As we get older, we become more conscious of our time and the legacy we might leave. The long game no longer feels as long and therefore the implications of our actions become just as important as the ramifications. On the day of January 15th, 1990 William O'Neal was a forty-year-old man who'd been drinking with his uncle into the early-morning hours of Martin Luther King Day before running into westbound traffic on an expressway and jumping in front of a car that killed him. His death was ruled a suicide. Later that night, on PBS, the second part of the fourteen-part documentary series, Eyes on the Prize, would debut. The second part of the series chronicled the time period between the national emergence of Malcolm X in 1964 up through to the 1983 election of Harold Washington as the first African American mayor of Chicago. Included in this span of time is the year 1969 and in 1969 William O'Neal would turn twenty years-old. 1969 is also the year a twenty-one-year-old Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, would be assassinated. Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of how these two men were connected to one another in a tale as old as scripture as indicated by its biblical title. 

The second part of the Eyes on the Prize documentary contains the only on-camera interview O'Neal ever gave. The interview itself was conducted on April 13, 1989 and in that interview O'Neal discussed his involvement with the Black Panther Party, how he was exploited by the powers that be and a puppet for the FBI who blackmailed him into infiltrating the Panthers and eventually laying out the floor plan of Hampton's apartment that would lead to the raid where law enforcement fired a total of ninety-nine shots, executing Hampton at point-blank range. The Gospel of Matthew 26:15 states that Judas committed his betrayal of Jesus in exchange for thirty pieces of silver, but as there's undoubtedly more to Judas' story and motivation than money the relationship between O'Neal and Hampton seems to have been equally as complicated. In that 1989 interview, O'Neal stated "I didn't feel like I had done anything. I didn't walk in there with guns. I didn't shoot him. FBI didn't do it. I felt somewhat like I was betrayed...I felt like, like perhaps I was on the wrong side. Yeah, yeah, I had my misgivings. I'm not going to sit here now and take the responsibility for the raid, you know, I'm not going to do that. I didn't pull the trigger. I didn't issue the warrant. I didn't put the guns in the apartment. So, I'm not going to take the responsibility for that, but I do feel like I was betrayed." O'Neal was clearly a tortured individual who was also very much in denial. According to Matthew 27:1–10, after learning that Jesus was to be crucified, Judas attempted to return the money he had been paid for his betrayal and committed suicide by hanging. Do we really blame Judas for Jesus' death though? No, of course not, just as O'Neal is only responsible for Hampton's death so far as being a young Black man in the midst of a race war who was targeted by J. Edgar Hoover's "America" as an "informant". 

Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) enlists Bill O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) as the head of his Security in Judas and the Black Messiah.
© 2020 - Warner Bros. 

O'Neal was in fact only eighteen or nineteen years-old when he became an informant or, in other words, a kid who was unable to see past the five year sentence guaranteed him for boosting a car and who naturally jumped at the opportunity to work with the FBI in place of going to prison. There is simply no sense of perspective, of real consequence, or enough experience to craft the right amount of skepticism at this age no matter the amount of hardships faced, or adversity seen. Judas and the Black Messiah lays this frame of mind out effectively helping one to sympathize with if not letting O'Neal off the hook for his decisions. More, it's understood come the final moments of the film that O'Neal was never able to fully accept what he did and was not a remorseless monster, but a tortured man on death row, unbeknownst to everyone but himself. Shaka King's film then becomes about seeking to expose exactly how systemic and inherent the racism in this country is and always has been as this is a story just as much about a government organization taking advantage of a disadvantaged child in order to silence his own people - a classic example of dividing to conquer - as it is that of O'Neal's betrayal of Hampton. Writer/director King draws the biblical parallels as a point of reference, sure, but such implications also imply the scope on which Hampton's death potentially changed the force of the movement and the world forever. Furthermore, King seeks to illuminate how Hampton was crucified by the powers that be just as the son of God was before him. And while the narrative around O'Neal's torment in realizing his selfishness ultimately resulted in the murder of one of the most selfless American activists is the most haunting that King explores it is through the film’s approach in capturing all Hampton truly embodied that the film finds its greatest strength. 

