBI Agent Roy Martin Mitchell (Jesse Plemons, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”) has a moment of reckoning with the cause he realizes he’s fighting for, not saying verbatim but still evoking a revelation of, “Wait, you’re telling me that the FBI is r-r-r-racist?!” 

Stanfield’s portrayal of Bill’s struggle not to blow his cover at times seems more like a closeted kid trying to fit in with the football players by talking about how hot the popular girl is, than it does a blackmailed man worried for his life. At one point in the movie, Deborah has a moment when she becomes worried for Fred’s safety. It seemed shoehorned in, like something that a white wife of a white activist would say to remind the viewers that the film considers the female perspective, but maybe I’m being harsh.

The cuts to Fred and Deborah’s romantic development felt like an attempt to level with people who might think the Panthers were too radical. More and more people have been re-educated on the work that the Black Panther Party did for community health, food and welfare, but the bigger picture has sometimes been watered down. Shaka King’s refusal to shy away from the Black Panthers’ denouncement of capitalism and encouragement to keep people armed dares the viewer to consider that these ideas might be new, but not unforgivable. 

The opening montage sews together clips from Agnes Varda’s (“Cleo from 5 to 7”) 1962 documentary on the Black Panther, b-roll news footage and reenacted performances by the cast — most notably Kaluuya as Hampton, in a scene where he promises not to “fight capitalism with black capitalism, (but) fight it with socialism.” In the age of the imperialist girlboss and carceral feminism, it’s brave to show that the Black Panther Party was more successful in bringing people together than any corporate activists of today. 

I’m inclined to be a little cynical and think that any success that films like this have is based around an obsession with Black pain. That films like this are nothing more than high-budget blaxploitation films. But “Judas” goes beyond that. It’s not an easy film to watch, but there are glimpses of Black joy that make you keep watching. Even knowing it was all going to end badly, I still felt warm when Fred would feed Deborah or when he was embraced by his friends upon returning from a stint in prison. 

I’m begging people to see this movie as a moral text. Not just something to observe but something to live by. To reject the individualism that O’Neill favored by sacrificing his friends for his own betterment and instead embrace the collectivism that the Party stood for. I struggle with the push and pull between wanting to decentralize the viewer, to focus on what the art is trying to say rather than always looking for something to relate to. Then again, seeing this as only relevant to the ’60s would be like looking at Japanese kaiju films as monster movies and not reactions to nuclear warfare. 

Art is about connection. When I read the ten-point program or watch videos of Kathleen Cleaver talking about her natural hair, I can’t help but feel like they’re speaking across time. You can’t view this as a race-blind story of betrayal. O’Neill did what he did because he felt like he had no other option as a Black man in America. Not some new idea of Trump’s America but the America that has always existed to maintain a plutocracy. 

I wonder how producer Ryan Coogler felt doing this film after “Black Panther,” arguably one of the performative expressions of Black pride, that Hampton himself calls out in a scene where he says, “That dashiki ain’t gon’ help you when they come in here with them tanks.” Does he know that giving Disney all that cash made him a part of the capitalist machine? Does he know that Disney is a part of the reason why stories like Fred Hampton’s are suppressed in favor of whatever movie makes the most money or can at least be paid for by the U.S. military?

Still, Shaka King lives up to his name. He dares pearl-clutching viewers, who might think that the cop-killing is too far, to leave their judgment at the door. None of us were there. To wince at the use of violence by the Party because of our modern ideas about gun control would make it about us and not the story. This film is about as close as we can get to looking back in time, and as Hampton says in the film, “It’s not a question of violence or no violence, it’s a question of resistance to fascism or nonexistence within fascism.”

The filmmakers should get ready for a whirlwind of press. Whenever we have a new “Selma” or “12 Years a Slave,” white critics come out of the woodwork to bemoan how timely the film is, how deftly it holds a mirror to society — and it does. But these movies are always timely. If you really want us to stop thinking you’re racist, just give Kaluuya the Oscar he deserves.

Daily Arts Writer Mary Elizabeth Johnson can be reached at maryelzz@umich.edu 


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