“Judas and the Black Messiah,” Hollywood’s latest Oscar contender based on the 1960s US civil rights movement, turns a tragic historical story of treachery into a modern and urgent call-to-action, its cast and director said Tuesday.
The Warner Bros biopic starring Daniel Kaluuya, out in theaters and on HBO Max streaming February 12, re-examines the life of young Black Panther leader Fred Hampton alongside the FBI informant who betrayed him.
Produced by Ryan Coogler — director of Marvel superhero film “Black Panther” — the film follows Hampton’s attempts to galvanize Chicago activists against police violence and an establishment that viewed the real-life Panthers as “the single greatest threat to our national security.”
“Our goal was to really make a movie that captured 1968. But so little has changed between 1968 and 2021, that we don’t really have to draw parallels to the present,” director Shaka King told a virtual press event.
The film — which premiered at the Sundance film festival this week — does not shy away from Hampton’s incendiary speeches, including his infamous rallying cry: “Kill a few pigs, get a little satisfaction… kill them all, get complete satisfaction.”
Kaluuya devoured Black Panther literature and Hampton’s speeches to prepare for the role, hiring a singing coach to achieve the leader’s fiery cadence.
But the film also spotlights the sometimes deadly harassment the Panthers faced and shows the leader’s more private, bashful side, employing his son and fiancee as consultants.
“I collected and just read and took everything in, and trained, got myself bigger — I did all that I can do to get into the spirit space of him,” said the British actor known for “Get Out” and Marvel’s “Black Panther.”
“They would die to protect their own, and to liberate their own,” said Kaluuya, of Hampton’s followers. “That deeply inspired me.”
– ‘Departed’ meets Hoover –
With its double agents and biblical betrayal, King’s film is billed by its director as “‘The Departed’ inside the world of Cointelpro” — a reference to Martin Scorsese’s 2006 crime thriller, and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s controversial network to spy on “radical” political groups.
Hoover’s agents monitored domestic protesters against the US war in Vietnam, the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan, and the black militant Panthers, until the program was officially scrapped in 1971.
Early in the film, petty Chicago criminal William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is caught trying to boost a car, and is convinced to infiltrate the self-styled revolutionaries to avoid prison.
The film is bookended with a real interview O’Neal gave decades later in which he clumsily sought to justify his actions, through a series of convoluted lies about his role in sabotaging the fledging movement.
“It’s a movie that’s about the dangers of being apolitical, and how a lot of times, what can feel like inaction can be quite dangerous,” King said.
Jesse Plemons stars as FBI agent Roy Mitchell, who coerces the film’s “Judas” into ever greater deceit, but all the while finding ways to morally justify his actions.
“The Panthers and the Klan are one and the same — their aim is to sow hatred and inspire terror,” he tells O’Neal.
Mitchell stands as a cautionary tale, because his politics of “decency being prescriptive” are “not dissimilar to white liberal politics now,” said King.
“You saw this summer, all these companies rushing to put together Black Lives Matter hashtags and murals,” the director said. “But what is that really doing for US Black people in the long run?
– ‘Propaganda’ –
The movie follows hot on the heels of “The Trial of the Chicago 7” — Netflix’s retelling of the city’s 1968 anti-war riots — and Amazon’s civil rights-themed adaptation “One Night in Miami.”
Real-life Black leaders including Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Seale, Hampton and even Muhammad Ali repeatedly feature or are quoted across the movies.
The films have emerged in the wake of the modern Black Lives Matter movement, which led global anti-racism protests last summer.
All three are seen as major contenders for April’s Oscars.
“Essentially you’re talking about the correction of propaganda,” said King.
“We’re starting to get opportunities as Black folks and non-white folks — we’re getting access to not only the tools to tell the stories, but the distribution models.”
He added: “We have an opportunity to shift those narratives.”