music friday
the seventh curse (lam nai-choi, 1986)

african-american directors series/geezer cinema: judas and the black messiah (shaka king, 2021)

I lived in Indiana in 1971-72, and one night we attended a showing of a film called The Murder of Fred Hampton. It couldn't have been more lo-fi, but it really grabbed the audience with its powerful agitprop. After the showing, someone from the Panthers said a few words ... I want to say it was David Hilliard, but you know how my memory is. You can watch the entire movie on YouTube:

Judas and the Black Messiah is nowhere near as raw as that documentary, but I didn't expect it to be. I was excited by the advance notices, but I worried that it was going to be more about "Judas" (William O'Neal, played by Lakeith Stanfield) than about Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). I shouldn't have worried. Shaka King, previously unknown to me, who directed and co-wrote the film, did a superb job of integrating the story of O'Neal into the story of Hampton. The latter is never pushed to the background, and Kaluuya's dynamic performance couldn't be hidden even if they wanted to do so. But as presented, O'Neal is far more than just a snitch. He's placed in a bad position, hounded by the FBI to infiltrate and eventually betray Hampton, and Stanfield, who matches Kaluuya all the way, shows us how O'Neal found himself in such a position, how much he hated himself for it, and how the inspired rhetoric of Hampton draws O'Neal close to becoming a Believer.

There is more going on in Judas and the Black Messiah than just Kaluuya and Stanfield. For one thing, the rest of the cast isn't too shabby, either, especially Dominique Fishback and Jesse Plemons, who underplays his FBI agent so that his evil behavior only sneaks through the surface. King gives us a believable version of Chicago in the late 60s that has too many unfortunate reminders of 2021 ... things haven't changed enough, if at all. Kaluuya is a bit too old for his part, which King rescues by essentially ignoring it, but you lose part of Fred Hampton's amazing life if you don't regularly insist on noting he was only 21 when he died. But these are nitpicks. Judas and the Black Messiah is the best movie I have seen so far in 2021.


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