“Judas and the Black Messiah” and the Madding Crowd

Daniel Kaluuya in "Judas and the Black Messiah".

Knock knock, America.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

It’s that time again! Longtime MCC readers know this time of year is my annual Oscar Quest, during which I venture out to see all Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, regardless of whether I think I’ll like them or not, whether their politics and beliefs agree with mine or not, whether they’re good or bad for me, and whether or not my friends and family have ever heard of them. I’ve seen every Best Picture nominee from 1988 to the present, many of which were worth the hunt. The eight nominees for Best Picture of the Pandemic Year may pose more of a viewing challenge…

I don’t subscribe to either HBO or HBO Max and try not to get attached to their programming announcements. That’s included everything from Jumbo Largo Justice League to Judas and the Black Messiah, despite the latter’s two awesome lead actors.  When it was announced as one of this year’s eight Best Picture nominees, I had a quandary on my hands: do I (a) wait for the eventual release on other home video platforms (as will be granted next week to Wonder Woman 1984), even if that means waiting till after the Oscars ceremony on April 25th; (b) sign up for a free HBO Max trial and pull the plug seconds before the first charge hits my credit card; or (c) see it in theaters and take every possible measure to avoid the COVID?

Thanks to our family’s favorite theater, I found an opportunity to take the (c) train. Judas reopened the weekend after the Oscars nomination announcement, shortly before its 30-day HBO Max run ended. Hypothetically, if everyone else who loves movies subscribes to HBO Max, they shouldn’t have needed to catch it in theaters, which means the only folks there would be stubborn non-subscribers like myself. Online discussions have given me the impression we’re a tiny minority. I was counting on that being the case.

Once again abiding by my non-patented four-step H.I.D.E. method for 2020 theater survival, my son and I wore our masks to a Monday night showing, a time slot when average citizens aren’t thinking about movie-going because Mondays weren’t made for relaxing or enjoying things. At most there four other customers in the same auditorium, all of us scattered around the hundreds of otherwise empty seats and nowhere near each other. I’m not 100% sure of the exact head count because it was tough to see that far into the darkness behind us. That’s exactly as I’d hoped. I love it when a plan comes together.

Between two movie passes, online advance fees, and snacks, the night cost about the same as three months of HBO Max. Frankly, I’d much rather donate the funds to our local theaters’ survival, as long as it doesn’t mean jeopardizing my own.

As a full-sized exhibition, Judas can be overwhelming to anyone who’s spent the past twelve months consuming all their entertainment through safe, mundane TVs or crammed into tiny electronic containers the size of juice boxes. As Fred Hampton, firebrand leader of the late-’60s Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out as well as my favorite Black Mirror episode) all but resurrects the man himself. Hampton dedicated his very existence to defying any and all attempts to be contained, oppressed, or otherwise shut down. His outsize force of will, a spiritual ramrod jet-streamed through a rapid-fire patois and fueled with a furious rhetorical vehemence, demands more reach, attention, and enthrallment than our puny mortal electro-portals can convey. As I was bowled over in my chair, I was reminded of that time I mistakenly bought a second-row ticket to Fences and was nearly flattened by the Attack of the 50-Foot Viola Davis.

Perhaps it was best for my nerves that Judas wasn’t just two hours of Kaluuya setting the world on fire with flamethrower magniloquence, but all the more sorrowful to see what came of his quest. Director Shaka King, in his second full-length feature, chronicles Hampton’s journey through the lens of the follower who would eventually abet his downfall at the scheming hands of The MAN. I’m overjoyed every time I have an excuse to extol the virtues of Atlanta, and chief among those is Lakeith Stanfield (a fellow Get Out survivor) entering the picture as Bill O’Neill, a real-life auto thief turned FBI snitch. Caught red-handed during a sloppy ‘jacking, O’Neill was pressed by the Feds into infiltrating the Panthers and feeding them intel as one of many operations under their COINTELPRO program — unmentioned by name here but no less reverberating through every move, scheme, misdeed, and eventually murder.

At times O’Brien’s assignment feels like a rascally antihero heist flick. His rap sheet and mad street skillz don’t require much exaggeration or fakery to pass the Panthers’ skeptical initiation. Before long he’s insinuated himself into their ranks, transformed into a dedicated minion, and soon promoted to security head, all the while playing the obedient Undercover Brother on the side. Occasionally O’Brien lets himself smile as he gets away with it, but the fun and games lose their charm when folks start firing shots.

Lakeith Stanfield in "Judas and the Black Messiah"

Power to, uh…to the, uh uh uh um uh…ohhh, right, the people! POWER TO THE PEOPLE! YEAH!

There are moments when O’Brien is really into the movement — especially at Panther rallies where emotions run high and Hampton commands the stage and leads the crowds in chants of “I AM A REVOLUTIONARY!”, together dreaming of throwing off society’s shackles and charting their own destinies through those turbulent, bloody ’60s in Chicago. Despite the intimidating parade of open-carry Panthers all around (self-defense or flagrant declaration of seditious intent? depends on who you ask), Hampton had more than displays of bravado in mind. The film covers some of their philanthropic initiatives such as childcare, schooling, and even clinics to serve the community with a long-term aim toward self-sufficiency apart from the larger, seemingly uncaring country at large.

