Thursday, February 11, 2021

When the FBI invaded the Black Panthers


    If you approach Judas and the Black Messiah hoping to find a biopic about Fred Hampton -- a leader of the Chicago Black Panthers in the late 1960s — you'll be disappointed. In a way, director Shaka King gives us a biopic but not of the usual kind. 
    Judas and the Black Messiah stands as a portrait of a tense American period, one that encapsulates a particular '60s brand of activism, betrayal, idealism, organizing, and perhaps even delusion. It may be helpful to think of the movie as a biopic of a moment that once burned vividly in the nation’s consciousness.
    A charismatic speaker and determined organizer, Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) was gunned down in a police raid in 1969. Invading Chicago police fired 90 shots; the Panthers who were gathered in Hampton's apartment fired none.
      The FBI had used an informer -- played here by LaKeith Stanfield — to infiltrate the Panthers and ultimately to help facilitate the raid that resulted in Hampton's death. Hampton was 21 when he died
     King builds his story around three characters. Kaluuya's Hampton, Stanfield's William O'Neal, and FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). At the risk of overstatement, I'd call that great casting. 
     All three are terrific. Kaluuya creates a fiery thoughtful Hampton. Stanfield does an exceptional job of portraying the conflicts faced by a man who came to care about Hampton and the cause and at the same time became the Judas of the title.  Plemons plays the kind of man who shields his ambitions behind a flat, down-to-earth manner.
     Once he established himself with the Panthers, O'Neal became the Panthers' chief of security, a position that gave him the access he needed to gather information on the Panthers.
      At first blush, it may be a bit much to think of Hampton as a black messiah, but the movie's religious connotations don't come from Hampton. They stem from then FBI director Herbert Hoover. 
     Hoover (Martin Sheen) thought the Black Panthers posed the greatest threat to the kind of American ideals he advocated. All that was needed to start a full-scale revolution was a black messiah. For Hoover, Hampton fit the bill.
      For those who don't remember, during the '60s, protestors of various stripes routinely branded the police as "pigs." There was no shortage of antipathy toward uniformed officers.  Still, it seems especially absurd now to hear Plemons' Mitchell equate the Panthers with the Klan.
      King makes it clear that the Panthers didn't stint on revolutionary rhetoric. They regarded themselves as revolutionaries in a Maoist mold. But King also shows that the Panthers organized schools, provided free breakfasts for kids, and tried to establish community health-care institutions.  And Hampton tried to cross racial and ethnic lines to form a Rainbow Coalition of activism.
     The movie also makes room for a tender but never overdone romance between Hampton and Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), a young Panther who was committed to the cause.
    King and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt present the story in taut, leaping segments that evoke the fever-dream atmosphere of a moment in which the country was awakening to ideas of Black Power.
    As such, Judas and the Black Messiah stands as a memorable, powerful movie that leaves you wondering how Hampton might have evolved had he not been killed.

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