Reel Life: Talking about a revolution

The contemporary relevance of ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ gives it an urgency, not just in US but also in an India divided along political, religious and caste lines with civil rights under threat

Reel Life: Talking about a revolution

Namrata Joshi

In a crucial scene in Judas and the Black Messiah, William “Bill” O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a petty thief-turned-FBI informant, made to infiltrate the Black Panther Party, is told by his handler, FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) that his “performance” at one of the party gatherings was so realistic that it should fetch him the Academy award unless he had begun to truly believe in the rousing speeches of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the revolutionary chairman of the Illinois chapter of the party.

In a case of reel pre-empting real, Stanfield has been nominated in the best supporting actor category at the Academy awards this year, that too along with Kaluuya. The dice is heavily loaded right now in favour of Kaluuya’s powerful, upright and charismatic turn as Hampton even though Stanfield’s role and performance are both far more complicated and compelling. Judas and the Black Messiah is a film that belongs as much to the duplicitous Judas, if not more than the virtuous Black Messiah.

Shaka King’s film pretty much follows the real chain of events. Be it the founding of the multicultural Rainbow Coalition by Hampton which brought BPP, Young Lords and Young Patriots to stop infighting amongst the Chicago street gangs and bring about a visible social change. Or his imprisonment linked to USD 70 worth of ice cream. Or how he thought that the prison was not a place of despair but Ground Zero for revolution. Or the brutal assassination of Hampton right on his bed in a morning raid on his apartment.

Then there is the other side of the story—the recruitment of Bill O’Neal as a counterintelligence operative in exchange for dropping the charges of car theft and impersonating a federal officer. Why did he pose as an officer than use a knife or gun? It’s because O’Neal thinks that the badge is scarier. Stanfield brings to life a wide spectrum of feelings—the fear, the greed and the compromise and later the great betrayal, the sense of guilt that gnaws at his conscience, the tortured mind and reconciliation with it. It’s what gives the film an added layer of moral ambiguity and unexpectedness.

Reel Life: Talking about a revolution
A policeman throws a stone at the crowds during North East Delhi communal riots in February 2020

Though the beats of the story might feel largely foreseen, the action anticipated, it’s the contemporary relevance of the film that gives it an urgency. And not just in America or in the light of Black Lives Matter movement but also in an India divided along political, religious and caste lines with the civil rights under threat, and the marginalized struck down with, in the words of Hampton, “political oppression, economic deprivation and social degradation”.

Take Hampton’s explanation of the difference between rioting and rebellion or his stress on “revolution as the only solution” and revolution being bigger than “candy-coated façade of gradual reforms”. It rings a bell in the light of the ongoing protests in India and in the government’s abject quelling of any form of questioning or dissent.

FBI chief J Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) perceives Hampton as a national security threat because he has the potential to unite people. You can’t fight fire with fire or racism with racism, says Hampton. He believes in fighting fire with water, hatred with solidarity. It’s all about strength in numbers, something that we also need to keep repeating to ourselves.

The narrative of Judas and the Black Messiah moves on tension and tenderness. There is an incipient, bristling tautness punctured occasionally by shy romance and emotional interludes—between Hampton and his girlfriend and party comrade Deborah (Dominique Fishback), the poem she recites for their future child or the mother of party member Jake Winters talking about her well-behaved son, how they could murder him but not his legacy.

Gifted as Hampton was with rare oratorial skills, the film on his life also tries to spin magic with his words: “Political power flows from the barrel of a gun”; “Politics is war without bloodshed”, “If you think that at 20 you are too young to die then you are dead already”.

And then there is one line of his that I remember long after seeing the film and will, perhaps remember forever: “You can murder a freedom fighter but not freedom; you can murder the revolutionary but not the revolution”. Long live the revolution.

Judas and the Black Messiah plays on BookMyShow Stream from April 16.

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