Depending on your age, the term, “Black Panther”, may evoke one of two images in your mind. For those of us who were around in the 1960s, provided we still have our wits about us, we can recall that a Black Panther was a member of a radical Black Power political organization that was spread across the major cities of the US and had chapters in other countries as well. Back in 1968, the leader of the Chicago chapter was Fred Hampton, a charismatic and highly motivated young man who created, among other things, a breakfast program for the inner city’s impoverished African-American children. While that sounds noble, and it is, the Black Panther Party (BPP) was also involved in a number of less altruistic pursuits and was, for all intents and purposes, at war with both America’s police and specifically with J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI at the time. Hoover referred to Hampton as the “black messiah” and he was so hellbent on destroying the BPP that he directed his agents to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” the organization using a series of strategically positioned informants. One of those informants was William O’Neal. His story is told in the aptly named JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH.
Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield, KNIVES OUT; THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB; GET OUT; SELMA; SHORT TERM 12) was a small-time crook from the time he was in his teens. After one too many grifts, FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons, I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS; VICE; GAME NIGHT; AMERICAN MADE; THE PROGRAM; TV’s BREAKING BAD) makes him a deal he can’t refuse: Rat on the activities of the BPP in Chicago or go to jail for 6-1/2 years. With that, O’Neal makes himself an indispensable part of the chapter, so much so that he becomes a trusted member of Fred Hampton’s (Daniel Kaluuya, WIDOWS; BLACK PANTHER; GET OUT; SICARIO) inner circle. While Hampton’s influence continues to grow among both Blacks and whites who seek social justice and equality for all, J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, APOCALYPSE NOW; TV’s THE WEST WING) turns up the heat on his agents and their informants, and the police.
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH recalls a period in American history that few people (okay, white people) know about. I’ll admit that I had never heard of these guys until this film came along. Co-written, directed and produced by Shaka King, JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH is only his second feature — his first being a stoner comedy — but he adeptly brings life to important characters who, for the most part, have been swept aside by history in favour of more familiar names in the American civil rights movement. Both King and the film have come in for criticism in that JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH somewhat glorifies the BPP and underplays the nefarious activities that some of its members were involved in. One of my friends called the BPP “domestic terrorists”, a term that wasn’t around back then. But that begs the question, would the BPP be labelled as “domestic terrorists” if it were around today? (The New Black Panther Party (NBPP) exists today but it’s a very different organization with no connection to the BPP and has been labelled by the Southern Poverty Law Center and others as a hate group.) I’m not so sure it would as its activities did not sew disquiet or fear amongst the general population, nor did it try to overthrow the government. Americans can’t even agree on how to refer to the people who stormed the US Capitol on January 6th. I will concede, though, that the film does put the BPP in a very good light once the final credits roll but that’s to be expected as Hampton’s widow and son were consulted heavily on the story. Yes, there’s an agenda at play here but I think the positive of people learning about Fred Hampton outweighs the negative of history being glossed over.
Stanfield is excellent here as O’Neal, a man who was so amoral that he plainly admitted to his actions without the least bit of remorse in the 1989 PBS documentary, EYES ON THE PRIZE II. Kaluuya, however, is positively mesmerizing and is just as charismatic as the character he plays. The actor has already been nominated for a SAG Award and a Golden Globe, both in the Best Actor in a Supporting Role category. It’s likely he’ll get an Oscar nod too. If it will be in the same category, he’ll no doubt be up against the late Chadwick Boseman for his performance in MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM. What looked like a sure win for Boseman a few weeks ago doesn’t look so sure anymore.
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH is definitely going to make the list of my favourite films of 2020. (Yes, it’s officially a 2020 film.) It’s available now on HBO Max. Now that our cinemas in Hong Kong have reopened, it will probably come here but Warner Bros. HK hasn’t announced anything yet.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, February 19th, 8:30 am HK time!
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