Never mind Judas and the Black Messiah’s biblical allusion. At heart, it’s the work of political pranksters — comedy-writers-turned-activists Will Berson, and Kenny and Keith Lucas. Their co-authored screenplay about betrayal among Sixties militants the Black Panthers is as unfunny and ideologically slanted as a late-night TV monologue.
Our culture’s lost sense of humor matches its ignorance about history; both tragedies reveal a deep dissatisfaction that media folk are reluctant to explore. Instead, Judas and the Black Messiah plays a blame game. It misrepresents America’s racial past — the 1969 killing of Panther Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and his betrayal by FBI plant Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) — to appease contemporary political anxiety.
How O’Neal worked as an FBI informant to infiltrate the Panthers and deceive Hampton, its Chicago leader, has become urban legend. Spike Lee cynically parodied a parallel situation in BlackKklansman. Betrayal is familiar among all radical working-class movements — similar in fact to Martin Ritt’s 1970 Irish-immigrant film, The Molly Maguires. But with the Christian model of disciple and savior now in disrepute (caricatured by the undignified activist-antics of Al Sharpton and William Barber), Judas and the Black Messiah cannot move viewers emotionally; it simply promotes anger and calls for “resistance.” Audiences are left frustrated and susceptible to easy suasion; this superficial view of the past contributes to the national dismantling perpetuated by mainstream media.
Producer Ryan Coogler (Creed, Marvel’s Black Panther) and director Shaka King depict black political ambivalence more credibly than Spike Lee does, yet their attention to intimate details about brotherhood (O’Neal’s entrapment by a devious FBI agent while a cruel J. Edgar Hoover hovers in the background, plus Hampton’s romantic life and social commitment) is disingenuous. The filmmakers’ concern with black disloyalty feels sincere, but it’s also irrelevant in the groupthink era when race consciousness is controlled by devious politicians and a superstructure of sanctimonious media. Public Enemy’s “Nighttrain” memorably described this paranoia. (“The black thing is a ride I call the nighttrain /…But the bad thing is anyone can ride the train / And the reason for that is cuz we look the same.”)
But scenes of Hampton’s firebrand oratory (“I am a revolutionary!”) resemble woke corporate advertising and Black History Month public-service announcements about the Sixties. The idea that blacks are always victims gets us nowhere.
Shaka King’s debut feature, the clever 2013 comedy Newlyweeds, dared show the generation of potheads that the Panthers generation had failed. But now King capitulates to Black Lives Matter folly and the manipulation of Millennial blacks by white radical sympathizers. King and Coogler, caught up in the fervor of fashionable anarchy, deny the failure of the “Hope and Change” movement.
Yes, Judas and the Black Messiah addresses its characters’ conflicting motives (Stanfield repeats his sad-sack act while Kaluuya reverses his patsy from Get Out), but it’s judgmental and winds up offering self-delusion to a generation of Afrocentric robots. To imply that the Black Panthers’ failed revolution is what’s needed today is, in fact, capitulation to the most heinous, exploitive politics of the moment.
It is shocking that Warner Bros., a major Hollywood studio, promotes political radicalism as entertainment. Not just incitement to revolution, Judas and the Black Messiah rabble-rouses “change” by suggesting that Fred Hampton was a messiah and Bill O’Neal was Judas (he’s paid $300 by the FBI, like 30 pieces of silver). This would-be spiritual parable is facile, false romantic fantasy.
King includes a reenactment of the actual O’Neal being interviewed in the monumental Eighties documentary Eyes on the Prize, by the late Henry Hampton (no relation to Fred). This breach of filmmaking integrity would be outrageous if Millennial audiences even knew that this awesome documentary overview of the civil-rights struggle existed (it’s been substituted by propaganda-worshiping James Baldwin and John Lewis).
No doubt King and Coogler mean well, but their misrepresentation of Henry Hampton’s historical journalism, and the heroic effort behind it, is as shameful as Spike Lee’s exploitation flicks. Those who don’t know their cinematic history are doomed to distort it. Today’s race traitors are less likely FBI agents than media professionals.