Along those same lines came the original Rainbow Coalition, Hampton’s vision of reaching across aisles and forming alliances with other Chicago gangs (real and fictionalized here) united in the strength of one common bond:  they’re all so done with perceived oppression from the upper classes. Playing with modern sensibilities, one scene in particular has the Panthers attending service at an all-white quasi-underground church with a Confederate flag hanging behind the podium…and yet finding common ground for a truce. The enemy of my enemy, and so on.

Sometimes O’Brien is into it. Whenever he starts getting too into character, along comes his FBI handler to rattle his cage. Jesse Plemons, cruising in with self-absorbed smarm left over from I’m Thinking of Ending Things, parcels out a bit of positive reinforcement here and there to O’Brien — money, fine cigars, dinner at his house — along with threatening reminders of his personal stakes: keep up the good work in tearing down the Panthers from within, or else he goes right back in the clink. O’Brien’s ultimate test is to decide for himself if he’s really down with his Black compatriots and their crusade, or if the only thing he’s truly into is his own freedom.

The ending is only a spoiler if you haven’t read up on Hampton’s history or his violent murder at age 21. I had to stare at that low, low number for many long minutes after witnessing Kaluuya’s writ-large, physically bulked-up performance. It kept nagging at me even as I went down a COINTELPRO research rabbit hole after the movie that led me to such artifacts as a 317-page document compiling the FBI’s surveillance memos and notes from the program in our very own Indiana, painstakingly listing their eavesdropping results and dedicated stalking in numerous populous counties and cities. (They seemed awfully, deeply concerned with a number of Nation of Islam gatherings that barely numbered a few dozen each, probably holding services in their own homes because tiny strip-mall churches wouldn’t have been a thing yet. Not to mention one particular guy who took at least two tries to start up a probably innocuous Afro-American union on IU’s campus. The extent of their arguably racist nosiness is…well, I wish I could say “surprising”.)

Considering today’s hot-topical discussions of silenced voices and overbearing authorities, Judas and the Black Messiah makes a superior double-feature with fellow Best Picture nominee The Trial of the Chicago Seven. Aaron Sorkin’s hyperverbal courtroom drama aspires to unite disparate protesting factions into a singular, Rainbow-esque chorus of “Can’t we all just get along? And go scream at The MAN in perfect harmony?” but openly confesses its own glaring disparity: Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale, the would-be eighth defendant dragged into the proceedings while screaming “I’m not even supposed to BE here today!” As played in that film by Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Mudbound, Ender’s Game), Fred Hampton mostly lurks in the back of the courtroom and acts as Seale’s messenger, sticking to the shadows while waiting for his turn in the spotlight. He’s not central to that particular saga, but he sets up a virtual crossover into this one.

But Judas is neither a sequel nor a spinoff, neither literally nor figuratively. Here the stakes are higher and the abuses of power are all the graver. The Chicago 7 faced jail time from a willfully obtuse or bought-and-paid-for judge. The Panthers faced authorities that wanted them dead. Each film has its own focus on the silencing of mass outrage, but there’s a broad difference between the legally silenced and the permanently silenced. Meanwhile, caught in the middle were guys like Fred O’Brien who were too busy with their own issues to really listen.

Daniel Kaluuya in "Judas and the Black Messiah".

Someday we’ll find it, the Rainbow Coalition.

Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Dominique Fishback (who stood out to me in HBO’s Show Me a Hero) is Hampton’s girlfriend, number one fan, and most loyal disciple who woos him with talk of poetry and mourns him more deeply than anyone. Other followers include Ashton Sanders (who led the second act of Moonlight) and Darrell Britt-Gibson (Barry, The Wire). Lil Rel Howery (it’s a Get Out trifecta!) cameos as a pimp who’s not what he seems.

Lurking in the shadows for a few scenes is Martin Sheen, orchestrating white male oppression as the FBI’s own J. Edgar Hoover, characterized here as deeply paranoid, straight-up racist, and not afraid to do anything and everything he wants in the pursuit of an idealized nineteenth-century America.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Judas and the Black Messiah end credits, but they confirm Fred Hampton Jr. and his mom (Fishback’s character in her youth) are still active in the struggle today and are credited as “Cultural Experts”, which I think is the only part of the film that disappointed me. I prefer my historical biopics to maintain at least some veneer of detached objectivity, even if it’s a facade. Now part of me is curious to know if there were any parts of the script they ordered tossed out or reworked to conform to a more flattering reaity.

The end credits also confirm Ms. Fishback wrote the poem that she reads to her man Fred in one of the film’s quietly  romantic moments. Nicely done.

And on a personal note, we learn parts of Judas were filmed at Ohio State Reformatory, a former prison that we visited on our 2013 road trip. The same location has hosted other films such as The Shawshank Redemption. So that’s another kind of legacy the film adds to in its own way.

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