Judas and the black messiah

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By JOSÉ GERALDO COUTO*

Commentary on the film directed by Shaka King.

Judas and the black messiah, by Shaka King, is a historical-crime drama whose scope goes far beyond the specific real episode it addresses: the role of a spy infiltrated by the FBI in the ranks of the Black Panthers and his contribution to the murder of young leader Fred Hampton. The film is showing in theaters in some Brazilian cities and is being pre-released on the Now streaming channel.

The agent in question is the also young Bill O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a small black marginal from Chicago who used a false federal agent's credentials to deceive citizens and steal their cars. Caught in his scheme, he ends up actually becoming an instrument of the FBI to monitor the Black Panther cell in the city, led by the brilliant and charismatic Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya, Oscar-winning supporting actor).

The detail of the credential is almost a metonymy of the general theme of the film, as it condenses two ideas that are central to it: identity and power. The police officer who interrogates Bill, and who will eventually recruit him for the infiltration action, expresses curiosity: why the false credential? “Because a poor black man may even have a gun, but whoever has a credential has all the power of the American army behind him”, replies the little thief. Under the false identity of a police officer, Bill extorted blacks from the periphery like himself, accusing them of having stolen their own cars.

Then an inversion occurs: if before he displayed a false credential to impose himself as an agent of the law, later he starts to secretly serve the “law” mixed with the militants of the black movement, to monitor them. In this irony lies a good part of the political sense of the film. For there will be many crimes that we will witness, perpetrated by representatives of the Bureau commanded by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, unrecognizable), supposedly in defense of law and order.

The defense of order, the film seems to say, is always the defense of a certain order. But, if that is the underlying political theme, the focus is the personal drama of the infiltrator Bill O'Neal, who already in the first scene appears giving an interview to the television documentary series Eyes on the prize, about his role in the events leading up to the death of the Hampton leader.

A bit like the black cop from Infiltrated in the Klan, by Spike Lee, who has his racial conscience awakened by mingling with civil rights activists, Bill also visibly shakes when listening to Fred Hampton's epic speeches and following the Panthers' passionate grassroots work, which includes schools, day care centers and medical care for underprivileged black populations. At a certain point, we no longer know which way his feelings and, above all, his loyalty lie.

Judging by the film, authorities feared that Fred Hampton, then just 20 years old, would become a leader the size of a Malcolm X or a Stokely Carmichael. What terrified them most was Hampton's attempt to unify the entire Chicago poor community in the struggle for emancipation, including drug gangs, religious groups, exploited Latinos, and even disaffected whites.

Anchored on these solid foundations – real historical event, clear political axis, intimate drama of the protagonist –, Shaka King builds an engaging police thriller narrative, helped by the fact that any double agent story (be it an international spy, gang member or informant of the police) provides suspense at every moment, as well as an exploration of the psychological and ethical limits of the individual in question.

More even than Spike Lee in Infiltrated in the Klan, who travels very well on this shifting ground is Martin Scorsese in the infiltrators. In Judas and the black messiah there is a kind of balance between the political-racial approach of the first and the skill of the second in managing the narrative tension and the escalation of violence.

One of the wits of director Shaka King is not restricting himself to the protagonist's point of view, thus eluding various moments in his life and keeping shadows of uncertainty around him. Ultimately, there is a core to it that remains untapped. Who is Bill O'Neal anyway? What were you thinking and feeling?

The real William O'Neal died at age 40, months after the series interview Eyes on the prize. He invaded the lane of a busy avenue and was run over. Suicide, apparently. According to the uncle he had just visited, the nephew was "tormented with guilt".

*Jose Geraldo Couto is a film critic. Author, among other books, of André Breton (Brazilian).

Originally published on CINEMA BLOG

Reference


Judas and the Black Messiah (Judas and the Black Messiah).
USA, 2020, 126 minutes.
Directed by: Shaka King.
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith.

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