Sunday, February 14, 2021

Talkin' Bout Revolution: JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH

A key sequence in Judas and the Black Messiah is a rally in which a charismatic leader of the Black Panther party, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), has the audience totally in his control. It’s the moment to which all emotional and dramatic through-lines in the tough, serious, and sensitive historical picture have built, and it’s the moment from which all of the major players are soon in position for the inevitable tragic end. His speech is a work of impassioned rhetoric, powerfully incantatory, delivered in commanding staccato and deep rumbling righteousness, sweat beading on his brow, building to climactic call-and-response. “I am! A revolutionary! I am! A revolutionary!” The crowd erupts, awoken with fiery political fervor renewed and refreshed. Among their number: Hampton’s pregnant fiancee (Dominique Fishback), his head of security (Lakeith Stanfield), and the FBI agent (Jesse Plemons) who has already put in motion the events that will, with information from a mole in the Panthers, bring this whole chapter to a bloody end. Told with the high-gloss appeal of any Hollywood true-story epic animated by politics, social upheaval, and startling tragedy — swooping camera, copious period detail, polished historicity, patient accumulation of cause and effect — director and co-writer Shaka King illuminates this pivotal moment in gripping characterization and mournful engagement.

It’s a Civil Rights story shorn of the usual white lenses that come with telling these stories at a level of studio prestige. (Not since Spike Lee's Malcolm X, really.) This film is alive with the particulars of injustice from the clear and angry perspective of the oppressed. Drawing the story in vivid recreation, King builds a portrait of a time through small spaces — intimate meetings, quiet dialogues, tense strategizing — as the Chicago headquarters of the Illinois Panthers slowly builds power. We see persuasive speeches, attempts to grow their base by teaming up with other mistreated groups in the city, time spent building programs for free breakfast for kids and free healthcare for seniors. We also see the growing suspicion of law enforcement, who somehow see the group as a challenge to their power — a reflection of violent racial and political prejudice. The film then positions itself at a point of view in the crucible between these poles. Caught impersonating an FBI agent in order to steal a car, a troubled young man (Stanfield) is hauled into the bureau’s local office and given an ultimatum: become a paid informant or go to prison for years. He takes the job. Thus he’s the bomb under the table, in the Hitchcockian sense, as he’s at first reluctantly, but then quite legitimately becoming a member of the Panthers. He was told they’re dangerous, but he sees the good they do and grows increasingly conflicted, torn between his growing political convictions and his sense of self-preservation.

As the film builds to its wrenching finale, King keeps the performances central to the powerful effect. We see the yearning for justice in the young men and women who are drawn into Hampton’s project. We see the older-than-his-years confidence of Hampton’s powerful presence; it’s easy to see why so many would place their confidence, their hope in him. We see, too, how he was made a scapegoat, how dogged the feds were in making him another figure to be brought down. Even if you don’t know your history, you know this story is moving nowhere good. With great clarity, the film consistently brushes past a legacy of easy historical assumptions and cliched Black Panther portrayals. King lingers generously in soft moments—a romantic interlude, an impromptu community restoration project, a poem gently read—before smashing into cruelty—a shootout with vindictive cops, or a vise-tightening moment of casual prejudice between high-ranking agents. The film is convincing in every moment, the ensemble so uniformly tuned into the tone of the endeavor. Its prestige pleasures of crackling design and grainy cinematography — Sean Bobbit catching beauty and grit with equally dexterous use of shadow and light — extend to a parade of great character turns in even small parts, like Lil Rel Howery in a fur coat like out of a blaxploitation classic as a shady dealer, or Alysia Joy Powell as a grieving mother. By centering the humanity of all the major players, and extending that grace to even one-scene figures, this becomes a film of impeccable craft that’s more than a reenactment; it’s an embodiment of these interpersonal stakes that exploded into something momentous for a movement.

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