Yes, Judas and the Black Messiah is a compelling tale of double crossings and social and political upheaval, but more King and co-writer Will Berson zero in on Hampton's understanding of how poverty and disenfranchisement created powerlessness irrespective of color or race. King and Berson are intent to focus not on the reputation the Black Panther Party incurred at the time as a group intent on "sowing hatred and inspiring terror" as Jesse Plemons' FBI Agent Roy Mitchell puts it, but instead to illustrate how so much of what the Black Panthers did was invest in the future of their communities. The character of O'Neal (portrayed here by LaKeith Stanfield) serves as much a function of the type of story the film is telling as he does the audience's ticket into the inner workings of the Panthers. Through O'Neal's indoctrination the viewer learns the Panther's philosophy around their pursuit of housing, justice, and peace or what Hampton would equate to what was promised in the Declaration of Independence as life, liberty, and happiness. It would seem such simple requests wouldn't be deemed as radical, but Hampton is quick to clarify and teach how - when poor people request such things - it's no longer democracy but is suddenly socialism; it's a contradiction. We see how much the Panthers respect their female members, appointing them leaders (Dominique Thorn as Captain Judy Harmon is especially noteworthy) and regarding them not just as sisters, but sisters in arms who they are not to take "liberties" with as the party line states; Hampton even goes so far as to make O'Neal do twenty push-ups for disciplinary reasons in one scene. Hampton would reach out to the poor white communities in an effort to show how much they had in common and repeatedly spoke to the party's mandate to feed every hungry kid in Chicago not for the sake of charity, but for the sake of progression. In all actuality, the greatest contribution King’s film might make is simply making viewers aware of who Hampton was, what his legacy is, and how much of what he was fighting for in the late sixties is still being fought for today. Daniel Kaluuya's powerful depiction of the young revolutionary doesn't hurt either.         

Reciting history and bringing it to thriving life are two entirely different things though, and this is both where Judas and the Black Messiah is most inspired as far as a cinematic experience is concerned, but also where King runs into some trouble. From the opening moments when Craig Harris and Mark Isham’s soulful score transports us back fifty years to a young O’Neal strutting into a downtown Chicago pool hall attempting to pull off a scheme that requires he pose as an FBI Agent in order to steal the keys to a car that sits out front the vitality of the narrative is present. Sean Bobbit’s (a frequent Steve McQueen collaborator) cinematography oozes a swagger that never feels modern and absolutely compliments the period, but simultaneously feels like something Michael Mann might have shot some thirty years ago. It has a pulse - as if King was insistent from moment one that his film relay just how much life Hampton and his associates introduced to this world before they were unjustly cut off. Once again referencing the biblical inspirations, there is also a certain scope to the visual language of the film that emphasizes just how important every single scene in the film is. King and Berson only having so much time to talk about everything pertinent to Hampton's life makes them insistent upon packing as much into the two-hour runtime as possible. Not only is the film tackling the complicated relationship between O'Neal and Hampton and implying how O'Neal - again, a kid himself - will have to grapple with how history will view him for the rest of his days, but also weaving in the love story of Hampton and Panther volunteer Deborah Johnson (a grounded, but devastating performance from Dominique Fishback) who becomes pregnant with Hampton's child. Additionally, one of if not the main objective of the Black Panther organization at this time was freeing their leader Huey P. Newton who was locked down in Alameda County Jail and facing the death penalty for the killing of a police officer. Newton was essentially still running the Panthers from his jail cell and was still able to command a certain amount of power and influence. Apparently, it was enough power and influence for Hoover (played here by a heavily made-up Martin Sheen) to instruct his FBI Agents, including Plemons' Mitchell, that arresting and jailing Hampton wouldn't be enough, but that they needed to permanently silence him.         
Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, was assassinated on the night of December 4, 1969 at the age of only twenty-one.
© 2020 - Warner Bros.

