Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah approaches Shakespearean tragedy
Someone wanna explain to me how Shaka King didn’t get an Oscar nomination for directing the Best Picture nominee Judas and the Black Messiah? King did get nods for producing and co-writing the film, but come on. The filmmaking here is fleet-footed, smooth, alive, and contains (courtesy of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt) the most colorful rainy scenes I’ve seen in a movie in years. Six Black directors have been nominated for Best Director since 1991, and of those, two directed Best Picture — but the Director Oscar went to someone else. You can say people get way too serious about the Oscars and also say representation is important. You can respect other directors on the list this year and also say King was robbed.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a perhaps too-neat title for an engrossing real-life thriller about Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), leader of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, and Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a car thief strong-armed by the FBI to infiltrate the Panthers and report his findings. Kaluuya puts some sand in his voice and barks out Hampton’s angry revolutionary rhetoric, while Stanfield keeps his cool despite fed Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) affably breathing down O’Neal’s neck for intel. We’ve seen a lot of undercover-cop films, and I thought Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman might have put the subgenre to bed, but this film has a Shakespearean-tragedy tinge to it. The martyr doesn’t even get to confront his betrayer, nor does the betrayer unburden himself of his guilt until far too late. O’Neal talked to interviewers for Eyes on the Prize 2 about all of it twenty years later. The night the interview aired on PBS, O’Neal died under disputed circumstances thought by some, including the filmmakers here, to be suicide. He was only forty.
Then again, O’Neal was only seventeen when Mitchell offered him a way out of his charges. Hampton was 21 when he died (if he were with us today he would still only be 72). Many of the agitators for peace and equality in the ’60s were young, but man, these folks were young. Kaluuya and Stanfield are each about a decade older than the men they’re playing, and they look it, but it works for the movie — Hampton and O’Neal seem weighed down, prematurely aged, by their responsibilities. And their responsibilities are all tangled up with the racist world they’ve been in all their lives. Fred Hampton’s rhetoric wasn’t beautiful like Malcolm X’s or darting and jabbing like Muhammad Ali’s — it was more blunt-force, incantatory in its repetitions. Where he truly excelled was in getting opposed factions — Black street gangs, a redneck group — under the umbrella of his Rainbow Coalition. The FBI was having none of that, and they put a harder squeeze on O’Neal to clear a path to Hampton’s assassination.
The movie comes in a little north of two hours but flies by. Shaka King sketches Hampton here and there, just enough to keep us invested in him as a person, not an icon. We get almost no background on either Hampton or O’Neal — they exist for us in the now, they define themselves by what they do or don’t do. The movie obliquely prompts us to think about how circumstances have shaped us: what accounts for the differences in the ways Hampton and O’Neal respond to the world? Stanfield’s O’Neal doesn’t get any big dramatic moments, but we can see it’s killing him inside. He and Hampton scarcely get any downtime for hanging out, becoming friends, but we feel warmth and mutual respect between them anyway. In some ways, though, O’Neal redeems himself even during his imposture. He helps run things when Hampton is in jail, and he pitches in to rebuild the Panthers’ office after the cops firebomb it. “We are what we pretend to be,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut, “so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” That cuts both ways, though, and as O’Neal pretends to be someone helping his community, there he is, helping his community.