Rating: 1.5 out of 5
This was never going to end well. Fred Hampton was a brilliant, articulate, passionate Marxist-Leninist wrenched away from the world by a government afraid of a communist revolution and unity amidst the lower-classes. He was a genius, an advocate and one of the most charismatic leaders the Black Panther Party had ever known. In an age where intersectionality around race and gender has gnawed and withered a genuine class-consciousness, Judas and the Black Messiah, a filmic adaptation of Hampton’s final months in the party before his assassination by the FBI, has little to do with the man and everything to do with the white-hatred and internal betrayal of Bill O’ Neal’s collaboration with Martin Sheen’s cornball portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover and Jesse Plemmons FBI agent that coordinated Hampton’s murder with fleeting interiority or insight into any character.
The greatest sin this film commits is common to biopic’s, that of caricature. Never once do the characters feel that they are embodied with humanity, even the moments of “love” or “drama” are hollow signifiers of said concepts rather than actually creating them cinematically. The film wears its influences flagrantly, Shaka King is obviously from the school of 90’s Scorsese, playing more like a crime-epic than it does a genuine piece of revolutionary literature, which is to say, it’s incredibly dishonest both to its own intentions and to the man at the center of the film, effectively belonging to a cinema of bad faith. Which is pretty much immediately present in the film, the operative nature of the film’s title is that this a story about Judas, and the conspiracy he establishes to assassinate Fred Hampton and minimizes the role of the Black Messiah to a soapbox, who even amidst his flirting and passionate love scenes can’t help but indulge in revolutionary jargon, without a hint of genuine awareness or perception of the internal world’s of these characters.
The Judas character, Bill O’ Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), is allowed little more than money to explain his motivations which would be compelling if this film had anything valuable to say about capitalism or race, there are a few moments where his character is shaded with even the slightest complexity but each scene is so quickly thwarted by a return to the assassination narrative. So seldom are we tasked with basking in the subtlety and strain between loyalty to a man whom he genuinely learns to admire and strikes a friendship with and the sway of the dollar, instead we are only given polarity, with Stanfield awkwardly reducing his expert nuances to leap from one extreme to the other. The film doesn’t exactly portray the Black Panthers in a positive light either, almost leaning into the idea of them as a “militant” group, if anything ascribing more to the FBI and mainstream media’s (think Forrest Gump for the most egregious and prominent example) definition of them instead of those depicted say in Agnes Varda’s The Black Panthers or Howard Alk’s The Murder of Fred Hampton, refusing to take a radical stance on a coalition whose intentions were self-defense against capitalism’s assault on the bodies and livelihoods of impoverished Americans. This is very much a work of the establishment and doesn’t hesitate in indulging in the brutal grotesqueries of biopic cinema: trimming and limiting the profundity of a lived character to a sloppy, sagging piece of exploitation in the most despicable manner, that is, transforming a figure of earnest communism into a commodity.
So Judas and the Black Messiah is a film deeply confident in its aesthetic axing of a dense tale. It’s no surprise that King has gone on record saying he was urged by fellow creatives to add more scenes with Hampton as he is imbued with little humanity and is offered up as a sacrificial lamb to the film’s storytelling, what should have been a Greek Tragedy is rendered numb and deafening due to a lack of concern for truth and representation and the utmost indulgence in monoformic entertainment. Hampton would be ashamed. A man whose goal was to unite and destabilize the system is now a pawn of the same limp mass-audio-visual-medium he sought to disrupt and transform through togetherness and community.