You’ll often hear people complaining about how some films that are considered classics could never be made today, thanks to our more sensitive and sometimes censorious climate. (Mel Brooks always responds to this by pointing out that “Blazing Saddles” barely got made back then.) But what about movies that could only be made today? I was thinking about that during “Judas and the Black Messiah,” a film which would have been unfathomable in almost any other era. Here’s a splashy, mainstream Hollywood entertainment from a major studio depicting the FBI and Chicago Police Department’s premeditated murder of Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton.
Director Shaka King (who co-wrote the script with Will Berson) has fashioned this harrowing history lesson into a passionate, pulpy crime drama in the mold of “The Departed” and earlier Warner Bros. gangster pictures, but with a pointed political agenda. Though set in 1969, the film feels like very much a product of our recent, culture-wide reckoning with America’s racist power structures, and it’s impossible to imagine such a movie being released by a massive corporation even five years ago.
I certainly never learned about COINTELPRO in any of my history classes, having been raised on images of the FBI as strapping, smiling G-men of keen intellect in even smarter suits, out there keeping America safe. In many ways, “Judas and the Black Messiah” is a spiritual sequel to last month’s “MLK/FBI,” a damning documentary by director Sam Pollard that uses recently declassified documents to shine a spotlight on the bureau’s relentless extralegal persecution of Dr. King and the monolithic public resources poured into infiltrating and sabotaging the Civil Rights movement. “Judas” turns this all into grist for a gritty, street-level thriller, and at times comes close to being a great one.
“Get Out” star Daniel Kaluuya plays Hampton with a charisma so ferocious the movie actually sags a little whenever he’s offscreen. The film drops us right into the thick of things — it could have benefited from some backstory about the Black Panther Party and a little more scene-setting for viewers who weren’t taught this stuff in school — as Hampton begins forming his Rainbow Coalition, pulling together Chicago’s poverty-stricken street gangs of all ethnicities and political persuasions, urging them to unite against their common enemy: the cops. Naturally, this freaks out the feds, and J. Edgar Hoover (played by a miscalculated Martin Sheen in melting wax prosthetics) anoints Hampton as the latest “black messiah” he wants neutralized, by any means necessary.
Our Iscariot is William “Wild Bill” O’Neal, a two-bit car thief busted for imitating a federal officer during a robbery “because a badge is scarier than a gun.” He’s played by LaKeith Stanfield, a wonderful actor whose watchful, weary eyes have a way of suggesting he’s standing slightly outside the story, seeing the movie with you and coolly calculating his next move. O’Neal gets the screws put to him by Jesse Plemons’ insinuatingly amoral FBI agent, his oily presence feeling like a stain upon the screen. (Considering all the fresh-faced, athletic actors who came out of TV’s “Friday Night Lights,” it’s funny how Plemons’ portly benchwarmer was the only first-season cast member to secure movie stardom. He’s a genuinely egoless performer and one of the current cinema’s most valuable utility players.)
Everybody who’s seen “Jesus Christ Superstar” or “The Last Temptation of Christ” knows that Judas is always the meatiest part, and it’s captivating to watch O’Neal weaseling his way inside the Panther organization, slowly gaining Hampton’s trust as Stanfield’s face grows increasingly more conscience-stricken, working his way up to the ultimate betrayal. But what keeps the movie from ultimately achieving the mythic grandeur of similar stories like, say “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” is my biggest problem with “Judas and the Black Messiah,” and also a complaint I barely ever register about movies: there’s not enough of it.
A brisk 126 minutes is simply too little time to fully fill in the relationship between Hampton and O’Neal while also covering the sprawling sociopolitical context and large cast of characters. There’s a touching performance from Dominique Fishback as Hampton’s lover Deborah Johnson, but their romantic scenes are too often truncated — one seems to fade out as soon it’s getting started. The supporting Panthers get even shorter shrift, so we can’t fully feel their losses as the story careens towards its tragic end. (When one character’s mother pleads with Hampton to make sure killing cops is not her son’s only legacy, she should be making the same request of the screenwriters.)
It’s especially frustrating because there’s so much potent filmmaking here, with Sean Bobbitt’s weathered, high-contrast cinematography giving the Chicago locations a grimy authenticity. King’s kinetic direction kicks into overdrive when Kaluuya delivers Hampton’s immortal “I Am A Revolutionary” speech in a scene I dearly wish we could have seen in a crowded auditorium. There’s a blunt-force power to the film and real bravery in the screenplay’s depiction of these characters. It never pussyfoots around them or makes any special pleading for aspects contemporary audiences could consider unsavory.
I can’t help thinking about how far we’ve come since I was a kid and Hollywood was patting itself on the back for making “Mississippi Burning,” a brutally effective thriller featuring one of Gene Hackman’s finest performances, and also a moral atrocity with the temerity to paint two fictional FBI agents as the real heroes of the civil rights movement. (There’s a movie that could never get made today, thank God.) “Judas and the Black Messiah” is a much-needed corrective to a lot of ugly elements in our ahistorical movie mythology, and it’s about a half-hour to 45 minutes away from being a classic.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” opens in theaters and starts streaming on HBO Max this Friday, Feb. 12.
— to www.wbur.org