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‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ a real slice of history

Dan Webster

Above: Daniel Kaluuya (far left) and Lakeith Stanfield (far right) star in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” (Photo: HBO)

Movie review: “Judas the Black Messiah,” co-written and directed by Shaka King, starring Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Domique Fishback, Martin Sheen.

Movies based on real-life figures typically have a couple of problems. The first, and maybe most important, involves the liberties that filmmakers so often take with facts. The reason they always cite is that movies, unlike real life, require more “dramatic effect.”

The result is often at odds with reality, and sometimes appallingly so. In the 2000 movie “U-571,” for example, Americans are given credit for capturing the German Enigma code device and hastening the end of World War II. In actuality, the code already had been broken by a team of British and Polish mathematicians.

Another example, released that same year, is the film “Gladiator” in which a team of screenwriters fictionalized beyond belief Joaquin Phoenix’s character of the real-life Roman emperor Commodus. And let’s not even get started on the absurd departures from common knowledge that both Michael Bay and Oliver Stone are famous for in their respective movies “Pearl Harbor” and “JFK.”

Such alterations of fact lead directly to the second problem involving bio-pics: the sense of unreality associated with real-life historical figures that all too often casts them as something other than living, breathing human beings.

In his film “Judas and the Black Messiah,” co-screenwriter and director Shaka King does manipulate reality. In telling the story of Fred Hampton, the leader of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, and William O’Neal, the man who betrayed Hampton, King by necessity invents dialogue. And he changes some of the actual historical timeline, streamlining events to make for a smoother narrative. But despite the alterations, the film he ended up making feels strikingly real.

One obvious change involves the actors that King cast in his film’s two central roles: Both Daniel Kaluuya (who plays Hampton) and Lakeith Stanfield (who plays O’Neal) are close to a decade older than their real-life counterparts. Yet both are so talented, so immersed in their roles, that the age difference is nigh unnoticeable – at least to those of us who didn’t know either one personally.

You may be familiar with Kaluuya from his recent performances in such films as Jordan Peele’s 2017 horror study “Get Out” or Steve McQueen’s 2018 crime flick “Widows.” Stanfield, too, appeared in “Get Out,” though he had a larger role in Donald Glover’s FX series “Atlanta” and in the 2019 mystery feature “Knives Out.”

In “Judas and the Black Messiah,” Kaluuya’s Hampton is the so-called “Black Messiah” of the film’s title. And while he hardly lives up to that title, a term coined by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover – played here by a nearly unrecognizable Martin Sheen – Hampton does emerge as a charismatic, revolutionary leader. He can speak off the cuff, articulating his arguments in a way that appeals – ultimately – to a rainbow coalition of the city’s social activists: black, brown and white – but mostly black, even those who belong to rival groups.

Even so, in King’s movie, Hampton isn’t a superhero. A strong capable leader, yes, but one who has doubts, vulnerabilities that get pointed out to him by – and that he’s willing to accept from – the young volunteer Deborah Johnson (played by Dominique Fishback). And though the burgeoning relationship between the two adds a romantic twist to the film, it never feels obligatory.

The other secondary relationship that King documents, is between O’Neal and the FBI agent who recruits him (played by Jesse Plemons). Caught between going to jail for car theft and impersonating a federal agent, or becoming a snitch, O’Neal agrees to the latter. And it’s a measure of Stanfield’s acting skill that we never know what his actual feelings are – except for the obvious fear that would assail anyone when trying desperately to escape a trap … not to mention his attempts, despite his fear, to glean everything he possibly can from the deal.

For his part, director King, manages also to play two roles: One is of a socially conscious filmmaker, intent on portraying the issues of the time (that still, obviously, reverberate to this day); the other is that of an action filmmaker who is able, even when we know what’s going to happen, to create a sense of riveting tension. Case in point: a scene where O’Neal is forced to hot-wire a car at gunpoint.

Ultimately, how you react to “Judas and the Black Messiah” may depend on how much you can relate to the struggle felt by the characters King introduces you to. Some of us lived through that era, and we have our own memories – shaped as they were both by now-discredited FBI accusations and emotionally charged headline news. Recognizing larger truths is at least one sign of maturity.

Yet what King has put on the screen carries undeniable power. While it may not be factual to a fault, it certainly feels as if it is. And I’m not saying that just for, um, dramatic effect.

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