At the beginning of the fact-based drama Judas and the Black Messiah, an FBI informant named Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), wearing a slate-gray suit and matching tie, sits in front of a camera. Interviewed for the documentary series Eyes on the Prize II, an invisible questioner asks, “Looking back on your activities in the late 60s, early 70s, what would you tell your son about what you did back then? “What he then did was police murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. O’Neal’s expression is protected; His eyes dart to the right and his lips part easily, but no words come out.
So the film begins with an open question: How does O’Neal explain his actions?
It’s a question that the film explores but doesn’t really answer. “Judas” doesn’t even give a hint that it has its own attitude. Despite the great performances and otherwise intriguing narrative, there is one flaw in storytelling: the moral opacity of O’Neal’s character gives us no real idea of the personal stakes and hinders the film’s ability to connect with current politics. In this way, “Judas” is reminiscent of another recent biographical drama about an undercover agent who deals with politics: Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” from 2018.
In this film, a black detective named Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) works with a white Jewish officer (Adam Driver) to infiltrate a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado in the 1970s. When Ron is covered up at a Black Panthers rally, he becomes involved with a student named Patrice who eventually discovers, to her disgust, that he is a police officer. “Ron Stallworth, are you for the revolution and black liberation?” Patrice asks, but Ron distracts and says, “I’m an undercover detective with the Colorado Springs Police Department. This is my job, this is the truth. “
But that’s not just a distraction on Ron’s side; It’s also a distraction from the movie. Even though Ron insists that he take care of the Black Community anyway, Patrice has a point. How complicated is the system as a black cop? His politics are not clearly worded and Washington’s acting is too wooden to reveal what Ron thinks of the radical Panthers.
At the rally, he watches carefully, but it is unclear whether his gaze reflects his attraction to Patrice, a genuine interest in politics, or little admiration for the boast of the procedure, the flair of the rhetoric, and the energy of the participants. There is a feeling that both Ron and the film view the Panthers and the Klan as comparable political extremes, positioned just on opposite ends of the spectrum, and that are neither fair nor effective – though the film shies away from doing so with more To convey confidence and clarity.
As a director known for taking risks, Spike Lee is surprisingly moderate when it comes to the politics of this film and never lets his protagonist side with the revolution. In an effort to stay true to the conventional cop film genre, BlacKkKlansman believes that not all cops are lazy. Ron has faith in the system; He has his friends and they are fighting a group of violent white supremacists. That’s why we invest in these good cops and their fight for justice. But in the end, when Ron’s boss tells him to drop the KKK case, Ron is of course surprised that the institution he belongs to is fundamentally flawed.
While “BlacKkKlansman” continues to believe that the system could prevail thanks to some good police officers, “Judas” openly acknowledges that the system is broken and goes closer to sympathy for the cause of the Panthers without explicitly promoting it or denounce.
“Judas” is characterized by the fact that it offers a differentiated view of the panthers, not only of their militant actions, but also of their community initiatives. And like many of the characters themselves, the film is fascinated by the charisma of its black messiah Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya, who won a Golden Globe for his performance on Sunday). He brings his usual steely intensity to the role; It’s like watching a game of chicken between him and the camera. So determined is his gaze and so palpable is his attention when he puts his head to one side like a challenge.
Hampton isn’t the actual focus of the film; Shaka King’s direction and Kaluuya’s performance give it such depth and appeal that it steals the limelight. But the film starts and ends with Bill O’Neal. He is our eyes, his path leads us to Hampton – he should be the real focus of the film. And his ambivalence and internal conflict over betraying Hampton lacks a clear motivation, even though he is the driving force behind the tension of the film.
Bill dances around the theme of his motives and politics, whether he works for the FBI or the Panthers. The agent he is reporting to, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), questions Bill about his attitude towards the attacks on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, but Bill shrugs off the questions and says he never thought about it. It is unclear whether he means business or lies in order to be safe. In a later scene, an undercover Mitchell watches Bill at a rally and concludes that this agent actually needs to be invested in the movement – either that or he’s a great actor.
And that’s part of the problem too – that Bill seems an Oscar-worthy actor and Stanfield, who is such a cautious, cerebral actor, delivers a performance that is almost too perfect. With just a sidelong glance or a subtle movement of his mouth, he immediately conveys a role change and again points out that despite Bill’s apparent devotion to the Panthers, this is an achievement that not only confuses Agent Mitchell and Fred Hampton but us too.
It is possible that we should see Bill as an opportunist, so politics is irrelevant. But that seems unlikely for a film that is so obviously political.
It’s strange that these dramas chose non-binding protagonists because both clearly want to deal with the real world – with history and modern events. “BlacKkKlansman” includes footage of the deadly Charlottesville Unite the Right rally in the year prior to the film’s release, and the epilogue to “Judas” includes details of Hampton’s partner and son and their continued involvement with the Panthers, as well as footage of the real O. ‘Neal from “Eyes on the Prize”.
Perhaps part of the reason these otherwise politically outspoken (and liberal) films are unwilling to take a stand lies in the actual story, the fear that they might misrepresent the real flesh and blood men they portray . And perhaps it is symptomatic of a lack of imagination that “Judas” and “BlacKkKlansman”, despite their gestures towards the present, do not dare to explain the politics of the black radicals or to negotiate what that politics – or even ambivalence – in context could mean the real environment in which the films were released.
In any case, the films underestimate the depth of their protagonists and the awareness of the audience. In the argument between Patrice and Ron, or the meetings between Bill and his FBI agent, King and Lee could have forced their respective protagonists to confirm their views on radical activism against the law enforcement system and negotiate their positions in the larger narrative of the story within that divide but “Judas” and “BlacKkKlansman” shuffle away, tails between their legs.
In the “Eyes on the Prize” footage, the real O’Neal sits in front of the camera in that slate gray suit and tie and is asked the question we heard at the beginning: “What would you tell your son about what? did you do then “There’s the pause and the eyes move to the right. His answer is indecipherable:“ I don’t know what I would say to him, except that I was part of the fight, that’s the end result. ”He then says that “at least” he “had a point of view”, although he does not state exactly what it was.
That O’Neal, who committed suicide on the same day that “Eyes on the Prize II” premiered in 1990, is the Judas of the film. In the Bible, the ending of Judas’ story is unclear. In one gospel, he hangs himself out of debt for betraying Jesus. In another there is no record of his guilt, but he dies in an act of divine punishment. Did Judas betray the Messiah because of these 30 pieces of silver alone, or did he have other reasons? Did he regret the action afterwards, and if so, was it his role in the murder of another person or a more personal betrayal of his own beliefs that he offered the man he honestly believed was the Messiah?
O’Neal’s last words on the clip are, “I think I’ll let the story speak for me.” There O’Neal and these two otherwise good films got it wrong. History has no mouthpiece of its own; it can only speak through the interpretations of those telling the stories of the past. And if these stories are to speak to our present, they have to speak with conviction. You have to take a stand.