Daniel Kaluuya is the type of actor who knows how to strike the essence of a role by getting to its essence. After which, he stays there as his role is essentialized to the success of a powerful movie.
Oh yes, he’s versatile enough to turn any brand of film into his wheelhouse.
In the historical drama “Judas and the Black Messiah,” he remains true to this singular ability.
As Fred Hampton, the black messiah, he articulately telegraphs the marketplace charm of powerful oratory.
His lines are symphonic and smooth, seducing friend and foe alike.
It’s an apt endorsement, possibly too apt. For it turns Hampton into a marked man.
Being black and able to act as a centripetal force bringing different colors, creeds and classes together made Hampton dangerous to those centrifugal forces which thrive on division as they unite at social divides.
Hampton was thus assassinated on December 4, 1969, exactly 20 months after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered.
This film orbits about O’Neal’s testimony regarding his role in infiltrating the Black Panthers and thereby providing Hampton’s apartment layout to “the Feds” so when the FBI struck, they would strike where it hurts.
The film starts with O’Neal’s appearance in the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) documentary, “Eyes On the Prize”.
In this documentary, O’Neal says Mitchell was his role model.
Although we soon realize that O’Neal, a teenager, exaggerates his loyalty to Mitchell in order to escape prison time for stealing a car and impersonating an FBI agent.
When asked by Mitchell why he impersonated a “Fed” in order to steal a car, Bill O’Neal says:
A badge is scarier than a gun.
Roy Mitchell: Would you mind explaining that for me?
Bill O’Neal: Any n**** on the streets can get a gun, sir. A badge is like you got the whole damn army behind you.
It’s an interesting thesis on the power of the state: an institution which has been likened to the highest expression of organized crime.
In keeping with his Judas moniker, O’Neal is given his 30 pieces of silver for dropping the proverbial dime on Hampton.
Being young, treacherous and afraid, O’Neal appreciates the power of the FBI and its director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen appears unrecognizable as Hoover).
In real life, Hoover was a paranoid racist who hoped to take the wind out of any revolution. That way, all that would be left of such agitation was a sucking sound similar to when one uses a hoover to vacuum one’s living room!
In the film, he outrageously equates stopping Hampton with ending the 3-year Korean War.
Then, just as we’re asking ourselves if he’s high, he claims that white families must be protected from black barbarians, such as Hampton, who might want to marry Mitchell’s eight-month-old daughter!
If revolution is the plot, racism is the subplot.
Also, there are some good old fashioned shoot-outs between the Black Panthers and the cops to lengthen the short attention spans which come with the slow pace of the more dramatic parts of this film.
To all those who love period dramas with a searing sense of mission, this one is for you. It recalls the days when political actions were guided by ideology instead of idolatry.
You actually feel “the struggle” shaping a fist which hits hard, without the hit-or-miss quality of ceremonial fists being raised to mimic dyed-in-the-wool revolutionaries like, say, Nelson Mandela.
I’m not a fan of Daniel Kaluuya, but the way he portrays Hampton in this film makes you want to chant “revolution” and storm the Bastille with more than a Bonjour.
If you’re moved to insurrection after watching this film, you are sure to find yourself standing next to Hampton on the right side of history.
If you’re not moved at all, well, Bishop Desmond Tutu has a message for you: If you are neutral in situations of injustice,you have chosen the side of the oppressor.