The story of the Black Panther Party is a perfect example of how our high school history books don’t always tell the whole story.
Vilified by white audiences and portrayed as militant, radical and violent — especially compared to the more peaceful civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. — the Black Panther Party doesn’t always come off great in historical accounts.
Shaka King’s new feature film “Judas and the Black Messiah” (available in theaters and on HBO MAX on Feb. 12) attempts to show the other side of the Black Panther Party that wasn’t known to many people, especially white audiences. They show the political leaders uniting hispanics and poor whites to create a “rainbow coalition.” They show free lunches and educational seminars.
And yes, the movie portrays the Black Panthers taking it too far and committing violence against the police.
The honest “warts and all” depiction is led with masterful sincerity by former Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya playing Fred Hampton (recently portrayed by a different actor in “Trial of the Chicago 7.”
Kaluuya shines with oratorical brava but it’s really an ensemble film that touches on a variety of perspectives. Underrated actor Lakeith Stanfield plays William O’Neal, a thief turned FBI informant who infiltrates the Black Panthers. Jesse Plemons (also underrated) melts into his character as Agent Mitchell, a conflicted soul who’s somewhat prejudice but not full of the hate spewing from his boss J. Edger Hoover (played by Martin Sheen, who unfortunately has too much makeup and prosthetics on).
One scene in particular between Plemons and Sheen is quite powerful, exemplifying how the government wasn’t content with just locking up Hampton in jail to silence them, they were going to turn him into a martyr with actions that can’t really described any other way rather than assassination.
Given all we know about Hoover, it’s shocking that we still have government buildings named after him.
The only downside to this film is it often feels like a collections of sketches rather than a cohesive narrative flowing from one scene into another. But when you have powerhouse acting from three of the most underrated young talents in Hollywood, any minor quibbles can be overlooked.
Ryan Coogler, the acclaimed director who serves as a producer on this movie, said “Judas and the Black Messiah” can be greater appreciated when you consider the context of today’s events.
“The people that were responsible for this, a lot of them are still alive,” he said in an interview with the BBC. “These ideas are still ever-present, these systems that Chairman was fighting for to be demolished — the constant attacks on poor people, on black people — those systems are still here. We’re still fighting the same beast, we’re still fighting the same monsters, we are still fighting the same system, you know, and they haven’t gone anywhere.”
Which brings up the question: who is the monster here? Who is the villain of the movie?
Is it the undercover rat betraying the Panthers? Is it the FBI agent? Or is it the system itself that seems to perpetuate?
This intense drama brings up a lot of bigger themes about racism and government overreach but what I was most fascinated with is the relationship and conflict between these imperfect souls doing what they think is best. Nobody is 100 percent evil or 100 percent good in this tale and that makes it interesting and real. Despite the title referring to religious overtones, this movie isn’t an allegory. It’s more complicated than dealing with broad archetypes.
It’s a story about the late 1960s but it’s also a story about today. About struggle, both societal and internal. I suspect only those with truly closed minds will fail to get at least something from Shaka King’s electrifyingly suspenseful drama.