The compacting of these many facets of Hampton's life leads to the overall narrative feeling a bit sporadic and oddly paced at times with a stop and go nature to the first act especially as King and Berson are putting all the pieces in place. The fact Hampton is taken to prison for a fair amount of time in the second act is also startling given we expect him to be the driving force for everything that happens on screen. The screenwriters are keen to use this as an opportunity to lend O'Neal the spotlight though, illustrating his journey from an apolitical Black man who never much considered the ramifications of the assassinations of MLK and Malcolm X on his own life to a man that goes from playing a role to embodying a lifestyle - even if he could never admit to as much himself. As this is a film and not strictly a history lesson, certain liberties have obviously been taken with what might have been the truth of the matter. The most glaring instance of this is when King takes an ill-advised detour in the third act to include a widely circulated conspiracy theory about Hampton having been poisoned that the real O'Neal flat-out denied any involvement with. While this does make for an entertaining cameo from Lil Rel Howery and further solidifies how deep the hierarchy of white power runs to the point it forced certain men to turn on their brethren who were fighting as much for their rights as their own this excursion still feels somewhat excessive given a scene where Hoover explicitly states he wants Hampton dead occurs a half hour prior. When Hampton is released from prison just after the one hour mark though, it is full steam ahead. It is a moment shortly after this when O'Neal, Johnson, and Darrell Britt-Gibson's Bobby Rush bring Hampton back to the headquarters that had previously been burned down while Hampton was imprisoned that the community then turned out to help rebuild where we see how the bond between Hampton and O'Neal has truly strengthened. With a simple, "Thank you, brother," from a teary-eyed Hampton and a silent response from O'Neal who gives a hesitant look and half-smile that indicates a thousand conflicted feelings; these are the moments that burn themselves into our soul. 

One would be remiss to not further elaborate on the performances of Kaluuya and Stanfield as they are without question the cornerstones on which everything the film is trying to accomplish stands. Stanfield, who has made his name in numerous supporting parts since first appearing in 2013's Short Term 12 through to 2019's one-two punch of Uncut Gems and Knives Out means he's only had the opportunity to truly shine in a leading role a few times. While Bill O'Neal may not go down as Stanfield's showiest role it will undoubtedly go down as one of the actor's defining performances not only for the above mentioned reasons, but by virtue of the fact Stanfield is able to bring all of the complications and conflictions O'Neal experiences to the surface in a way that isn't overtly expressed, but is nonetheless apparent as the character becomes more and more ingrained in his new environment. On the other side of the coin is Kaluuya who, since Get Out, has only established himself more and more as a force to be reckoned with. The amount of charisma and sheer magnetism he possesses is almost overwhelming and as Hampton in particular that gravitas is key. After watching interviews with Hampton from the sixties it's also clear just how much Kaluuya has not only captured the essence of Hampton, but his physicality and the cadence of his Illinois accent as well. Whether it be in moments such as the crucial speech featured in the trailers or the smaller, more intimate moments such as when he discovers Johnson is pregnant with their child by pulling back her jacket to reveal her belly, he's completely in control of every facet and never not compelling. Much like the film itself, Kaluuya's performance is most critical in illuminating Hampton's real-life legacy. The tragedy is that Hampton's death at the hands of those in power divided the movement effectively polarizing the party and weakening his message. Having died at such a young age yet having achieved so much, it would seem besides reminding the world of how intrinsic racism is in this country and how much hate such prejudice has spewed Judas and the Black Messiah also serves to inspire new generations of intelligent, unifying, and progressive thinkers like Hampton. Who knows what Hampton would have achieved by now had he lived, but it seems so much still could be simply by keeping his spirit alive.   

No comments:

Post a Comment